Objects of Grief

It was a text to challenge all my convictions. “Just confirming that Isla wants cedar chest. Emptying apartment today.” Eleven days after my grandfather’s death. Two after my birthday. Djiedo’d been 103 and frailing for too long already. He’d died one week after he was released from the hospital to much fanfare. The fanfare was, as you will have guessed, premature. In the eleven days since, our family had been trading emails, texts, and Dropbox links filled with pictures of things we might want. I’d put my name on the five-foot solid cedar chest because I thought my dad could use a laugh. He still hadn’t forgiven me for asking him to truck a ten-foot painting to Seattle from Texas over a decade ago when my grandparents had moved from their home by the lake to assisted living. Though he laughs about it now, the way he still eyes that painting for lines along which it could be trimmed tells me the resentment is fresh. I loved that painting, though, and any time I’d dreamed since of moving to another home, I always checked to see if there was a well-placed wall at least ten feet long before I decided whether or not I was in love.

But I didn’t need the cedar chest. I didn’t even want the chest. Cedar’s valuable, yes, and useful for keeping all the Pendletons we’ve hoarded moth-free, but I’d really only been looking for the largest, heaviest, most awkward item I could find among those digital photos to tease my father after what I knew had been a difficult vigil. I knew it had been difficult because I still carried the image of Djiedo “grimacing and gripping my arm with his coal miner’s hands” almost two weeks after my father shared it over the telephone. Nevermind that Djiedo hadn’t been a coal miner for some 85 years, I knew the image carried the angst just as these objects were starting to carry mine.

Djiedo’s wedding ring, too, I had put my name on. Not because I wanted it or needed it either, but because I couldn’t let it go to wherever the unloved, un-asked for objects would go. I had a wedding ring (and also my grandmother’s wedding ring and her mother’s engagement ring). My husband had a ring. My three-year-old did not yet need a ring and may never fit the one in the picture or even want it. But I needed to know where it would end up, so I offered to keep it safe with my grandmothers’. Because rings are small, cedar chests are not.

When my cousin, who might someday have use for the wedding band, asked also to be considered, I felt in my awkwardness my own grasping. Over and over I scrolled through images of stepstools and office chairs and end tables and family photos and paintings looking for the pieces of my grandmother and grandfather I could reasonably hold on to before their apartment was empty forever of the people I loved. Djiedo had been so proud of that apartment, once the largest and most expensive in the complex, that he’d occupied it still in the seven years since my grandmother’s death. An apartment my family was cleaning out that day — the last Saturday of the month, because soon other grandparents with other objects gathered over other lifetimes would move in.

But I did not have room for the cedar chest. My 1400 square foot house was full to the brim from 22 years of aspirational possession plus the last load from my grandparents’ and all the things that appeared when we had a child. We’d been trying for years now to clean up and clear out, to disassociate object from obligation, form from feeling. While not quite Marie Kondo-worthy, my most treasured gifts were now usable or intangible. Gone were the days of one more pair of earrings; traded in for cozy slippers I could wear every day, a really nice chocolate bar, and books (always books).

And I did not have use for that cedar chest. But I wasn’t yet ready to part with my Djiedo, so I pictured the chest in my tiny guest room. I’d only have to get rid of one dresser and find somewhere else to set the display cabinet whose contents I’d recently winnowed down. Or I could put it in my bedroom if I removed the bookshelves and jewelry cabinet. Or the living room in the spot that had until recently held my son’s toy trunk — the spot next to my grandparent’s stone table and beneath the ten-foot painting — the spot I was just beginning to enjoy seeing empty. Or storage. At least then it wouldn’t be gone forever, sold at some thrift shop to someone who never knew Djiedo. Or my dad could take it and store it among his piles of things I dreaded someday dealing with. I admit, if someone had offered to put that chest on a truck for me what came next would have been much harder.

With all the resolve I could muster, I quickly typed back: “Isla does not, thank you” and let it go.