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first person

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Illustration by Drew Shannon

I’ve had a tough time since my mother died last summer. As an only daughter and the youngest child, we shared a strong bond. She and I travelled together many times, sat together side by side for years in the women’s gallery at our family’s Orthodox synagogue and did those mother-daughter things that make one laugh – including often wearing matching outfits.

Even when both my parents were still alive, I realized that it wasn’t any money or jewellery they might leave behind that interested me. It was everything else.

With my siblings, I am dealing with banks and lawyers, ironing out the legalities of the estate to gain our “inheritance.” But more so, I find myself dealing with the emotional fallout that comes with going through the family possessions and my mother’s personal possessions. Even though I grew up in that home, and lived there until early adulthood, I feel that I am invading my parents’ privacy as I open drawers, go through closets, check pockets in clothing, and remove the lids from boxes sitting on high shelves in cupboards to peer into their contents. In examining all that remains, I am reviewing my parents’ lives.

My parents bought their home nearly 65 years ago; can you imagine the treasures that have accumulated in all that time? My mother clearly was a collector of “stuff.” Even in their small home, there was a place for everything and everything was in its place. As I go through the house, I can’t help but think that the expression “Don’t sweat the small stuff” does not hold true for me.

It is the small stuff that I am looking through; it is the small stuff that is making me smile and cry at the same time, as I’m torn between keeping and tossing. If items were good enough for my parents or my mother to keep for so many years, what makes me the boss of tossing them away?

Letters and cards to my parents, all of my mom’s address books, first clippings of my and my siblings’ hair, souvenirs from foreign countries, long-ago-published paperback books with my mom’s signature inside the front cover and the date/location of when she bought and read each book, travel brochures and maps for trips taken by the family through the years, archival material from pre-state and newly created Israel, wedding invitations...

The accumulation list is endless – and most impressive.

Whenever I walk into my childhood home these days, I hope that I am able to show as much love and honour to my mother and father and their possessions as I possibly can. I sort through and try to determine where I might put items in my own home, or how I can rehouse them – whether by donating them, offering them to friends or selling them.

I look through my maternal grandfather’s religious books, written in Hebrew and Polish. Some are over 120 years old; their pages barely hold together in their binding, but the words carry through the centuries. I read documents belonging to my late maternal grandmother: certificates recognizing and honouring her volunteer work in helping to promote Zionism in the early 20th century in her Polish city when she was still a single woman – items from such a different time, presented in such a different style. I look at the small, etched silver kiddush cups that crossed oceans more than once to find their way onto my parents’ table. I look at the two framed, large oil paintings, portraits of serious-looking rabbis, that have hung in the living room for so many years and before that in my mother’s childhood home and before that in her grandparents’ home. These silent wise men have held court in homes in Poland, Switzerland and Canada. I look at my mother’s boat ticket that carried her to her future; I look at the recipes my mother kept and the articles she circled in publications; I look through holiday cards from friends and family; I look at the collections of fine china; I look at the many framed embroidery scenes my mother created or the rugs she hooked. I look through lined school notebooks my father wrote in, as he practised his handwriting as a means of recovery following a stroke. I thumb through piles of passport photos taken through the years and my parents’ passports from different countries. I look at the collection of African and Mexican wooden statues and masks, and Israeli tapestries and religious knick-knacks, trying to recall when and where they were bought or given to us. I examine art books collected through the years, and all the musical recordings my parents cherished and listened to over and over, ranging from Broadway musicals to classical, from cantorial to old standards. I thumb through the family photo albums, trying to figure out timelines and locations and familial connections, and seeing loved ones who have been gone for so many years. Too many years. Gone, but never forgotten...

My inheritance does not have to be materialistic, made up of jewels, cash or real estate. Rather, it is the keepsakes and memorabilia that are my inheritance. They help to define my mother and father, who in turn help define our family, and they continue to fill my heart and my mind with love and wonder and admiration.

I look to my family’s past and my present to carry me into the future.

Pearl Adler Saban lives in Thornhill, Ont.