Dead People’s Stuff – Part 1
My husband and I built a brand-new house in the Indiana countryside. It’s actually not a house but an apartment on the upper floor of our barn. Yet I think of it as a house because it’s a second home, built from scratch, to our own specs. It’s a dream come true that was also quite nerve-racking to turn into reality. Now it’s done and habitable. The heating works, the water runs, and we even bought some of the most necessary furniture. And yet, whenever I stay there, I don’t quite feel at home. It’s too new. Now, this could be because I’ve actually never moved into a brand-spanking new place. But there’s another thing missing in our new place that has always surrounded me: dead people’s stuff, as my friend Rivka Levy would call it.
Her recent blog post What’s Left Behind reminded me how much I cherish things I “inherited” from loved ones who died, and how much these items are part of my daily life. I responded to Rivka, pointing out that while dead people indeed leave a lot of stuff behind that can be overwhelming to sort through, useless and meaningless to anyone except the deceased, dead people’s things are also among my most prized possessions.
Rivka replied that “making use of what people leave behind […] it hadn’t occurred to me that this is really possible. Sounds weird, I know, but I’m half Moroccan, and Moroccans are extremely superstitious about maintaining that sort of intimate contact with the dead.”
Now I was the one to be stunned, because it had never occurred to me that using dead people’s stuff might be creepy.
In my life, dead people’s things are cherished. Those are not things they bequeathed to me, but rather everyday items they owned that I liked and took on. For example, my father’s grey sweater jacket. Sadly, one of my first realizations, upon learning of his sudden death, was that I would never again have to ask him whether I could wear that sweater. (Those are the moments when the finality of death hits you.) This was in the late ‘80s; I was in my early twenties, and wearing menswear was cool. Eventually I outgrew menswear style, but I still have that sweater.
My dad’s travel toiletries bag was mine on all my trips (and I travel a lot), until it fell apart a few years ago. I resisted replacing it and only did so when the lining tore, and the zipper broke. My sister had the same experience when she had to give up using our dad’s wallet. It was as if by using items that had served him, he was still supporting us in a practical way. Tossing his toiletries bag felt like a final good-bye, one I did not want to say. With those two prosaic items, the toiletries bag and the wallet, we’d kept Dad around. In a way, he was still part of our everyday lives.
I feel the same way about my mother-in-law’s Persian lamb coat. She’s been dead almost ten years, and yet the coat still carries the faint scent of her perfume. I find that comforting. I mainly wear her coat to the opera, which is entirely fitting because she loved going to the opera. It was one of the things we enjoyed doing together. To boot, the coat is vintage, and I always get compliments when I wear it. When I feel its weight on my shoulders, I’m slipping into the past; I’m ready for icy Russian winters and snow blowing over the steppe.
I cannot even imagine life without my grandmother’s things. Thankfully, the stuff I have from her is more durable than a toiletry bag or even a fur coat (I’ve been ignoring the frayed cuffs on my mother-in-law’s coat). I wear my grandmother’s clip-on pearl ear rings every day and often put on her one golden bracelet. Come to think of it, most of my jewelry comes from someone else…
After Oma’s death (we always called our grandmother “Oma”—the German equivalent of Granny), when my siblings and I cleaned out her apartment in Wiesbaden, Germany, I folded her oriental rug into a suitcase and flew it home to Chicago. As kids we used to run our matchbox cars along its linear rim pattern. Now it has a prominent spot in my living room; it’s where I do my yoga. Oriental rugs are not necessarily my style, but this one is special and incidentally goes well with the maroon mosaic tile floor in the adjacent sun porch.
Whenever I visit my siblings, I love happening upon Oma’s cherry pitter in my sister’s kitchen drawer, or seeing Oma’s monstrous stand mixer in my brother’s kitchen. When my sister was visiting me, she enjoyed squeezing out oranges on the glass juicer I have from Oma. Encountering these utensils catapults us back to Oma’s kitchen and the hard chair by the drafty window where we kids always sat watching her cook and bake, while we were “assisting.”
The herringbone from my great-uncle’s shop and the lines where it appears in Jumping Over Shadows.
Writing about my dead people’s stuff has me thinking about the many things I have whose owners have passed on, among them a wad of fabric from my great-uncle’s pre-WWII haberdashery store in Reichenberg, my father’s family’s hometown in Czechoslovakia. That fabric is a literal thread to that past, and so it appears in my book Jumping Over Shadows, because that book examines how the past impacts the present through the true story of a German-Jewish love that overcame the burdens of the Holocaust:
“Das ist noch aus dem Geschäft,”—this is still from the store—my grandmother used to say. […] The herringbone is of superior quality, tightly woven and a bit scratchy, perfect for the fine men’s suit it never became.”
I have often contemplated the oddity that dead people’s stuff outlives them by so many years, even a prosaic thing like a travel toiletries bag, a cherry pitter or a citrus juicer. There has got to be some purpose behind that, and I think it is this: Dead people’s stuff sustains the living; it provides meaning; it lets us literally touch the chain of generations we belong to. And so, to infuse our new country home with that gravitas, I’ll have to move some dead people’s things there.