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Legacy in a Junk Drawer: A Plea to Go Through Your Stuff Now

After sifting though 56 years of receipts, photos and treasured memories, I plead with you to take action now, and leave a legacy that your loved ones can enjoy, in a form that they can enjoy it. True to our other "words," it is not our style to dictate or say there is a right our wrong way to family. I believe in “you do you,” as long as it is legal ethical, moral and you can sleep at night. In this case, however, I am strongly encouraging you to think about a new way to manage treasured memories for your kids, grandkids and beyond.

Let me set the context here. Sadly, my mother-in-law, who battled hospice for two years, recently passed away in her home, about 300 miles away from us. It was her choice. Many times, when she was much more with it and able-bodied, we tried to get her to move closer to us. She told my husband, an only child, she would think about it – which ultimately meant "no." We are sad, and yet she died how she wanted.

We drove to Chicago and dealt with the task of going through years of “stuff,” as many of our friends have done for their own parents, well before us. My mother-in-law lived in the house more than fifty-five years, and in the midst of grief we found a lot of stuff – receipts from the 1960’s, drawers full of medical bills, glass figurines, coins, 30-year old appliance instruction books and more.

Every once in a while we came across a gem that exposed a side of her that we never knew, even my husband. We found a yearbook from high school, and discovered that she had a nickname at one time, when she was dance captain of the swing choir. (Number 4 is dance captain for show choir.) We found pictures of her with friends at a party. We found her baby book -- one her mother and my husband’s beloved grandmother had filled out -- including descriptions of the things my mother-in-law did in the early 1940’s. We found essays that my husband’s grandmother wrote in high school.

We found my mother-in-law’s diploma from the University of Illinois and her teaching certificate. (Number 1 just graduated with a teaching degree, and will be a teacher in the fall.) We found her record collection of original musical scores. (Number 2 sings and loves musicals.) We found pictures of when she visited Number 3 at pre-school.

Then, it hit me. This was a woman that I wish I knew. I mean of course I knew her. My husband and I dated at age 16. What I mean is, even my husband did not know his mom had a nickname in high school, or that she had a group of friends that from the pictures looked like they all had fun together. We found draft notes she wrote with edit marks, and we read letters from friends and relatives she kept – when hand-written “snail” mail was a primary way to communicate. We got to know her.

As the day wore on, I had wished that when I previously visited her that we had gone through a drawer at a time, while she was alive. I would have loved to hear her authentic commentary, instead of me making up stories based on what other people wrote about her or pictures that I “read into” for context.

That is my plea. If you want to preserve a legacy to pass on to your kids OR you want them to know the family history, start while the person is alive and you can ask them about it. For the most part, we don’t know when death will come, and for some, death is a topic to avoid and awkward to discuss.

At some point, and hopefully after a very long fruitful life, death is inevitable. Before talking is not an option, have a conversation now. Get personal, go through a junk drawer or storage closet or even photos of past relatives and write down who they are so that you know, and if it is important to you, so that the kids know.

After two days of hard core organizing and consolidating, I now have memorialized her nearly 80 years of life into two storage boxes -- each picture has a label, each document has a folder, and memory, jewelry pieces have their own box. While I simplified, I did it as a way to honor her life and share it with the kids.

It impacts the way I think about my “treasures.” I am in the process of consolidating my own. While I plan to live at least fifty more years, I don’t want the kids to feel obligated to keep our stuff. I have, for example, saved my wedding dress in a Rubber Maid container, but I have no expectation that the girls will want it. As a matter of fact, my sister and I came up with a code. Each box contains a code – U.D.T. or rather Upon Death Toss; this means, if you want it great, but there is no expectation on my part, and don’t do it out of guilt – again, “you do you.”

Please, take a minute to talk with your loved ones today and get to know them. At some point it won’t be an option.

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