My mother was not a hoarder, but she sure was a saver. She died in March, and it’s been mostly up to me to decide what to do with her belongings.
My sister-in-law and my mom’s assistant Karen helped me divide and discard her clothing. As Mom’s only daughter, I had first dibs, and although Mom got shorter with age, even at 88, she was never just 5 feet 2 inches, like me. So while I grabbed her fuzzy slippers and soft jackets — comfort clothes — I had to pass on her pretty skirts and dresses. When I spied a purple Kate Spade bag, however, I did say, “I’ll take that.” Karen said, “Not so fast! That’s my purse!” and we all had a much-needed laugh.
Emptying her Florida apartment was relatively quick, but going through Mom’s things up north has been slow. Widowed twice, Mom spent decades in a house that is still in our family. She lived there with three different husbands, and during recent holidays would make a point of going downstairs to “tackle the basement.”
Mom — Marybeth Weston Lobdell — was ahead of her time. A guest editor at Mademoiselle, “deskman” at The New York Times, and garden editor of House & Garden, she had three kids and was always busy. In her boxes were letters from friends, family, and many from Lady Bird Johnson, with whom Mom shared a passion for wildflowers. Mom swore that somewhere there was also a letter from Sylvia Plath; my mother had been the one to send Plath the telegram inviting her to be a guest editor.
I used to wonder what I would do when the time came to face Mom’s overstuffed file cabinet, bureau drawers and the dreaded basement. How could I do justice to her piles of papers? Wouldn’t it take years? And be impossibly sad? Would I be tempted to throw everything in a dumpster?
It turns out that I’ve liked digging through Mom’s stuff. Whether I work outside at our picnic table or inside by the fireplace, it’s not sad. It’s oddly comforting.
It feels good to throw things out. Letters from friends in German? Tossed, I’m afraid. Dossiers about native plants? Gone. Christmas cards from families whose names and faces don’t ring bells? Out. Programs about past events? Straight into the round file.
But everything else gives me pause.
While some hand-written letters are dull, others allow me to see certain relationships in a new way. Mom’s sister was bitter as an older woman, but sassy as a teen. (“Daddy said, ‘No visitors’ while he was gone — so of course I invited Frank over!!!!”)
When I found a 1960 letter from The New York Times Sunday Magazine editor, Lewis Bergman, giving Mom an assignment to write about crabgrass (of all things), I remembered the celebration 25 years later and thought: Reader, she married him.
As for loose pictures, I’m keeping more than makes sense. I’m also taking photos of photos and texting them to family friends.
What I’m most enjoying is the extra time with my mother. Thanks to her college engagement books, I tagged along at Agnes Scott College in Decatur where Mom was May Queen. Thanks to her grad school scrapbook of black-and-white photos, I got a glimpse of Mom getting a glimpse of the Matterhorn. I’ve also enjoyed reading letters from “suitors” and “beaux,” as well as from my Texas grandmother who was looking forward to their once-a-month mother-daughter phone call.
For me, the surprise is not that I found Sylvia Plath’s letter (I have not). The surprise is that I’m in no hurry to get to the bottom of the piles. I’m enjoying these quiet stolen hours. Sifting through Mom’s life isn’t a job. It’s a privilege.
I like getting to know my mother better. And I like spending time in her world.
Carol Weston is the author of 14 books including “Girltalk: All the Stuff Your Sister Never Told You” and “Ava and Pip.” Her website is www.carolweston.com.