While I still have my mother (my father is not deceased but we have no relationship), my husband has lost both of his parents. His father passed in 2003 after an atypically long match against the amyotrophic lateral sclerosis that eventually killed him. My mother-in-law, an intrepid go-getter who we often thought would outlive us all, was taken down by cancer in 2012.
In the years since her death, I’ve watched my husband and his siblings take care of end of life matters such as closing accounts, dispersing belongings and selling the house they all gathered in for so many years. While not pleasant, although there were moments of levity, it’s all necessary to the business end of death.
The house wasn’t sold until last year, but in preparation, my husband and I traveled to Florida where we sifted through belongings, packing some things up to keep and others to sell. This was no small effort as my mother-in-law was a bit of a packrat. We often teased her she was a “hoarder lite.”
She came by her thrift honestly, as many from do from humble, hard-working upbringings. Right alongside her vast storages of plastic bags, colorful twist-ties and decades-old boxes of evaporated mothballs were her collection of antiques, more playing cards than a Vegas casino, and some treasured sentimental items.
One such item was her “Lovey’s Chest,” containing among other items, a slew of love letters written between her and her husband, the only man she ever truly loved. Her adoration for him was palpable, and in the nine years she lived without him, we were all aware a part of her was irreplaceably missing.
The love letters remain an area of contention. Some of the siblings would like to read the letters and believe their mother would approve. After all, she had begun selecting letters and sharing their contents with some of her children in recent years. My husband feels quite differently. He believes those letters are none of his business, or anyone’s but theirs. One sister felt they might learn something new or insightful about their parents; I think my husband worries it might too enlightening. Another suggested the letters be saved for later generations, when their privacy won’t have the same value. And so, they sit in the chest in a garage, untouched but intact. If only my mother-in-law had been clear about what to do with these love letters.
It made me fish out the letters my husband and I wrote each other early in our relationship while we were forced to communicate from 3,000 miles away. He suggested we burn them all so our three sons won’t be tempted to read them after our time on Earth has ended, but I disagreed. I can see both sides of this argument and while there are certainly some things I don’t ever want my children to read, I’m betting there are some letters perfectly suitable for their wondering eyes. So today, we are reading those letters again. One pile will be destroyed (or be marked that way) and one pile will be saved. If any of our kids feels compelled to read about our love as it unfolded, they can — with our blessing.
The Lovey’s Chest contained a treasure trove of memories. We laughed, cried, and exclaimed as we sorted through things my mother-in-law held dear. We found her dance cards from her dating years, some with the slim little pencils still attached, my father-in-law’s name scrawled on many pages of the little books. We found the receipt for the mink stole my father-in-law gave his wife, something he must have saved arduously for in those days. The mink stole still hung in her closet, worth nothing more than about $25 in today’s world. You better believe I brought that home as a keepsake before letting someone buy it in an estate sale for a few bucks and potentially destroy it (I was told people often make stuffed animals out of old furs).
I admit, I’ve got a little of my mother-in-law in me. I am sentimental, a saver, a bit of a stockpiler. And now some of her treasures are here with me: a well-worn apron and some kitchen items, a fancy coat, and her hand-painted cupboard, reminding me of her presence on a daily basis. I find it a comfort. And I somehow feel more prepared for the day when I achingly will say goodbye to my own mother.
This column appeared in The Journal on Sunday, July 10, 2016.