What We Keep and What We Leave Behind

A year and a half after my father died, we sold his house. My parents had divorced when I was 15, and I spent my high school years packing a suitcase every two weeks at my mother’s house and unpacking it at my father’s, just a few miles down the road. Mine was the bedroom at the top of the stairs, across the hall from where he slept. As a single man, he’d bought a waterbed on a whim, saying it was something he’d always wanted, which stuck me as odd for an otherwise rational professor of fluid mechanics.

The first story of the house was topped by a tarred roof that pancaked under my window, making it easy for me to climb out and smoke a rogue cigarette, or for my sister and I to slather ourselves in baby oil and Sun-In, lay out on beach towels, and blink at the jeweled San Francisco Bay.

We let the pneumonia progress after it was clear he would never get his mind back, and he died in the early morning in my sister’s room downstairs, where his new wife had arranged to have a hospital bed installed. My sister thought we should take a picture before the morticians wheeled him away, so she kneeled down by the head of the bed, gently edged his chin toward the camera, and looked up at me desperately. When I thumb through my phone’s photo stream, looking for a shot of my kids to show off, his face occasionally fastens to the screen, a luminous white, and that bit from Yeats’s “Among Schoolchildren” comes to me: hollow of cheek as though it drank the wind, And took a mess of shadows for its meat.

Before the real estate stagers showed up with their vases and overstuffed chairs and twin beds to make it look like a young family lived here, my sister and I sat on the floor on a Sunday afternoon to choose what to keep and what to leave behind. The house was echoey, with dark outlines on the walls where artwork had been. We’d already sold the furniture and an extensive library, including, painfully, the complete Encyclopedia Britannica, which I couldn’t justify bringing home. Bargain hunters and gleaners had already bought up a pantry full of canned sardines and refried beans and vitamins and light bulbs. Not being able to face that, we’d hired someone to organize an estate sale. A few weeks later, I’d received an envelope in the mail that held an itemized receipt book of the clutter he’d left behind. Now, all that remained were a few unsorted bookshelves and file folders of papers and photos.

Some things felt wrong to throw away, like our uncle Mort’s bound PhD thesis. He’d been taken down by cancer several decades before and had never married or had any children. My father had saved it out of a sense of guilt for not saving him, but there was no one to pass it on to, so we left it behind.

Frontispiece of Yearbook from Junior High School #252not being able to save his younger brother, but there was no one to pass it on to now.

I did keep the small leather case with the Arthur S. Somers gold foil stamp. It was his junior high school yearbook. Each inscription offered a rhyming couplet or some outdated platitude. Different authors repeated a few of these chestnuts, making me think the graduates had some kind of cheat sheet to copy from. There were flirtatious entries, classic Catskills humor, and some priceless schoolbook puns like, “2 swell + 2 be = 4got10.”

“Dated Forever”

We kept all the photos and slides of his travels, though many were of unidentifiable snow-capped mountains and unnamed colleagues and girlfriends. Those vistas — and people — had meant something to him. He had gone places, known people.

I also took his prodigious matchbook collection and the metal trash can with university flags emblazoned on it. I took his striped silk tallis from Jerusalem, yellowing at the edges, but folded neatly inside its royal blue velvet pouch.

Like most people, we have too much stuff. We’re constantly trying to pare down and losing the battle. Unused items seem to regenerate as we sleep. All of the things I saved from my father’s house are now clustered in a corner of our garage. Will I one day digitize the stacks of old photos, sort them on Flickr, and share with relatives I never talk to? Will I remember to unearth the tallis and drape it over my shoulders during the high holidays? Will I protect the yearbooks and matchbooks from the sun that streams in through our garage window so they don’t fade? Will my children one day be faced with the grim task of sorting through all of this again?

I think a lot about what we choose to keep and what we leave behind. We are living in a moment obsessed with tidying up — of holding one’s possessions up to one’s heart and chucking them if they fail to bring an effulgence of joy. But what about the stuff you keep because it filled someone else with joy? Heidi Julavits wrote so beautifully about her love of clutter, I tore it out and made my husband read it to curb his very healthy appetite for purging all our excess stuff. Yes, clutter can be distracting. It impedes movement and breeds entropy and no one would deny that there’s a glut of cheap Chinese stuff I’ve bought at Target because it brought an instant feeling of relief, filling some empty corner in my heart.

But is the stuff we keep the real evil in our midst or, as Pamela Druckerman smartly writes, is it “the ceaseless ticker of other people’s lives on Facebook; the heightened demands of parenting; and the suspicion that we’ll be checking our phones every 15 minutes, forever. I can sit in an empty room, and still get nothing done.”

My father used to read three newspapers a day. He was an engineer by training, but omnivorous in his interests. He hardly needed that block of encyclopedias on his shelf — I could ask him anything. But where did all of that intellectual clutter go when he lost his mind and could hardly put a sentence together? When someone dies, does their knowledge flow out? The neurons exhaling a garble of information, like the slender or blunt laminar wakes he wrote about? Does it get reabsorbed by the universe’s vibrating harp of strings, or just go cold underground?

Graduating from high school at 16, my father headed north to Cornell, but was so homesick after the first semester he came back home to Brooklyn.

On Father’s Day, I mourn not just the loss of him, but of his knowledge, too. And though that doesn’t stop me from reading or working or accumulating, I do wonder if any of it matters when we can’t keep it in the end. But when I’m away from home — all of its tasks and clutter — and have a few hours to write, I always return to him.

And maybe that’s the point: It’s not what you leave behind, but who comes back to find you.