Sacramento, Calif., attorney Don Fitzgerald, whose father was a school bus driver and avid outdoorsman, has several shadowboxes created by his sister after their father died about 11 years ago. Using pieces of their dad’s favorite flannel shirts, his fishing lures and old family photographs, she gave one to each of the six grandchildren, including a photo of each child with “Papa.”
“One glance at the shadowbox,” said Fitzgerald, “and great memories come flooding back.”
Smith, the professional organizer, did the same for her father.
“You don’t need a room packed full of stuff to honor a memory,” said the Davis resident. “You want to keep the history and memories alive, without the burden of a huge volume of physical stuff.”
SIBLING DIFFERENCES: It can be challenging when siblings come home to divvy up Mom and Dad’s belongings. When Hertel’s father died in January 2013, he left behind a lifetime of possessions in the family home outside Chicago. Everything was still in the house, from old family board games to Hertel’s wedding dress. And then there was the basement. Her father, a General Motors machinist, had a basement workshop filled with tools, lathes, vises and thousands of pieces of leftover scrap metal. Cleaning all of it out to ready the house for sale fell to Hertel and her siblings.
“My brother just wanted it done. His attitude was: Go in, get it done and put the house on the market.” Her sister, by contrast, needed to touch every piece of paper, which greatly slowed the process. “It created a lot of tension,” recalled Hertel.
Ultimately, they donated clothing, linens and kitchenware to a local church charity. They recycled 150 pounds of metal, including boxes of bolts, screws and nails. And they filled two waist-high dumpsters with discards.
The task was further complicated because Hertel was in California and not able to be as hands-on as she would have liked. In retrospect, she wishes they’d done far more of the sorting while her parents were still alive.
Sandy Edwards, a retired teacher in Carmichael, Calif., vividly remembers how she and her siblings divvied up the contents of their parents’ sprawling, four-story Victorian mansion in Merchantville, N.J., which had been in the family since 1900. It took two years and innumerable trips back east. Essentially, “we linked arms and walked room by room. We didn’t assign values to anything but used three colors of Post-it notes” to mark the things each wanted to keep, including items for grandchildren. “The emotional part was extremely hard to do,” Edwards said, but dividing things up was comparatively easy among her siblings.
DON’T WAIT TILL TOO LATE: Four or five years before her mother died at age 97, Marty West, a retired University of California-Davis law professor, helped her go through closets, drawers and paper files. It was a process her mother welcomed, she said.
For her mother’s 90th birthday, West took home boxes of loose family photographs and assembled a four-volume scrapbook of her mother’s life, starting with baby pictures in 1915. It was a way to preserve the best of all the random photos that pile up in drawers and closets.
It wasn’t until after her mother died that West discovered — stashed in her mother’s garage — a treasure trove of old family correspondence, some dating back to the 1800s. The letters, in shoeboxes and cardboard containers, had been stored unopened for years. Some were from her Kansas grandmother written to her grandfather while they were courting in 1896. Some were from her parents, who were social and religious activists in the 1940s, working as high school teachers in the Japanese internment camp in Manzanar and later in a church-sponsored relocation hospital in Chicago.
“It was sad when I discovered all this correspondence because I could no longer ask her about it,” said West.
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