This is the time of year when we reflect and are thankful for the things we have been given in the year that is almost past. Often, we show our thankfulness by giving back to others, our communities, our friends and families, or to strangers. I imagine, we are rarely thankful for this opportunity to give and more thankful for what is given back to us. What is it that makes giving so difficult? Are we afraid to give away something we think we need, or want, or was given to us and we don’t want to insult the giver by re-giving? Maybe we’re all just too material, maybe we want tokens to hold onto to show the kind of giving or receiving person we are? Maybe we just don’t want to give things away because it feels like goodbye.
For me, it’s not about saying goodbye that makes giving these things away hard. It’s that they aren’t my things to give to begin with, not to mention, the person to whom they belong isn’t even dead yet. It’s ironic to me that I have taken on the task to dispose of my Aunt’s property during this time of year. I didn’t necessarily choose this moment, as things in my life have a tendency to do, moments collided all at once and now I am living (squatting) amongst her things, sorting through and trying to give them away.
There are people who would do this for me, people you can pay to take all your loved ones things away, sell them, trash them… but I’m too stubborn to let someone help me. I’m too connected to who my Aunt once was and to what her apartment means to me.
My aunt was always an incredibly charitable person so it seems only right that I give her stuff to people who need it rather than try and sell it. Sure, I’ve tried to sell a few items to make up the cost of eventually moving all the stuff I can’t let go into my own new place, but I thought it would be easier to give the stuff away for free. People like free.
People will come and take things for free and even be grateful for it. First there was the hospital bed. A woman came with her husband to see it and take it away. Her father had a stroke like my Aunt but his insurance wouldn’t cover a hospital bed for them to care for her father at home even though it would cover a portion of a nursing home, they couldn’t afford the remaining balance. And although the free hospital bed would not cure her father or relieve their grief as he deteriorates, it lifts a financial burden just before the holidays. The woman cried as she told me her story but I was just grateful they were taking something away that could be used again.
Then a man from the Bronx came and took the aide’s twin bed for his son who sleeps on a futon in their living room. He too was thankful. What luck I had to have things others need and to want to be rid of them!
And then came Goodwill. They took everything else I didn’t want to keep – the couch I slept on that first summer I spent in New York working on my first movie. I would come home at 4am and my aunt would call from her room “Gilana, is that you? Did you have a good day at work? Get some sleep now.” She would wake at 6am and eat Cheerios in the kitchen with her coffee, she’d read the paper – I could hear every time she folded a page. Then the sun would fill the living room and sleep would be impossible.
They took the dresser from the balcony, the one filled with menus from neighborhood restaurants that closed in the 80s. They moved into the bedroom and took the hutch shelf that matched her desk, well they took the desk too, but it had these great sliding compartments that hid the costume jewelry she never wore and a few jars of buttons to sweaters I threw in trash bags for their donation bin. They forgot to take the dishes, which was probably my fault for not packing them up ahead of time and then getting distracted. They took the end tables, the broken brocade chair, the small buffet with built in wine rack that stored adult diapers… Then they left.
And I was alone, blowing up an air mattress for the floor and going through a box of photos. Photos you can’t just get rid of, can you? You can’t give those away. They are part of someone’s life but someone else’s life who can’t remember who they are and in the end there will be someone, like me, who has to go through them and throw them away. This huge box of photos of other peoples’ kids – not my cousins, not my siblings, but the babies of my aunt’s friends and neighbors, their kids and grandkids. Halfway through filling the second trash bag I find a photo of a baby I know. Me. On my Aunt’s lap in 1984, we both have the same matter of fact satisfied half-smile. My Aunt’s not dead yet but it hits me that she will never hold my baby on her lap. My kids won’t get to nap on her couch in the middle of the day – it’s gone. They won’t learn solitaire on her card table – it’s gone. They won’t eat cheerios with her, sitting on a stool scooted up to the kitchen table because there wasn’t any room for a chair. All that stuff, it’s been given away.
I lay on the floor; the living room rug is filthy. I look over and think I cleaned her puke off of that spot over there just two years ago when she had her stroke. If I hadn’t cleaned it, I wonder if it would still be there. The spot is gone.
I get up and stand at her kitchen hutch, I take the key in and out of the doors – I’m keeping this I say out loud to no one. I turn around and open every door of the buffet. It’s empty, I already cleaned it out a week ago and gave its contents to Goodwill or the recycling bin downstairs. I’m keeping this too. I start searching for more things I must keep. I’ve already taken every book pre-1960 from her shelf and boxed them to keep. As if I will every read the entire collection of George Bernard Shaw or need an Atlas pre-1958.... I wipe the dust off the bookshelves, I want to keep these too. I want to keep all these things because these are the things that are left. After a person dies, it’s the things we get to keep. Let’s be honest, the memories don’t last. My Aunt only knows who I am 50% of the time though she won’t admit it; does she even remember this bookshelf? When my grandmother died, I was heartbroken. But now the only things I remember is how much she smoked, watching “Murder, She Wrote” from her sunken in gray couch, and how tiny her hands were when they reached for mine.
My Aunt filled that grandmother void, she doted on me with bagels and lox every Sunday for years, always told me I worked too hard and was happy for me when I was happy even if she didn’t understand why.
Last weekend when I saw her, I said I had good news! She immediately asked if I was pregnant – would it be a boy or a girl? I laughed. Far from it, I told I had a new job, she was lucid and excited for me. She said that was good, it would be good for me, and then her mind wandered away… maybe she’d get to leave if they would just fix the damn overflow problem. I had no idea what she was talking about. What overflow?
Oh, the overflow upstairs. Like into Heaven?
Or all this stuff we need to give away, all these things holding us back, holding us down, keeping us from moving on. The overflow. So I’m giving all these things away, to stop the overflow because you can’t take anything with you when you go. They will never fill the void of someone who is gone, they will only take up space and collect dust and you won’t remember them anyway… And in the end, someone else will have to go through and give them away.