Both my grandmothers were “keepers.” From an early age, my sisters and I knew about the significance of holding on to family things. Furniture was passed down through generations, dining room tables and chairs. Paintings and Red Sox hats. Dishes and silverware. Coat trees and hair brushes. Things that mattered to my paternal great-grandmother, things that mattered to my parents matter still to me.
One of the hardest events of grief is the letting go of a loved one’s things. Clothes and shoes. Notebooks and pens. Books and music. Things that your loved one has worn and still has her smell. A bible your loved one carried all those Sundays to church and still has his notes in the margins.
It was impossibly hard not to want to keep everything. How is one to make peace with letting yet one-more-thing go? And yet…and yet a room can only hold so much.
There have been times in my life when I’ve needed to let go of/dispose of/give away family keepsakes. The Antiques Road Show has brought home to me the genuine struggle of determining the worth of our possessions. Folks are startled time after time when their family heirloom is valued at $27.50. It always seems to be a head/heart thing. Our hearts can’t begin to grasp how to proceed through the intersection of our family’s story meeting the cashier’s check of $27.50.
Perhaps our bodies can be our most gracious guides in understanding. Perhaps our physical selves can be helpful teachers using the example of our very next breath. We breathe in and out, in and out. It is not possible to hold on forever. Likewise, we cannot continually exhale. At some point there is literally nothing else to give. Life requires both. It is not either/or. Our breathing reminds us that our life’s balance is both/and.
Giving away or holding on to our keepsakes is a hard one. These aren’t just things. They are our family narrative, our history, our memories. Sometimes they embody our most valued loved ones and places. They are physical reminders of our life’s story.
Several years back now I lost my favorite earring. It had been given to me at a special time and I treasured it. When I moved from the Midwest down here to Atlanta, I would intentionally wear those earrings on days when I was unsure and needed to feel grounded. I remember I was at seminary in the common area and I panicked when I realized that I’d lost one of them. I frantically traced and retraced my steps. This desperate search went on for over an hour or two. Back and forth and back and forth, I frantically searched. A friend saw me and asked if she could help with whatever was wrong. After a time, with no luck she said these wise words to me: “Maybe it has served you long enough. Can you offer your thanks and bless it on its way?”
“Maybe it has served you long enough.” Powerful. Generous. Releasing and restorative words. “Can you offer your thanks and bless it on its way?” Not always possible. But most always helpful.
(P.S. Linda is an amazing `keeper of stories. A couple of these treasures are from her family. She would honestly say that all of these in the pictures above are "ours."))
Working in Family Experience at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Lesley is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ. She and her partner, Linda Ellis are raising their two sons, Brogan (now a freshman at Guilford College) and Sam at sophomore at DHS in Decatur, GA.