When I moved to France in 1998, it was hard to choose what to bring. I tried to keep it to a minimum, to those things that were most important to me, the ones I couldn’t live without (I actually got great mileage out of that cutting mat, even if I never used the set of Exacto knives I toted along with). And that was okay because I knew that the rest of my stuff —the rest of my life— was safely back home with my parents.
Shortly thereafter my parents retired and moved to Mexico. After all, they were finally rid of me and had nothing to hold them back. I wasn’t there when they started packing up their stuff. I didn’t have a say in whether or not, for example, my school yearbooks made the cut and got a spot in a box somewhere. They did not.
I didn’t think about it at the time. I wasn’t overly concerned with my stuff. I was happy for them and they were my parents so they had some cosmic duty to maintain my stuff for me anyway, right? It wasn’t until years later that I even thought about my yearbooks long enough to realize they were no longer a part of my stuff.
When my grandmother died in 2003, it didn’t hit me very hard. We had become somewhat estranged, and I knew she had been sick. That’s what’s happens to grandmothers. They die. There was no funeral. I didn’t fly back home to be with my mom who was of course very sad. I did speak with her and my grandfather over the phone to console and express condolences. I definitely didn’t think about stuff. I simply carried on with my very nez dans le nombril life.
When my mother died in 2004, I felt cold-cocked. I had just seen her a few months prior. Her treatment was supposed to be working. Nobody talked about dying. She wasn’t supposed to die. I was in London when my dad called me with the news. He was a wreck. Then I was a wreck. I went from partying and feeling on top of the world to feeling as if someone had just removed the floor out from under me. I cried hard and long. When I called my dad back after returning to Paris he started mentioning that he had been going through Mom’s stuff – boxing it all up and making donations. He couldn’t bare to look at all her stuff. WHAT?! I started to panic. He was getting rid of her stuff without me. She was gone and now he was getting rid of her. I begged him to stop. I told him I would be on the next available flight, just please, please wait. And he did. When I got there there were people buzzing around all this stuff.Things were being sorted and labeled and priced and boxed, but it was all mostly still there – they were preparing to donate it all to a local charity that was having a big sale. I rummaged and tried not to cry. I helped out, and ultimately we hauled pretty much everything to this big sale, held at an outdoor mercado. At one point I saw a woman go to purchase one of my mom’s old hand bags and I burst into tears. My dad told me to stop. I don’t know why, maybe because he was afraid he’d start. Maybe because we were in public. I don’t know, but it didn’t feel right – watching someone walk off with…a piece of my mother. We decided it was best to leave and not watch. I did hold on to some family heirlooms, and a few random souvenirs. Important stuff.
When my father died in 2005, I was in Mexico. A few weeks earlier I had rung him on the phone and asked how those lobsters were. He said that he still hadn’t eaten them. He said he couldn’t seem to manage the cooking times between them on the grill and the pasta he had wanted to boil up to accompany them – it was just too confusing for him all of sudden. I hopped on the next flight out. On the day I arrived, he had suffered a stroke. As I got out of the taxi from the airport, friends rushed out of the house to greet me and to warn me of his state, but I pushed passed them and into the house. My dad was there, sitting at the kitchen table in his robe, looking ragged but with a big smile on his face. I would learn later that he was already in stage 4 of his cancer. I hadn’t known at the time that I was there for palliative care, just that he needed me. In his final days, as the cancer metastasized to his brain, he became less and less coherent. I’d hired a home nurse to help out during the day, but most nights he would wake in delirium, muttering about Redd Foxx’s slippers and other cobwebs of his mind. He could barely eat so I was feeding him protein shakes and small bits of apple when he could manage. On my birthday, nine years ago today, I went to a local pastelería known for their great pies, and picked up a few. I got a key lime because I knew it was his favorite, but he couldn’t really eat the pie, and couldn’t really comprehend that it was my birthday. He just kind of looked at me with a sad face in one of his more lucid moments and said, “I’m sorry, sweetheart.” Of course, there was nothing for him to be sorry about. We didn’t get a lot of sleep that week, and finally one night I gave in to my fatigue. Through my dreams I heard a noise and dreamt that he was choking on those little apples slices. What had I done? I tossed and turned and tried to remember, did I leave them near his bedside? Could he possibly have gotten to them on his own? I finally broke out of my slumber and my nightmarish state and rushed into the next room where we had installed a hospital bed for him. His eyes were wide open and glossed over. His hands were in the air and poised as if he’d been trying to claw his way out of something. He was gone.
I knew there were things I needed to do, stuff to deal with, but beyond getting his body to the mortuary and avoiding the policía (Mexico has its peculiarities), I just needed to get out of there. I was a zombie. I had never been so close to death before.
I arrived back in Paris and to my new home. After working as a live-in nanny for six months—while maintaining my freelance business and simultaneously working to build a new company—in a very upscale neighborhood and spacious apartment, I had just moved into a place in a not-so-upscale neighborhood that I would share with 3 other people for the better part of a year. When I spoke to my former employer as we settled up our own affairs, she tried to console me, “Don’t think of yourself as orphan,” she said, “think of yourself as an heir.”
At the time that perspective was a welcomed distraction from my grief.
When my grandfather died in 2006, it felt like life was truly playing a bad joke on me. Ours was not a big family. I had no immediate relatives on my dad’s side of the family, and both of my parents were only children as am I. So there it was, I was really all alone. They were all gone. All that was left was their stuff and the memories I could muster through my tears and denial. Except that I wouldn’t be. All alone that is. Because just as life was brutally cutting the umbilical cord on the family I had known, it was introducing me to my future family. During all of this craziness and despite the pain and seeming untimeliness, I met Olivier.
But I had to deal with all this stuff first.
When I did go back to Mexico to deal with my parents’ stuff, I started by having a big sale to get rid of the shit, and then proceeded to pack up the stuff. I figured Wisconsin, where my grandparents’ house was, was somehow closer and more convenient than Mexico, so I would ship it there. That way I could rent out the house until maybe one day deciding to sell it, and my stuff—my family’s stuff—would be safe. I hired a moving company and they came and they packed up all the stuff and plastic wrapped all the stuff and stuffed it into a big truck where it would sit for a while until I worked out a time to actually get it shipped across the border. It was going to cost me a bit of money, but at the time I thought it was a good idea. Then I realized that it was a terrible idea. I thought about all that stuff and paying to have it shipped somewhere else just to put off eventually having to deal with it all over again. I laughed out loud. Literally.
The owner of the moving company was not at all happy when I told him I would not my shipping my stuff across the border after all. He was kind enough, however, to let me piggyback a sale he was having on his property (I wish it was as easy to have spontaneous sales in France as it is in the US and Mexico) that weekend. So I spent a whole day unpacking and un-plasticwrapping all that stuff. There were a few things, of course, that I would have to keep. Like that Table.
The Table is not a particularly attractive table. It’s walnut, and very tall, but long and not very deep. I knew it had been in the family for a long time, that it was an heirloom, but it’s not a practical piece of furniture. I believe it was some kind of card table, because the top folds open and swivels, both to reveal a compartment underneath and create a greater surface. Upon studying the table and deciding what to do with it, I came across a note that was taped on the inside of the secret compartment. On it there was a long list of names ending with my own. It said, “this table has been passed down to the eldest daughter for generations.” Fuck. I guess I had to keep the Table.
But it and a few other select items would stay in Mexico – I had decided I would not be shipping things and would only take with me what I could carry on the plane. I still had a bunch of stuff to deal with in Wisconsin and back in France I had no room for stuff.
After getting through the estate sale at my grandparents’ home, and dropping off a load of old shit to be sold on consignment at a local antique shop, I rented a storage unit—they’re cheap in those parts—and put the rest of the stuff in. Important stuff.
That was it, the stuff had been dealt with, the houses had been rented (and would eventually be sold), I could get on with my life and get back to my own stuff.
In 2011, after being married for two years, Olivier and I moved into a big house in the country. I finally had a place to put all my stuff. So I went back to Wisconsin and opened up that storage locker to take a look, and I thought to myself, “Why on Earth did I keep all this stuff?” Because it’s hard to let go. Because when you’re dealing with loss, these material things are the only tangible answer you’ve got. And it seems like a burden you’re supposed to carry. Like an antique table. A responsibility to carry on the family. To perpetuate history and memory.
All of this stuff has been weighing on me a lot lately. And by stuff I am of course talking about the physical stuff—these objects that have followed me around the globe—but also of all of these notions about responsibility and priority and…meaning.
Today I turn 42. And while George Carlin jokes that the meaning of life is trying to find a place for your stuff, science fiction fans will appreciate the quiet irony I am experiencing today.
If you follow me on Twitter, you’ve likely seen that I have slowly been embracing minimalism – working to free myself of all this stuff. I did have someone ship me over my dad’s old Martin acoustic, but I will not be returning to Mexico to retrieve the Table or any of the other things I left behind. I am letting them go. And little by little I am combing through my life and my house and all this stuff and whittling it down to the essential. I am asking myself the pointed question suggested by Joshua Fields Millburn in his writings, “Does this bring value to my life?” And in so asking the quest for freedom extends beyond things and onto habits and the way I use my time, because ultimately it comes down to this: I ain’t getting any younger. And if I have learned anything in my 42 years it’s that I am an orphan and things cannot console you in loss, only love can. And the realization that this life can be whisked away at any moment, and the only thing in it that matters are the people you spend it with and the experiences you create. They are the important stuff.
I asked Olivier not to buy me anything for my birthday. “I don’t need any more stuff,” I told him. One morning a few days ago he called to me from the porch. “Come look at this,” he said. A half dozen swallows were dipping and dodging around the courtyard, whipping behind the house and then coming around to swoop by again, dancing among themselves. It lasted for merely a few minutes – such a fun thing to witness. Later that day, as we were sorting through some of his stuff—yes, he is getting onboard!—we came upon a box full of earrings from Olivier’s London days when he still sported jewelry. Among them was a beautiful pair of silver swallows. “Happy Birthday,” he said.