By Deborah Kelly Kloepfer
Recently, we cleared out my mother-in-law’s apartment after she suddenly had to move into assisted living. A few years ago, we had broken down the large family home in which she had lived for 50 years, and in which her in-laws had lived before her.
One might suppose that the first move would have been the most stressful, resulting in a large estate sale and letting go of generations’ worth of both junk and treasure. It was, certainly, the most work – emptying a sprawling three-story house filled with 100 years of “stuff” and deciding what to move to her large apartment.
In fact, however, the most recent move was more traumatic. Although we bubble-wrapped and packed and labeled everything we had moved the first time, now Nonny had little attachment to her possessions, which she seemed to have forgotten. We told her what we were doing, of course, and she clucked about how much work that must be, but she asked about nothing. Wanted nothing. Remembered little.
At first, sudden access to all the family treasure was exhilarating. Finally, we could have those silver candelabra that had graced the dining table at the old house every Sunday dinner. Those wood and leather fireplace bellows. That fetching china figurine. My husband has three sisters, so there would be discussion and perhaps a few minor quarrels, but all in all, our generation was finally inheriting the loot! And even better, without having to confront death.
Before everything went into storage, I absconded with a few small items – an etched crystal vase, a scrapbook, one painting that had always been promised to us, which I had long imagined hanging in my house. Curiously, however, the objects seemed to lose their magic as soon as I brought them through the door. They sat awkwardly on shelves, looked wrong on the wall, weren’t quite as I remembered them. Nothing seemed to fit or belong.
Like many things, a home – be it ever so humble – is more than the sum of its parts. A family casts a spell on space, and everything brought in eventually falls under its sway. That’s why, perhaps, it’s so hard to let go of children’s belongings. And the longer you keep them, the harder it gets!
Outgrown sleepers with a hole in one knee become infinitely precious when the drowsy 2-year-old who once tumbled into bed wearing them now only visits twice a year and passes out in his old room in boxer shorts and a “Walking Dead” T-shirt.
In Edmund de Waal’s deeply moving memoir, “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” he writes of the dismantling of his Jewish family’s home in Paris during World War II: “This is the strange undoing … of a house and of a family. It is the moment of fissure … when family objects, known and handled and loved, become stuff.”
What we’re craving, then, when our early worlds are no longer intact, is not familiar things but a familiar spirit, what in Spanish is called querencia – a homing instinct, a longing specific to place. I have no possible use for yellow, threadbare, footed jammies from the ’80s. What I long for is a small, beloved child drifting off to sleep under my roof, the sweetness of that time.
And that – if we’re lucky – is what grandchildren are for, in my case, two little girls who appear at my door toting their own belongings. They have blankets named “Cozy Baby” and “Little Queen,” necessary and beloved, imbued still with spirit.
“We love your house, Mimi,” they squeal. Me too, I think. For now. For now.