When You Die, Everything You Own Turns Into Garbage: The Sad Truth About Tearing Down a Loved One’s Household

I used to think that thoroughly tiding up my house once a year was a pain. Well, I recently discovered that there is one clean-up task that is significantly less palatable. I am talking about the tearing down of an established household following a loved one’s death. That physical systematic deconstruction of a life that happens once a person is no longer there.

Several days after my mother-in-law passed away this summer, my husband and his sister had to embark upon this unpleasant undertaking. As they began demolishing the household in which they grew up, our kids and I came to their aid.

My in-laws’ house has three floors and a basement. They lived there for almost fifty years, during which they accumulated a respectable amount of stuff. They stocked it with everything they needed to make their family’s life pleasant and comfortable, and then a little more. My in-laws filled it with a mixture of heirloom items, passed on from past generations, and things they acquired during their own lifetime. It was a beautiful, well maintained, and well functioning household.

Unlike occasionally tidying up my own house, which is annoying while it happens yet feels good afterwards, annihilating my in-law’s household was not only painful. It was thoroughly heartbreaking on many levels:

There was no hope in it, only despair.

This wasn’t a cleanup that would make someone’s life less cluttered, more focused, brighter. This was a cleanup that marked the end.

It brought up memories and added to the pain.

Every single item reminded us of my parents-in-law, their lives, and our shared experiences. The orphaned objects stressed my in-laws’ absence, and enhanced the still-fresh pain of loosing them.

It felt like an invasion of privacy.

Drawing the curtain over a life requires going over someone’s possessions one room at a time. It means getting into every shelf, closet and drawer. It required opening every box and looking through every letter.There is something very intimate about it. Going over someone’s stuff without their permission, even if they are no longer there to give it, felt intrusive.

It broke the unseen barrier that lies between guest and host. 

This wasn’t my house. I visited it many times, but always as a guest. Even my husband, who grew up there, always returned as a guest after he left. There are certain unwritten rules dictating the behavior of a guest in someone’s house. Going into every nook and cranny felt like a gross violation of that unseen contract. It felt wrong.

It put an end to the childhoods of my husband and his sister.

As long as you have a living parent, and it doesn’t really matter how old you are, you are still a child. Your parents’ house is your safe haven. It is the one constant thing throughout the great upheaval that is growing up. You always have a permanent address, even after you moved away, migrated overseas, or even had children of your own. There is someone to keep your childhood memories safe. There is a secure place to store your childhood treasures, the ones you didn’t want to take with you when you left, yet couldn’t quite bare to do away with: the artwork you made in preschool; your first-grade notebooks; the shells you collected on a family trip; your train set; your books. Once your last parent is gone, that safe haven shatters and your childhood scatters with it.

It was excruciatingly sad to empty out spaces.

We live in a consuming culture. We like buying, stocking, filling. Emptying closets, cabinets and bookcases went against our habits, against our instincts. Their emptiness screamed despair.

It brought up the dilemma of what to do with old pictures.

Old pictures are objects, like any other object in a house, yet they are not. They entrap past generations, past lives, past experiences. Pictures capture the images of loved ones, of your own past self, of people you don’t even know. They immortalize happy moments as well as sad ones. We know that pictures don’t hold people’s spirits, of course, and yet… So what do you do when you find old pictures in every room, in envelopes and drawers and boxes and albums? More pictures than you could ever transfer, or ship, or store, or even scan?

The worst part: It became clear that, once you die, everything you own turns into garbage.

The worst part of tearing down a loved one’s household, by far, was the sinking realization that no one really wanted any of it. Despite my in-law’s house being a beautiful, magical space filled with heirlooms, antiques and exquisite objects, no one had any interest in taking its content. Not even us.

Both my sister-in-law and us already have full houses. More than full, even, as you might have realized if you read my posts about our Big Cleanup or my struggles to keep my sewing room tidy. Furthermore, we bought houses built in a different style, and furnished them differently. We like lighter, more modern things, and prefer to have less of them. Heavy pieces of old Swiss furniture just don’t fit in either of our houses. Nor do big clocks, or someone’s paintings, or an entire collection of copper pots. We can’t even read the old French books, passed over from a distant relative. We don’t have the time it takes to polish sets of silver cutlery, nor do we like their taste. And we already equipped our kitchens with all the gadgets we need.

In our case, we live an ocean away, and shipping things costs more than they are worth. But even my sister-in-law, who lives in Switzerland, couldn’t fit any of this into her house, even if she wanted to.

Furthermore, nobody else wanted much of it, either. Friends and neighbors have full houses, too. One person took the copper-pot collection, but the painter friend didn’t want his paintings back. We couldn’t find a taker even for the houseplants.

eBay and similar online sale sites are already flooded with old sofas and cabinets. The items currently featured there have been listed for months and do not seem to sell. Auction-house representatives walked through the house quickly. Nothing popped out at them. They said they had all the clocks they needed, and that even the ones they already have aren’t selling.

Heirloom pieces that cost my father-in-law thousands of francs to restore are basically worth nothing. It is really mind boggling, but it’s just the way it is. In the end, my husband and his sister will probably have to pay someone to come and haul it all away.

We desperately wanted to take something, anything, just to remember my in-laws by. It wasn’t easy to find such things. We ended up taking a rug or two, even though they were very worn and we don’t have a place to put them. The kids wound up with little mementos: engraved Swiss Army knives and old watches. As for me, I came home with a suitcase-full of rags:

These are some of the fabrics I found in my mother-in-law’s house. I would not have picked them out had they been offered anywhere else, but with things being what they were I felt like I just had to rescue them. For now, I’m thinking of them as my Memory Project. I don’t know how I will use them yet, but I will try to do them justice, out of respect to bygone generations and people gone.

 

 

On Objects, Spaces and Memories: A Still-life Portrait of My Late Mother in Law

My father in law had always been proud of his house, a three-floors-plus-basement townhouse just outside the old city of Bern, Switzerland. He liked to tell people that the house was over a hundred and thirty years old, and that he and his family had lived in it for over a third of its history. My husband and his sister grew up in that house, which still has most of its original architectural details. Our children and I, too, stayed there many times over the past two decades, for weeks at a time.

When my father in law passed away several years ago, the house felt emptier, but remained pretty much unchanged. My mother in law laboriously decluttered many of her husband’s possessions (he was an avid collector). Still, except for minor changes and renovations, she left things pretty much as they had always been. We saw the house as a given. It was a constant, predictable presence in our world, something we took for granted.

A few weeks ago, while on an exciting summer trip, we received the call that every child dreads. My sister in law informed us that my mother in law, who had already been in the hospital for a couple of weeks, had taken a turn for the worse and that time was running out. We immediately abandoned our adventure and headed to Switzerland on the first available flight.

When we arrived at the house that we had known for so long, I was struck by how different it felt. My mother in law left it for a medical emergency, expecting to return within hours and leaving everything in place. It felt like Pompeii, displaying a life interrupted mid-way. We kept expecting her to come out of the kitchen, go down the stairs, or come in from the garden. The quiet house screamed of emptiness and longed for its owner.

A week and a half later she did come back, and everything felt right again. Except it wasn’t really, and a few days afterwards she left it, and us, for good.

After my mother in law passed away, I wandered throughout the empty rooms. Slowly, the unthinkable truth daunted on me. I realized that with her passing a chapter had ended. A chapter in our family’s story, as well as a chapter in the house’s history. I suddenly understood that this was the last time I will stay in that grand old house, and that within weeks it will change beyond recognition. The house we had taken for granted, with its old furniture and heirloom artifacts, will soon cease to exist the way we knew it.

As I looked around, I slowly comprehended that for me, my mother in law was inherently inseparable from the house. The furniture she used, the pictures she hung, the objects she possessed were all a part of how I saw her, of who she was in my eyes. I started thinking of how we all shape our spaces to fit our tastes, and how these spaces shape us in return. The objects we surround ourselves with express our personalities, yet, as we use them, also take a deeper meaning as they become a part of who we are, a part of us.

I looked at the empty house and saw my mother in law in every corner. I then took pictures of the parts of it that were most significant to me, before they disappeared for good. These pictures are in essence a still-life portrait of my late mother in law.

A still-life portrait of my late mother in law:

This is the coffee corner in the kitchen. It’s where her days, and ours, when we were visiting, started. It used to house an older, much bigger coffee machine, on which our eldest daughter, as a toddler, used to make coffee for her grandfather. But several years ago, when that machine broke, my mother in law replaced it with a smaller, more convenient piece:

And this is the opposite wall in the kitchen, with my mother in law’s prized collection of copper cookware, which she kept polishing; the corn-kernels-filled clock she got from friends in the US; the flowers she always kept on her breakfast table; and the ever-present daily newspaper:

My mother in law used these dishes every day, for every meal, for who-knows-how-many decades. I will always think of her when I see a blue plate:

This is the fridge, with the grand kids’ pictures and the many magnets my kids spent hours playing with:

In the nearby living room the beautiful old stove, covered with tiles:

The corner by the big window, the brightest spot in the house, where I loved reading books, when I could:

And the opposite wall, with it’s books and nick knacks, baptism bottles, and the painting a friend gave them:

Also, ever present, a sunflower, her favorite flower. This last one, although cut and in water, actually outlived her:

The adjacent dining room featured the other side of the stove, with different tiles:

As well as these three paintings, painted by another friend, and a fake-flower arrangement that has been there since my very first visit. This was the setting for many of our dinners, and hers:

Throughout the house there was a collection of clocks, my father in law’s legacy. Some were old Swiss clocks with sentimental value. These included my parent-in-law’s wedding gift, a clock or two passed down from past generations, and a replica of a Swiss railway station’s clock. There were also new, modern clocks, to just tell the time. Clocks hung in every room, on every floor. When my father in law was alive he used to wind them every Sunday, and they all synchronized on the second. Once, we visited, and I noticed the clocks were off. That was when I knew his days were numbered. When he died, my mother in law continued with the Sunday-winding tradition. Until she didn’t:

Upstairs, on the third floor, is the wall in the room we always stayed in, the room that used to be my sister in law’s when she was little. Here you see the fake bonsai, portraits of my mother in law and her sister when they were young. A work of art my husband made as a child, and a painting of the clock factory that a distant relative operated in China, long, long ago:

Finally, the cigarette advertisement, still surprisingly hanging on the door, larger than life. The model was my mother in law, when she was young and as beautiful as a movie star. The cigarettes were what killed her. Uncomprehendingly, she left the poster hanging even after she received the diagnosis of lung cancer. It catches her exactly as she was: strong, defiant, life-loving and doing things her way.

 

A New Website: Moving My Blog to WordPress

If you visited my blog before, you might notice it looks somewhat different this time. That’s because earlier in the week I moved it from Blogger to WordPress.

When I started blogging a year ago I chose Blogger since it was a good option for beginners. It was very simple to set up, and had the basic features I needed. However, it looked a little amateurish, and wasn’t a “real” website. Over the last few months, as I learned about blogging, I started wanting a little more. I decided to move my blog to WordPress, which, I was told, had a lot more options.

Life was busy, however, as life tends to be. I was hardly able to keep up with my routine tasks, and didn’t have time to look into new websites. My husband, who is my tech support, was likewise occupied. There just never seemed to be a good time to get to it.

Well, last week we hosted our exchange student, and a day after she left a family member came over for a two-week visit. All of a sudden I found myself barred from my sewing room for three entire weeks! What a better way to take advantage of that rare opportunity than to finally work on a new website?!

I expected this to take time, but didn’t realize just how much! Thankfully, my husband agreed to do all the technical work (technology not being one of my expertise). However, there was plenty of work left for me. And so, this is how I spent this last week:

Working on my new website

The first thing I had to do was choose a theme. WordPress, it turned out, has hundreds of themes (or maybe thousands?). This, alone, was overwhelming. I spent several days looking at themes. I didn’t like most of them. Too busy screens, too much scrolling up and down. I wanted something simple. Clean. Easy. “In short, old fashioned,” my husband concluded. Not exactly the way I wanted to see it… Still, none of the new, modern themes fit the bill. So we had to go for something old. I chose Twenty Eleven, ancient in technology terms.

We moved my blog over, and I am having to learn a whole new set of skills. No, an entire new language! SEOs, categories, responsive, plugins, SSL. This will take a while. Possibly a long while.

My new platform is a lot more complex than the old, and offers oh-so-many-more options. A couple of days of playing with it and I already regretted ever blogging anywhere else. I should have moved over a lot sooner! But then, better late than never…

WordPress grades you on readability. I worked hard on my old posts and liked them, but, once moved, they did not pass muster. So I’m trying to learn. The idea of SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is also rather confusing, and I will need to work on that, too.

While I was able to move old posts fairly easily, the formatting was sometimes off. Fixing that took a lot of time. The old pictures, on the other hand, didn’t look good enough. So I’m slowly reloading them, one by one, something that will take a few more days. There is still a lot of work left to do, but then—I can’t really sew next week, anyway.

For now, my new website is still very much work in progress. Perhaps it always will be, kind of like my art. If you feel like poking around and giving me some feedback, I will love to hear from you. Is there anything you’d like to see that isn’t there? Anything you think I should change? Let me know in the comments below or on Facebook.

The Neglected Art of Self Love: Remember to Take Care of Yourself!

It’s that time of year again, with Valentine’s Day just around the corner. If you are like me, and I think many of us in today’s fast-paced world are, you are probably overwhelmingly busy, running around all day long doing things for other people. Amidst the craziness of tending to others’ needs, we often forget to take care of ourselves.

To make things worse, nowadays, in addition to the everyday stress many of us normally live with, there are the added tensions brought about by a precarious world. My anxiety level shoots up when I open the newspaper in the morning, and every time I listen to the news. Judging by the increasing number of newspaper articles about self-soothing and relaxation, I’ll make a wild bet that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

So, with the Holiday of Love upon us, I wanted to re-state the obvious and remind everyone that loving others has to start with loving oneself. Safety regulations on airplanes stress that you should put an oxygen mask on yourself before tending to other people. The same goes for Tikkun O’lam, Hebrew for “Fixing the World.” There is great want all about us, as well as much that requires mending in the world. But in order to meet those needs and do the fixing, we all must practice the art of self love first.

There are as many methods of self-caring as there are individuals, but here I will note only the most basic, obvious ones, which also happen to be the things that work for me. You might be practicing some or all already, which is great. But if not, perhaps you’d like to consider trying some. Who knows, these might help you, too:

  1. Get enough sleep. I know too many people who don’t have time to sleep and who are constantly sleep-deprived. These people might get more done in the short run, but in the long run they will end up paying a heavy toll. We need sleep, and when we don’t get enough of it we simply don’t function well. Sleep enough and you will be a lot more efficient when awake. You will also see improvements in your mood, health, and general well-being.

  1. Eat well. We keep hearing this over and over, to the point of rolling our eyes when hearing it once more. Yet, I have intelligent, educated friends who still skip meals to save time. Healthy eating, just like sleep, is a basic human need. You all know the drill: food should be nutritious, fresh, colorful, balanced, minimally-processed and organic when possible. You might save a few minutes by skipping a meal, but the long-term damages will be a lot costlier.
  1. Exercise. That’s a hard one, I admit, for it requires a lot of self discipline, at least for some of us. It’s easy to forgo exercise, but study after study proves just how important it is to keep moving. Exercise improves everything from mood to weight to health to life span. Make sure to find time to move, at least a few times a week. And if you have time constraints, research shows that even a one-minute-a-day intense workout can improve fitness.
  1. Pause. Take a few moments each day to stop running about and just be with yourself and relax. Sip a cup of coffee. Stare out the window. Breath. Clear your mind for a few still moments.
  1. Be mindful. David Gelles wrote an entire series of mindfulness articles in the New York Times lately. What he is trying to say, I think, is that we should all take the time to be present in the here and now, concentrate on what we are doing (rather than on what we did, what we should have done, what we will do next, or what we should be doing next), and simply, genuinely live the moment. If you think about it, the present is all we really have, and is the only thing we can actually control. The past is over, and despite our constant, long and elaborate plans for the future, no one really knows what the day will bring.
  1. Spend time with people you care about. Humans evolved to be social creatures. Spending time with others does wonders to our well-being, improves health and even makes us live longer. Find time to hang out with your family. Make a conscious effort to meet a friend. This, after all, is what life is all about.
  1. Hug. Yes, you read that right. Give and get a hug every day, the more the better! There is clear data that proves that touching other people is good for you. Necessary even. And if you can’t find anyone to hug, cuddling with a pet is the next best thing.

Hope handmade fabric card

  1. Smile. The simple act of smiling, it turns out, has many benefits. It reduces stress, improves mood and makes you more productive, to name some. It is, in fact, so beneficial, that even fake smiling helps! And if you smile at a stranger, you get the added bonus of bringing a ray of sunshine into someone else’s day. If that’s not a small step towards fixing the world, what is?
  1. Spend time in nature. Being outdoors, exposed to the sun and around plants has numerous gains. It definitely soothes the soul, so carve a piece of your day to be outside. This includes gardening, walking, hiking, or any other outdoors activity. Even just sitting outside exposes you to sunlight, which will do wonders to your mood.

And finally, if things get really bad,

  1. Disconnect! It’s OK to take time off from news or social media if that is what will save your sanity. Turn off the TV. Put the newspaper away. Don’t browse social media. Give yourself the permission and time to heal and recuperate.

Always remember that self care is important! And whatever you do, never lose hope! There is much goodness in you, in the people around you and in the world. So when things get overwhelming, think positive and keep on hoping! Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

Hope handmade textile card

 

Post-Summer Blues

Summer blues

Summer is over. The days are becoming shorter, sunlight is getting yellower, and the shadows are beginning to stretch. A few trees in my yard are showing reddish tints. I, too, seem to be reaching for a jacket more often. I like the ambiance of early fall, yet I am finding myself these days feeling rather sad. My kids, you see, are all back to school.

The first time this happened was when my eldest daughter started going to preschool. And it has been happening persistently every year since. For years I’ve been spending summers with my kids, being with them all day, every day, for almost three months at a time. Some vacation days have been interesting, exciting and fun, while others can be long and boring. But hanging out together is usually nice, except for those days–mostly towards the end of the vacation–when the kids just can’t stop fighting with each other. On such days they drive me absolutely nuts, and I find myself wishing for school to just start, so that I could finally enjoy some peace and quiet and have the house back to myself.

But when the school-year actually does begin, as it inevitably does, the house suddenly feels awfully quiet…

I did many things this past summer, but sewing wasn’t one of them. I’ve been missing it quite a bit. I got lots of new ideas while traveling, and have been eager to get back to my fabrics and start experimenting. However, now that I finally CAN sew again, I find it very difficult to concentrate. I turn my machine on only to realize, half an hour later, that I haven’t sewn a stitch. Or I start one thing only to stop and go do something else. I miss the kids, with their noise, company, constant demands, and yes–even their squabbles…

So I’m trying to start small, with simple projects to get me back into a sewing mind-set. I made a couple of book marks, a zip pouch or two, and even managed a cross-body sling. And for over a week I’ve been working on a bunch of journal covers that I am slowly starting to finish and put up in my Etsy store. I hope to get back into routine quickly, so that I could soon progress to the more complicated, demanding and interesting projects.