Sock Drawer Secrets

Over the past week, I flew down to West Palm Beach, Florida, which bears the official title of “God’s Waiting Room,” to clean out my parent’s home.  They’ve been unceremoniously moved north to assisted living, after it became painfully clear that their independent living ticket expired.

They weren’t happy about being ripped from their home of the past couple decades. The argument was that they wanted, no, needed, more time to decide how they should live the balance of their lives.  What they failed to realize was they had that opportunity, which we refer to as the last five years, but refused to acknowledge it.

Contrary to assumptions, the downhill slide happens slowly, but happens nonetheless. No alarm bell rings when the time is up, as it comes in tiny, ever-increasing bits, until you realize that you should have dealt with it years earlier, but failed to see the now-obvious signs.  Be thankful that they didn’t run down a school bus filled with children while insisting that they are still fully capable of driving. 

After doing the incredibly unpleasant but necessary task of turning parents into children, the time comes to deal with the detritus of their lives.  It’s one thing to go through the remnants of a home when a parent dies; they aren’t there to answer questions, to explain what things are or why they saved them.  It’s another when they’re still alive, but gone.

In my case, my father can remember fifty years ago like it was yesterday. He can’t, however, remember yesterday.  Asking for a list of things he wanted from his home was an exercise in futility, producing vague responses that offered no insight.

“Get my important papers.”

“What important papers?”

“Look around, you’ll see what’s important.”

Nothing was important.  Tons of papers, relating to things that happened long ago and are well beyond any point of relevance. At least to me.

“Bring back the valuable things.”

“What valuable things?”

“Look around, you’ll see what’s valuable.”

There were tchotchkes of all sizes and colors, accumulated over a lifetime.  Perhaps they meant something, but if so, it eluded me.  There were a few from my childhood, but any sentimental significance waned in the decades since. Now, they were just stuff. Clutter.

He specifically asked for one thing, his Coast Guard uniform, to be buried in.  It meant a lot to him, and I treated it with care. He told me he was the last guy in the Coast Guard to have a WWII combat infantryman’s badge. At 89, I believe him.

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There were books of photos of events that once seemed important, but fifty years later, never having been opened in the interim without anyone caring, no longer mattered.  Sure, it might be nice to have them because someone, some day, might want to see what it all looked like way back when, but the harsh reality struck home that no one really cared, and the off-chance that anyone would was so remote as to fail to justify carrying them around.

Within all this stuff, however, was the occasional gem.  My father’s slide rule from college, in a leather case with his monogram.  His medals from World War II.  His father’s medals from World War I. An old Omega on a Speidel twist-o-flex replacement band that he wore when he reached Berchtesgaden, but had fallen out of fashion in the 50’s.

Going through his drawers, I got to see the things that my father thought valuable.  A man tends to put his most prized but personal possessions in his sock drawer, out of sight but easily grabbed in case they’re needed.

I put together a suitcase of stuff, the pieces of my family’s history that struck me as worthy of making the trip back home, to be held for my children, so they would know where they came from.  What was striking is that a houseful of things that must have seemed necessary to maintain my parents’ life could be reduced to a suitcase.

I suspect they would have disagreed with my choices, explaining why people in pictures whose names are lost forever should matter.  There was no justification in my mind to hold on to pictures of peripheral people I didn’t know, I never knew.  I suppose I could have sat down with my parents, gone though the thousands of pictures accumulated during their lives, including those of me during my childhood, and put names to faces of people. But it just didn’t matter enough for me to do so.  I was satisfied letting them fade into obscurity.

As I wheeled the suitcase to the rental car, having sold his car (that he neglected to retitle after buying it off lease), I had the nagging feeling that there would be something I left behind that I would someday regret, some piece of history that I failed to appreciate.

It wouldn’t be some glass statue, or bowl, or the table that was trendy in the 70’s and would no doubt come back into style sometime in the next century.  I felt comfortable that none of these objects had any value, at least to me.

My son called to me to get a move on. I asked him whether he thought he would ever look at the book of pictures from my bar mitzvah, and he quickly and emphatically replied, “never.”  I closed the door and didn’t look back.

It was an unpleasant trip.  An unpleasant experience. I didn’t want to go through another person’s life, not even my parents.  No doubt I failed to fulfill my father’s expectations of salvaging the things that are important to them, but he gave me no choice when he refused to tell me what he cared about.  All I could do was take the few things that I cared about.

When I got back home to New York, I realized that I too was surrounded by a great many things that held meaning to me, but would mean nothing to anyone else.  Someday, they too will be left behind when my son closes the door and walks away, without looking back.  I wonder if he’ll take the old Omega with him.

32 thoughts on “Sock Drawer Secrets

  1. Thea Greenhalgh

    Thanks so much for this, Scott. Mirrors my experience cleaning out my mother’s house, where she’d lived for 60 years (and we all grew up in) and where she died. When parents hold onto *everything*, ’tis not a fun process even if they’ve died — I surely won’t do this to my daughter …..

    1. SHG Post author

      It provides the most painful realization of what “things” matter, and the difference between what matters to us and what will matter to our children. I learned a lot from the experience too.

  2. Kentucky Packrat

    I am somewhat fortunate that I’ve been shown pictures and I know a generation or two back, but my kids have seen very little of them or the people I cared so very much about in my family. Little Miss said recently, “I really would have liked to meet your Grandfather B”, and I almost cried.

    Pictures can be scanned and digitized, but the story is a different matter. My kids barely remember my wife’s parents; they barely have our second-hand stories as it is. All the digital pictures of them in the world won’t help the lack of memories.

    Even as an evangelical Christian who believes in a life after this one, it’s still a terribly morose thought to realize that “All is Vanity”, to quote that wise man.

    I can’t give much advise on dealing with Alzheimer’s patients either. My grandmother got the same way. My grandfather B spent most of his life wheeling and dealing to get control of the family business, and before he died, he got 50%+1 control. My grandmother gave that one share back to her nephew one day. (By that time, the company was just a shell being sold out, but it was the principle of the matter.) IT’s hard to treat a person like a 5 year old, but still have the respect one is supposed to give a parent, but that’s the rope one has to tightwalk.

  3. Richard G. Kopf

    SHG,

    Beautifully written. Reminds ne of a lost week in Ft. Meyers that I spent, with my siblings, doing the same thing.

    As the two ex-cons finally drove away in the Two Men and a Truck truck, and my Dad asked where they were going with their stuff caring not the least about what my answer was, I understood why he adamantly insisted that his ashes be spread on a golf course overlooking Tampa Bay. Some things are more important than others.

    All the best.

    RGK

  4. Mark Draughn

    After my mother died, I had to put my father into a nursing home and then empty out their apartment. I gave away a bunch of things to two of the CNAs who had been helping to take care of him and grabbed a bunch of stuff of my parents’ that I wanted to keep. Pretty much everything else was stuff we didn’t need and didn’t have room for, so I spent a day with the property caretaker throwing everything of theirs out onto the lawn, to be picked up and hauled away. Lots of things that had been in the family for decades, such as the dining room table, just tossed out. It’s painful to throw away an entire life full of stuff. As it is, I still have boxes of their stuff that I’m pretty sure I’ll throw away eventually. It all leaves me with an urge to simplify my life, although my efforts along those lines have not been too successful.

  5. PaulaMarie Susi

    They are very lucky to have you, and for you to still have them ( as difficult as that may be at times).

  6. chug

    Thank you for this.

    One of my closest friends is 72, 10 years older than me, and her stories about dealing with her mother (who has dementia) over the last 12 years have provided me with guideposts to my father aging and to my own aging. She is sending me messages from my future.

    Results include:
    – digitizing (and then recycling) thousands of old family photographs and disseminating them widely to family, along with stories and documents and a family tree that goes back 8 generations
    – arranging and pre-paying for my cremation and mausoleum niche
    – updating my will
    – updating my “living will” and discussing it with my children and siblings
    – getting rid of books and papers and lots of stuff that no one wants or will care about after I am gone
    – becoming more patient with the elderly.

    Thanks again.

  7. Kathleen Casey

    I’m so sorry.

    Before he died my dad had the idea of sitting some or all of us down and audio recording his family history. He never got around to it. Thankfully we knew parts of it already and gaps have been filled with the assistance of cousins including a third cousin. But questions remain that we or at least I could have asked him, particularly about him. Some of it would have been a heritage of not only of events but also of love and sacrifice. Things that matter.

    1. SHG Post author

      My father tells me he’s writing a book about his life. Under the circumstances, I can’t imagine how it will turn out, but it keeps him busy.

  8. David M.

    I’m sorry, man. My grandpa’s 88 and exactly the same, right down to insisting on driving. Except that he was in the Wehrmacht, of course.

  9. Kevin

    Thanks for sharing, Scott. Reminds me that much of what I thought important to blog about a decade ago, I have not blogged on in recent years. A failure I can rectify.

    I did the same thing with Mom and Dad’s house this fall. I told my sisters who arrived the month before that they should take what ever they wanted and not worry that I would want something. The outcome were things I loved finding – slide rule he received as an award in his first job and had framed (he was a wizard to me on that slide rule as he helped me with homework), a farm bell via my Mom’s uncle, and in Dad’s socks drawer what looks to the wedding ring of my grandfather, a guy I truly loved.

    Strange the things we cherish that day as we close the door for the last time.

  10. bacchys

    I met a traveller from an antique land
    Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
    Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    “Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.”[4]”
    -Shelley

  11. Jason Truitt

    You mean handling aging and ill parents doesn’t always end up in hotly contested guardianship proceedings with an absentee brother suddenly appearing with a lawyer in tow to “protect his inheritance”?

    1. Patrick Maupin

      Well, that should cheer Scott up.

      I am tangentially involved in a situation right now where two brothers who each hate the other’s guts are selling their dead parents’ house, and dealing with all the stuff in it. I keep having to remind the one who is my friend that the twin goals of fucking with his brother and completely disentangling himself from his brother are actually fairly difficult to achieve simultaneously.

      1. SHG Post author

        It so easy, and common. I won’t let it happen because I refuse to fight. My sister wants it? She can have it. All of it. Any time.

  12. LTMG

    Among the medal ribbons I think I see a Bronze Star with V device for valor and a Purple Heart. If I’m correct, then your father earned recognition unusual for a member of the Coast Guard during WW2. I’d guess that very few Coast Guard members ever earned a CIB. I’m 30 years younger than your father. For the freedoms I enjoy today, I thank your father, my father and uncles, and a host of others who served before me.

    1. SHG Post author

      Good eye, but you didn’t have enough info. He was Army in WWII. He went Coastie at 70, when he became an auxiliarist and served as PAO for CG station in Florida.

  13. Jake DiMare

    My mother passed away 8 years ago from MS, only 52 years old. I still have a few remaining boxes of stuff I thought might be important when I moved her from her condo to the hospital where she spent the last few years of her life.

    I’ve made it a point to share the more nostalgic contents with family over the years…Photographs and the like. Every once in a while I get up the nerve to make decisions about other things…Like the cheap costume jewelry…Or other useless personal effects. For some reason the folder I find it most difficult to part with is, likely, the most useless…Hundreds of pages medical records.

    Today as I walked around one of those gift shops in Hawaii I thought, for the first time in my life, maybe I should get one of those signs for the wall in my apartment. The ones that have a pineapple and little phrases burned into them like ‘This way to the Beach’ or ‘Beach Bum’ or ‘Aloha’…Instead of a tee shirt. ‘Nah’ I thought. ‘I don’t have any kids. Who would take this crap when I die?’

  14. alpharia

    Just one word to describe what this story means to those of us who are yet to go through this and those who have.

    Just one word to know that the emotions, mixed feelings and the slight sense of futility – though we still must – are nearly the same.

    Just one word to let you know that your writing, touches more people than you probably think and hopefully will carry on for a long time to come (and maybe your children’s children will cherish these gems of it all after we are all long gone).

    That one word?

    Thankyou!

  15. ExEMT

    Scott

    Thank you for an eloquent and heartfelt article.

    It reminds me so much of what I had to do with my grandparents back in the late 90’s. Since I was the only member of the family with medical training and background, it fell to me to be my grandparents Healthcare Power of Attorney (it’s an Illinois thing). My grandfather, bless his heart, had severe aortic stenosis (this narrows the aortic valve), and he had to have open heart surgery to replace two valves at age 84. Most people at that age would not have that invasive a surgery, but he was in great health. But my grandfather was the primary care-giver to my grandmother, who was blind and a brittle non-compliant diabetic. Unfortunately my grandfather developed a few complications after the open heart surgery, and it became readily apparent that my grandparents (both in their mid 80’s) would no longer be able to care for themselves at home. Between my parents and myself we tried as hard as humanly possible. But since my grandparents lived around 50 miles away (and an hours drive) from us it was just not feasible to do. So I had to make what I think of to this day as one of the hardest decisions of my life, which was to place both grandparents in a nursing facility. The thrived for several years before old age finally overcame them, and I know that their last years were ones where they were cared for and looked after, it was still a heart-wrenching decision to take my beloved grandparents out of their home of almost 50 years and place them into nursing care.

    I applaud your article and the touching and empathetic way you wrote about the visit to your parents home. You outlined many of the feelings and emotions I felt when we closed up nd sold my grandparents home.

  16. Bob Ambrogi

    A beautiful essay. I had a similar experience when my father died at the age of 92. But I also had the reverse experience. My mother died when I was 17. Soon after, my father sold my childhood home and cleaned out most of her belongings. At 17, I thought nothing of it. But as the years went by, I wished for any scraps of memorabilia from my mother. Yes, maybe some of us save too much. But for me, it was far better to have the luxury of sorting through my father’s things and choosing what to keep, rather than be left with virtually nothing tangible as a reminder of my long-ago deceased mother.

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