On The Impermanence of Things and Related Matters

What with the packing in advance of the moving, I’ve been spending a lot of time going through books, my mother’s and my own, and debating what to keep and what to sell. Books frame the whole of my life, in a way. In literal terms, certainly. I make my living as an editor, and through book reviews. And every once in a while I make some money from the writing as well. But books also frame the dimensions of my life in other ways.

My mother was a teacher, who taught at a number of institutions, up to and including for a long time at the University level. She worked in a number of different humanities fields (especially English and English Lit), also ESL, Women’s Studies, and a host of other subjects. And spent her own time as a student and a scholar, up through her PhD work, in and out of many of those fields. During that time, she amassed an inordinate number of books. Texts, novels, poetry collections, fiction anthologies and collections, political treatises, histories, catalogues, dictionaries, encyclopaedias, and all manner of things. She was a voracious reader and her memory capacity was frightening (this said as someone whose own memory is really rather excellent).

Her library was always open to me, all of it, as I wished, from the time I could pull the books from the shelves. And I learned to read, as well as my respect for language and learning, from her. It is a deep debt. It almost wipes out the impossible clashes that came later. Almost. But that long and tangled history is not what we are here to discuss. (Believe me, none of you want to go down that road with me.)

No, we are here to discuss what happens when someone passes away and they leave their past behind. And we shall use my own history as a case study to look at the larger argument herein.

My mother died nearing two years ago now. She was the child of Holocaust survivors. (Neither of whom died well in their turn when they did eventually pass – one reason I take exception to the term Holocaust “survivor.” Only ghosts walked away from that.) A state that leaves one with the understanding that objects are both impermanent and deeply important. Especially those objects tied to family. This train of thought becomes important because from time to time I see articles come and go online about generational relationships to things, and how Millennials, as opposed to Gen Xers, are ungrateful or do not understand the import of their antecedents’ things. And in Millennials’ perceived rejection of those things they devalue the work of a lifetime their antecedents’ spent accumulating them.

It’s a complicated argument, that one. And of course rooted in various generational differences in socio-economic terms, approaches to and understandings of work/life balance, and very different understandings of personal worth as internal vs. external functions. And though I dislike massive generalizations, the argument does seem to be that Gen Xers (and earlier, though at some point you hit a very different relationship to things again, directly related to how much you craft/make yourself, and why that smaller pool of thing means something entirely different because of and around that) are creating the narrative of their lives through object-based anchors. Things that tie them to a specific place or memory. Whereas Millennials (and I assume going forward, though I cannot yet say) seem to value more the memory of the experience than the token that recalls its occurrence.

Which is not to say that Millennials do not accrue things. Because of course we do. But there is a difference in the way it is done. And the motivations as well.

When my mother had passed away and I was sorting through all the things that she had left behind, I discovered that she had kept every toy I had ever owned that had not broken. (Seemingly) every piece of clothing I had ever worn that had not frayed beyond repair. (My mother was the daughter of a master tailor, and though neither she nor I had/have anything close to his level of skill, I am convinced, given what I found, that my mother had repaired things that should long ago have been thrown away.) She had kept documents and records of mine that I would long ago have tossed.

That is not the keeping of recollections. Nor the hoarding of precious memories. That is fear. Accumulation of things as counter to loss, real or imagined.

The keeping of things related to one’s own life one could argue differently for, perhaps. The keeping of preceding or following generations’ items and histories is more problematic.

You would also be right in assuming, from this discussion, that my mother had trouble letting go in the general way of things.

Indeed, during the later portions of her life, when my mother was falling apart in ways neither of us then understood, she would occasionally in the course of a conversation be ferociously enraged that when she was dead I would, she said, sell all her things. This being a terrifying idea to her. To which I assured her that I would not. Something I truly at the time believed.

As it turns out, I ended up giving away many of the things my mother accumulated during her lifetime. And the things she had kept from her parents as well. So many of the things she collected, or kept watch over for parents long passed, had value more in sentimental terms than otherwise. Which is fitting somehow. I do not like the idea of profiting from the dismantling of someone else’s life. Necessary though that action may be.

I am quite spartan by nature. Excepting where books are concerned. The latter partly because of my profession, and partly because of personal inclination. Imagine then what it is like living with the weight of someone else’s life forever settled on your shoulders.

I do not know how my mother did it. The carting of furniture from place to place, and home to home. And homes, in variable definitions, are on my mind as I seek a new apartment to which to move. The sense in which home is and is not rooted in place. But in state. In the way in which one chooses to invest space. Some people do it with objects. Some with meaning. And sometimes a room is just a room and home is people. To each their own, and I find none of these answers right nor wrong. Merely choices we all of us make in how we define the shape and pattern of our lives.

And this is, I think, part of what people miss when they discuss, or lament, that their children do not want their things. This life you have built and are willing to bestow on someone else that they may benefit from this groundwork you have built for them, why would they not want it? Except of course it is your life, not theirs, and they must build their own.

I left, I believe it is fair to estimate, easily half of what my mother had accumulated during her lifetime, hers and her parents, (and with her passing bequeathed to me) at my last apartment when I moved to my current one. This after giving away (or, yes, in a few cases selling), a great deal more before that point. And I have been slowly digging out from under ever since.

And here we come back to a discussion of books. Because while it is difficult enough to sort through other elements of someone else’s life — and how can one ever feel like anything other than a voyeur digging through papers, letters, and photos never meant for one’s eyes — the line is most difficult for me to navigate where books are concerned. I’d read most of the books in my mother’s library long ago. And so digging through these books once more, they were all known to me.

Divesting oneself of books one has known and read is, I think, rather like trying to eat a captive animal you have named. You now have a connection, however slight or otherwise perceived. You have an understanding of it shaped by your own perceptions and baggage.

There is both catharsis and a sense of loss in every book that is not mine that I set aside for sale or to give away. With each item I no longer carry with me I am lighter again. My shoulders hitch ever so slightly higher.

It is a lightening of the Tyranny of Things. A phrase I am sure I have discussed here before. There are many tyrannies we exercise on each other over the course of our lives. Tyrannies of illness. And of removal of consent. And of love. And of hate. And of expectation. And in denial of the worldview or memories of others. So many little (and often great) tyrannies. The act of slow and careful eroding of the lives of others, all.

Even in a thing so small as a book it can be so.

Because love so easily becomes obsession, and expectation so easily becomes disappointment. We none of us mean to exercise tyrannies, I think. But that does not lessen their impact, nor their presence.

For my part, I have found solace in preparing many things I will read again but do not wish to live with now for storage. It is an ongoing process. Sometimes all you can do is dig out from under.

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3 Responses to On The Impermanence of Things and Related Matters

  1. topoet says:

    To free myself of my Dad’s books I left some of his favourites on the TTC – my attachment lessened & letting go of other ‘treasured’ processions became easier.

  2. What a thoughtful and well-reflected post, Michael. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I’m sorry to hear both of the loss of your mother and the difficult relationship you had. But it was moving to hear she had kept all your toys and clothes. I guess that is the bond between parent and child, it is still present even when the relationship may be troubled. This post makes me wish you’d write your memoir of what happened and how it perhaps was resolved. Love from Berit.

    • Every once in a while someone I know will suggest that I write an op-ed article and sell it to a newspaper, or create a memoir around this. I’m … not sure that’s a good idea.

      But thank you, as always :)

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