Finding Closure in Mortality and Nostalgia

nan-pop-2Four weeks ago my beloved grandmother died. Nana was 95 and tired, nothing more, just wanting to be reunited with my equally beloved grandfather on the other side after five years apart. Married for 65 years, theirs was a marriage unparalleled in today’s society, a true eternal love. Today marks their 70 year anniversary; so this post seems a fitting tribute. Two days before she died, Pop visited me in a dream to hang out while he waited for Nan. After a while, since she didn’t come, he hugged me goodbye, a transcendental embrace that left me feeling fulfilled even after I woke. With a busy job like mine, I quickly moved on with my day and thought nothing more of the dream until two days later when I got the crushing news she had passed. I was back in Australia for the funeral a week later.

I wouldn’t be alone to argue that 2016 seems to be a year of death and mortality. Several of my friends have lost loved ones this year – parents and grandparents and siblings – and even more than one. There has also been a number of beloved public figures and celebrities leave this world this year. Over the summer there even seemed to be more terrorist acts claiming lives than in previous years. One notable death that stood out to me earlier this year, that got me thinking about a blog post on the topic, was the passing of a dear childhood father figure and close family friend. That I couldn’t go home to share the family grief and honour his memory was very difficult and upsetting.

Yet these two meaningful deaths, for me, haven’t been sad because of the person dying. Both were deaths I knew were approaching with plenty of time to accept it. No, deep thought on the matter has revealed that these deaths have saddened my inner child. Their passings have closed a lid on my past.

After my family friend died, I gave pause in my grief to remember the childhood memories, the fun I had hanging out with his daughters throughout my childhood and his humour and influence. Since the girls shared a few photos on social media in his memory, I decided to save a few to keep in my cloud data and remember him. I could hear in my mind the words of the Minimalists: “our memories are inside us not in our stuff… take pictures to remind yourself of the memory”. This I did for him, lest he never be forgotten. I felt proud of myself for confronting my feelings and taking action on them, living in the moment to really allow myself to be, whether it was sad or nostalgic, without trying to push those feelings aside.

However, my grandmother’s death brought about a much more difficult clash of nostalgia and things. With Pop long gone, Nan’s passing means her house, a rare 1950s bungalow swallowed up by a huge suburb-wide redevelopment, will be sold, probably flattened and redeveloped within a couple of years. This made me quite determined to visit her empty house and confront my emotions on visiting this house for a final time.

As I walked around the house, I admired the volume of decluttering she had done in her final years. Gone were so many things from the past, the spare rooms just about bare, the garage empty, save for the built-in tool shelves and workspace that once held Pop’s things. I spent a long time in the backyard, reliving countless childhood family parties and visits, the hide and seek spots behind the garage where I had hidden from my cousins, the garden patch where my dad’s childhood pet was buried. Inside on the dining table were the coasters marked with decades of tea stains, coasters my Pop used to restlessly spin around and around while we chatted and I shared my travel stories. Gone were the pictures of grandchildren from the walls, now redistributed to family, my own baby pictures and graduation pictures sitting in a box for me to take. Gone, I think long gone, was the sun clock from the wall that I used to watch minutes pass by on as a child. Yet still sitting pride of place on the wall in the living room was Toby, a life-size painting of a sad, tearful boy cloaked in a rug that has sat on that wall my entire life. Somehow, we had had one on our wall too, but ours was long gone.

I took a lot of photos that day. With my minimalism journey in mind, I tried to be very intentional about picking out mementoes. Pop’s three cookbooks, so valuable from his baking career. Some of Nana’s jewellery, including a necklace to pass on to my niece, the lap rug I gave her of her family’s Scottish tartan, some crystal I know I will use. A box of photos. I was feeling good in my grief. I felt enveloped with closure and acceptance, upsetting as it was.

As I walked from room to room, each one almost bare except the kitchen, I was surprised by my common sense. I didn’t need to keep hoards of items to remember my grandparents. With startling clarity, I knew that the vast majority of what remained was stuff that served a purpose to them. The things that brought them joy were us – family. The house was just a house, ultimately. Still, there were some papers and photos that I felt shouldn’t be thrown away thoughtlessly. While I may not want them all in the long run, I wanted to give myself time to honour their memories and decide what to do.

Ultimately closure is about accepting an event and moving on. Having photographed every precious thing I wanted to remember and kept a few physical items, and made it through a beautiful funeral service, I left Australia feeling lucky to have had these two wonderful grandparents for so many decades of my life, and certain they won’t be forgotten. Amongst the daily trivialities of life, death reminds us that we love and are loved, that our pasts make up a huge part of our identity, and that our own demise can come at any time.

As a minimalist, it also reinforces the journey we take, for none of us really want to leave trivial clutter behind for loved ones to mull over whether it brought us joy, purpose, or was just another thing purchased in a shopping spree one day. One thing I contemplated with many of Nan’s gold plated crockery and crystalware was, did she get this as a wedding gift? Was it passed on to her by a family member? Is there a history to any of this stuff, should I be more deliberate with my choices? In my head I simply heard Nan’s voice: Take whatever you want, love. The stories don’t matter to you. Which is true, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure as they say, and vice versa.

As I left that day, the house ready for a charity collection of furniture and various pieces, Dad noted old Toby hanging on the wall. Do you want Toby? I looked into this boy’s sad eyes, as I had so often scrutinisingly tried to guess his story, years before as a child. Hmmmm… yes? I replied. I allowed Toby to be my one piece to stay with my parents until next visit when I can decide what to do with him. It’s not that I wanted him, more that I didn’t want him to be part of the … stuff … to just go out in a truck from Nan’s home. I am happy for him to sit a spell while I think of his future. And yes, I have a picture of him and had originally planned to just keep him there to honour the memory. Time will tell what happens to him!

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