Selling My Mother's Stuff

My mother’s antiques were what defined her, and she left me a warehouse full of them. How could I part with them (sell them!) without betraying her memory?

By Ronna Lichtenberg

Where This All BeganAlmost three years to the day after Mom died, I met with Rick, the estate-sales guy, who would be taking most of the things she had left me and selling them at auction. We were standing in a warehouse in Saint Joseph, Missouri, slightly apart from the confused workers who were trying to figure out where the four other gigantic packing crates were, when Rick looked at me and said, "What most people don’t get is that it’s just stuff." Well, yes and no.For daughters, there is stuff and there is Mom’s stuff. My Mom’s stuff was a big part of what defined her, our relationship, and me. Coming to the decision to sell it took me longer than almost any other decision I’ve had to make, and I’m still not entirely sure I did the right thing.My Mother and Her AntiquesMom was known for her antiques. She started collecting them in the 1950s; she said it was because she couldn’t afford new things, but I think it was more than that. She was drawn to late Victorian heavy oak pieces that represented all the things her life was not: simple, sturdy, orderly.She had a great eye, and the things she collected pleased her. But antiquing also gave her a way to rebel without seeming to do so. Other good wives and mothers were friends with one another, not with the few openly gay couples in town, as Mom was. They didn’t poke around the seedy places Mom went in search of treasure — but all she was doing was looking for blue dishes, and who could criticize something as housewifely as that?Mom’s pursuit of antiques was what made her her. Everything else she did — work at the family-owned bar and grill downtown, clean, cook, work some more — was for someone else. Antiquing was the one thing that took her away from us and brought her to herself. But to do something so selfish as to shop for things that pleased her and no one else, Mom had to believe, as she fervently did, that she wasn’t doing it just for herself. She had to believe she was doing it for me, my brother, and the grandchildren to come."I know you will love this junk as much as I do," she said, probably not as many times as I think she said it. She kept an index card for every item, literally thousands of them. No matter how humble the piece, she knew what she’d paid for it and what she thought it was worth. Ostensibly the cards were for insurance purposes, but they were also her victory record — a way to brag without being caught doing it and to say "I told you so!" to everyone who thought it ridiculous to bring home another grunge-covered curio.Learning to Love AntiquesWanting to be a good daughter, and to defend her, I tried to love Mom’s antiques as much as I now love that she went antiquing. Over the years, I "shopped" at Mom’s; I ended up with a looming black wardrobe with carved doors that actually scared me a little. I got four oak chairs with wooden roses on the backs that somehow collected more dust after one year in my care than in the century preceding it. I accumulated too many little brass bowls that first filled up with odd coins, then junk, then — mysteriously — lint. I stuffed rooms with cabinets of various sizes that shed knobs, keys, and drawer slats at an alarming rate.With every object, I got both the little card, so I could insure it (which I never did), and a little more guilt: I worried that Mom felt I didn’t love the stuff enough. Even if I had liked the style, big antiques didn’t work in my small apartment, and my overcrowded life didn’t have room for things like remembering to oil the armoire.I spent a couple of decades grousing about the weight of Mom’s things. I gave some away, which hurt her; sometimes I forgot whom I’d given them to, which hurt her even more. As Mom’s health worsened, her antiques became even more important to her. She had a slowly progressing pulmonary disease that brought on fierce lung infections and required her to spend a lot of time resting. My brother couldn’t bear to talk with her about what she wanted done with her things after she died, so she and I talked about it. It got to be so normal that I lost any sense of it being unusual.The Division of Her AntiquesWhen she knew she didn’t have a lot of time left, she went through the house with me and my sister-in-law, Kari, to help us divide things fairly.

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