She would admit, I think, to being a hoarder of paper, though she was never diagnosed as such to my knowledge. But there were piles of paper everywhere. Old real estate listings and business cards from ever Realtors office she’d ever worked at. Book and movie reviews for her novel study group and later for the movie selection committee she was on at her retirement home. Recipes. Lists. Lists of things to buy and things to do and things to consider. Lists of home improvements and the contents of folders and filing cabinets. Lists of lists she’d already made. All these were settled around the house like snow on a landscape, and to find one among the many was akin to digging for a single snowflake.
One day when I was living with her I came home from my early morning dog walking job to find her frantically sorting. She was trying to find her property tax bill, or more precisely the piece of paper that she needed to file to be relieved of her property tax bill, as her income was low enough that she merited such relief in the eyes of the township.
I looked at her, an old woman behind a dining room table piled high with papers, the one paper she could find the one that said they were putting her house on the market in fourteen days, and the first thing I did was make her take a Xanax. Somehow we got through the day. We got a loan from the bank to cover the taxes. We went to the township office to file a new copy of the piece of paper. We went somewhere else for a purpose I no longer remember but that had to do with yet another piece of paper. We made it through.
I think of that day now as I prepare to move my mother into my house. One tactic for getting pieces of paper — and other things — out of my grandmother’s house was for us to take them, wholesale, to our own houses. Some of those boxes have been sitting at my mother’s house now for almost a decade, and some of them now will be making their way to my house.
This week we have been frantically sorting, trying to separate the letters and photos we want to save from the bank statements and lists we don’t. Even so there’s too much. I don’t know what to do about it, but I cannot yet throw away my grandmother’s letters, even the ones she didn’t send. Especially the ones she didn’t send. I can’t read them, either: they are too heartbreaking, too much the symptoms of a woman lost in her own life and not always able to fight back against the tide.
I feel bad writing about her that way. She was amazing, not pathetic, although my renderings of her always seem to come out the with more pathos than glory.
Perhaps the best way is to describe the other things in her house, the things that were not the snowfall, not the things that nearly buried her.
She also kept possession of her father’s rock collection, stored in glass topped wooden boxes of his own design. Each box held a series of wooden panels, and on each was a rock in the rough, a polished slice, and a cut and polished cabochon. He did all the work himself. The rocks lived at his house, and in later years they went on display in the schools and libraries of his descendants.
There were masks in my grandmother’s house, and bongo drums and maracas, and a dollhouse built for my mother. There were antique toys of intricate design and a glass topped table full of curiosities, including, among the things of actual value, the plastic airplanes Delta used to give out, one of which she’d let you take with you if you were good. Also in the coffee table was a small turtle, its head and tail suspended by thread. If you looked at it hard enough, she said, it would move, and it did, almost fooling generations of us into believing it was a real turtle. To this day I don’t know if it moved because we looked at it or because she nudged the table a bit while we were staring. Its movements were tiny, nearly imperceptible.
When people tell me to get rid of things, it is these things they are talking about. Oh no, they say, you can keep the stuff that means something. But everything means something. Everything in that house did.
A legacy is what’s left to you — money or goods or a cowlick or a personality trait, admission to a college or admission to a society of hoarders. It is a burden as much as it is a gift.
I look around at the things and do not know what I will do with them in my small house, but I know I am destined to cling to them, to not let them go.