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Chelsea O'Byrne/The Globe and Mail

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When Mara, an elderly distant relative died, she left behind a three-bedroom split-level home. Mara’s only son lived in the United States, so I offered to co-ordinate the dumping, donating and disinfecting, so the house could be sold.

It had been empty for a year, and it was eerie to walk in. Drapes closed, laundry folded, clean dishes still waiting to be unloaded from the dishwasher. I recalled my first visit to the house in 1973. Back then it was modern and spacious in a new Oshawa, Ont., subdivision. I was 12 years old and hated living downtown. I complained to my parents. “They have a huge backyard!” Their response was, “We have a parking lot.” We never did move.

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How do I cope when my daughter is having major surgery?

Mara’s house was unchanged since that visit, complete with wall-to-wall gold shag carpet. It was also filled to the brim. I wouldn’t classify Mara as a hoarder, because that suggests a kind of chaos. No this was different. Mara was a saver. A keeper. It was a massive job that required experts. Thankfully, there’s a niche business for every job. These businesses often have upbeat names like Smooth Transitions, but their tag lines could be, “Getting rid of stuff no one wants.” Mara’s successful son had no need for a 1970s crockpot. He took the family pictures, left the frames and that was the end of it. All the items that she collected over eight decades were stuffed into every drawer, cupboard and closet. Anniversary cups, saucers and plates celebrating 25-, 50- and even 60-year anniversaries. And not just hers, but her parents’ as well.

I hired the competent Ann, three helpers and two sizable trucks. We met in the driveway on a roiling hot July day. The house was oppressive, but Ann’s positive energy and sense of purpose made it easy. “We can do this in one day,” she announced. I agreed, but secretly I was thinking... “She has not seen the crawl space.”

First, 35 bags of garbage went out. Three truckloads went to the dump. After five hours we were ready to tackle the crawl space that runs at least half the size of the house. You manoeuvre around on a squat, homemade chair on casters. My helper would wheel away into the darkness and suddenly a snow tire wobbled out. Or a grimy, broken Samsonite twirled out doing a 360.

I admit to being excited by what the mysterious crawl space held. I had visions of a treasure trove leading me to the Antiques Roadshow. Or perhaps an eccentric neighbour gave them a Riopelle for cutting their grass? I got goosebumps for a minute when I saw a vintage bouncy horse heading toward me. Remember them? A pony in stride, stretched tight on metal springs? You would rock back and forth like crazy pretending to be a cowboy. The backside was cracked and instead of a tail, aluminum foil was stuffed in the hole. That made me laugh.

A larger truck was reserved for donations. And it began to fill. Beds, tables, sofas, new kettles and pans, toasters and George Foreman grills, coffee makers and every kitchen gadget ever made. Still in boxes. Dusty and faded with packaging from yesteryear. Brand new linens, sheets, clothes and kitchenwares. Dishware gold-edged and heavy – relics from the past. Furniture brown and heavy, carved from walnut. Certainly not for today’s tiny condos outfitted with a light and airy touch.

While supervising the job, I realized how important it was to be there, bearing witness to a saver’s life being dispersed with such efficiency. Just having strangers do the work seemed cold. My being there was respectful.

I knew Mara my entire life. She gave me crisp $5 bills on my birthdays and always had unhealthy treats on hand. I remember endless Mountain Dews and Jos Louis cakes. To my brothers and me, that was reason enough to visit and linger in the kitchen.

Mara immigrated to Canada in 1958 from a tiny village in Macedonia. In the basement, I found her sturdy wooden trunk, with the Cunard Steam Ship company label still pasted on. Filled with beautiful handmade wool blankets from the old country, lying quietly in a nest of mothballs. They found their way to my SUV.

Her lifetime collection deserved once last look. Every box I opened did have meaning. I knew her family, her kids, her jobs, her sadness. She was one tough cookie who did not compromise or listen or apologize. She wore all black for decades. She was in perpetual mourning for her parents, son and husband. She never once wore pants, which I found fascinating and weird. It certainly put her in a rare space. Old Country ways never left Mara and her stubbornness never weakened.

She was an unsurpassed gardener. Hot peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, flowers – you name it, she grew it. Her hands were callused, tough and strong. Worker hands. Gloves were for sissies. Hunched over (always in a black skirt), she tended to the weed picking, watering and nurturing. She embodied the Chinese proverb: The best fertilizer is the gardener’s shadow. She was happiest in her garden where vegetables did not disappoint. They obeyed Mara and she was in control.

As the universe would have it, Ann’s right hand man was a Syrian immigrant. Our plan was to donate every possible item to these new Canadians. That truckload made its way to several grateful families.

It was a perfect ending to a life of saving. An immigrant collects for decades for no apparent reason. She ends up giving it all to new immigrants embarking on their own journey. I think Mara liked the end of her story.

Patti Ristich lives in Toronto.

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