In her film, Love and Stuff, Judith Helfand documents her very real struggle to part with her mother’s possessions following her death.
Helfand adored her mother. –the two enjoyed a warm, even sisterly bond. Because of that, Helfand couldn’t let go of anything, not her clothes, her pots, and pans, not even her used emery boards, toothbrushes, or false teeth. As she explained in the film, she felt bonded to anything imprinted with her mom’s DNA. And so, excluding a few items claimed by her brothers, she kept it all. We watch as Helfand lugs 61 boxes of her mother’s stuff, clothing, kitchenware, and tchotchkes, turning her Manhattan apartment into a warehouse.
Helfand might have continued this way indefinitely (sadly many people do,) but with her incipient motherhood (at age 50 the filmmaker adopted a baby girl), she relinquished her inheritance to make space for a nursery.
In a way, Helfand was lucky. She said goodbye to her mother who remained lucid until the end, and she got to keep her things. I didn’t. My mother died quickly and unexpectedly–I wasn’t around to see it happen. In the end, her dementia was so advanced that she no longer recognized me. Her personal property went to other people. I don’t even know to whom.
Maybe that was my karma or perhaps my punishment.
Unlike Helfand, who lived near her mother and visited all the time, I moved abroad and returned only once or twice a year sometimes less.
Throughout her illness, Helfand stayed at her mother’s side. I flew in to visit briefly and criticize the caregiver but mostly I was far away.
Even so, I felt a deep connection to my mother and to her home which I considered my home too. Because I live abroad, her address became my legal address on bank statements, tax returns, and credit card bills.
Though my mother had long ago replaced the pink floral wallpaper with a beige print, my old bedroom was my space. It was where I kept a vase, still in its original box which I couldn’t figure out how to bring home, the shoe boxes full of vintage late 60s and early 70s political buttons, my vinyl records–everything Simon and Garfunkel ever recorded, and 23 Bob Dylan albums–also too heavy to schlep. Ironically, even when I was there, I had no way to listen to them; my mother’s stereo was broken.
And then there were the books, hundreds of novels, histories, college texts, and yearbooks filling all the shelves. While I asked my married children to take their things to their new homes, my mother didn’t. My leaving pained her–she hated having her only daughter and grandchildren so far away, but, I think she found comfort in living with my detritus.
Being excluded from the post-mortem cleaning hurt. I wanted to go back to claim my things; I also wanted to sort through my mother’s closets and drawers to discover the parts of her I couldn’t access while she was still alive A Holocaust survivor, my mother was tightlipped about her past. I hoped, unrealistically, perhaps, that by sifting through the objects she left behind, I’d learn more about her and love her even more.
Instead, the primary caregiver took over her apartment. He never invited me inside.
It wasn’t quite as bad as it sounds.
In an attempt to cushion the blow, he sent photographs of my mother’s silver; I could choose what I wanted. I took her Shabbos candles and a kiddush cup that had been in the family for 300 years which I considered the most precious object she owned–I don’t know why he didn’t take it for himself.
He also allowed me to take her art and furniture –most of it junk, I took three paintings. Two hang on my living room walls. The third cracked upon arrival.
Other than her gold watch and the rusted fake diamond earrings she wore at her death, I didn’t receive my mother’s jewelry. The expensive blingy pieces were in a bank vault–I’d never even seen them–my mother never wore them.
I hated losing the jewelry. As her daughter, I felt that it belonged to me. But, then again, I don’t like bling; I probably would have sold it and wondered if I’d been cheated or I might have held onto it and, given my habit of leaving my door unlocked, had it stolen from me.
Helfand’s story has made me think about my experience. Maybe it’s time to stop feeling angry and sad. Maybe what happened was for the best. As awash as I am with nostalgia, I’m no good with stuff; even a supermarket delivery can overwhelm me. I don’t think I would have survived the tedious days or weeks Helfand endured packing up her mother’s belonging. It would have taken many days to examine. Like Helfand’s mom and most contemporary people, my mother had at least 300,000 objects, probably more.
Even if I’d inherited my mother’s things, I don’t think I would have kept them Most likely I would have done what Helfand did–give them away or throw them out.
As Helfand points out in the film, there’s love, and there’s stuff. I didn’t get all the stuff. But I feel confident that I got the love.
Joan Orange is a writer who loves to share her observations of Jewish life.