Emptying, Packing & Thanks Giving
What Midlife is All About
Emptying parental homes after death is a (gargantuan) task that comes to most of us at some point in life. That’s what I did last weekend, an interesting lead up to Thanksgiving.
Going through the only home I’ve known my mother in, for the past 60 years. The gift of stability has been huge. A gift I did not pass on to my children. All my life, no matter how far I roamed, I regularly returned ‘home.’ To the same house, in the same city, in the same country. My children have seen me wander through different homes and countries - and are adopting my wandering ways. But they let it be known they’d now prefer me staying put (Central London has street cred with the youngsters). I don’t blame them. Stability in this crazy world and time is not to be under-valued. I often have.
Leaving this house for the last time last Monday is a strange triple loss - not only of mother - but of childhood, city and country too. It was lovely to leave at 19 for Paris, as I did all those decades ago (and all the decades since), with my mother waving goodbye from the doorway, knowing that everything I knew would stay just as it was - and where it was. It’s an entirely different exercise shutting that door at 61, and knowing that this time there will be no goodbye wave - and no returning.
And the losses just keep mounting. Homes held for decades in families are treasure troves of memories and stuff. I like stuff. It is filled with love and associations. The little bird candlestick holder my mother bought on a trip to Sintra in my 20s. The stained glass windows my mother made. The coffee cup she loved, the bread board I am inexplicably attached to. The ancient photo albums filled with portraits of ancestors we no longer have any way of identifying. The books! Wonderful books in German, English and French covering topics from education and mathematics to art, philosophy, science and history. Every room in the house over-spilling with a love of life, ideas and aesthetics.
But we live an ocean away. So most of it will have to go. We found an old trunk in the basement, filled with linens and laces brought over from Europe when my parents emigrated in the 1950s. It had been untouched since, down in the dark, unvisited basement, a trousseau as out of place in Canada as my parents’ often were. We decided we would limit our looting of this treasure trove to this single trunk, which we filled to the brim with tactile triggers back to mother and memories gone. The trunk will make its return journey to Europe 65 years on. And we will spread the trinkets across our London home, lighting and linking it into the electric constellations of generations.
As my friend Yas reminded me, I am the product of this house, these books, this love. This country too.
Back at school, the run up to Thanksgiving, where most of us are scattering like lost sheep to family herds, is also the run up to the end. It feels like a bit of a race to spend quality time with as many people as you can still squeeze in. You can squeeze in quite a lot! There are dinners and parties and drinking every night, with a level of slightly desperate energy my friend Devorah ascribes to anticipatory grief. We’ve rather fallen in love with each other. With being footloose and fancy free, as we were the first time we were in university - but this time more married, battle-scarred and confident in our commitments. The idea of losing this freedom, these friends and this treasured time off from our normal lives edges a seam of sadness around our last outings. We are starting photo albums and address collecting and various forms of holding on to each other. We are old enough to have learned to appreciate what we have, and the quickening of the time that’s left.
The World Cup starting today takes on a whole new meaning when each game represents the dreams of one of our cohort. Today starts with Qatar vs. Ecuador, so friend Luis (my fellow ageing conquistador and a 50-year Ecuadorian diplomat) is up in arms. Tomorrow, I’ll be cheering for Senegal along with my Senegalese granddaughter. Every day will bring new nationalist fervour into a group which loves nothing better than a game. And the World Cup offers all the non-Americans (40% of the cohort) an outlet after a year dutifully learning the rules of baseball or American football. Especially after Harvard lost to Yale yesterday!
Such games are good lessons in winning and losing. I’ve never been into any of it (to my totally addicted son’s disappointment). That may be why I’m equally uncomfortable with the idea of either winning or losing. Good Canadian that I am, it would be lovely if we could all just win together.
In this season of giving thanks then, I’ll chalk one up for loss. The gift I choose to treasure is just how much I have to lose. How grateful I am for the multiple riches of a stable home, an astonishing matriarch, a Canadian nest, and a year at Harvard. As they all disappear into the rear-view mirror of life, I will hold on to this quote from Mark Nepo:
“Age is not the distance from the beginning of our lives but the distance at any moment from the heart of our aliveness.”
As we begin to pack our bags, and turn our faces towards a new kind of slightly emptied future, as yet still uncertain and in formation, I’m filled to the brim, like my trunk, with a collection of impressions, lessons and scattered memories. They will travel back with me to London, hopefully unbroken. So my losses strangely become, at this age and stage, my gain. May you find the same. Happy (American) Thanksgiving!
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Interested in a midlife transition year back at school? I wrote a FORBES piece about the latest two American universities offering programmes here, after an overview of the 12 currently on offer. And will soon be adding a description of the European universities stepping into this arena.
And to wrap up a newsletter on loss, you may be interested in the 2-part series I wrote with husband Tim on the state of assisted dying around the world - and in Canada.