My 98-year-old great aunt points to the antique clock.
“Pat gave me that for my birthday,” she says, referring to her late husband. “It has always kept perfect time.”
Of course, she can’t see it any more. Her eyesight dimmed years ago. Nor can she hear it, even with her bionic ear. Yet, the clock has stayed put, until now, along with everything else: The doll that won first place at the Topsfield fair, standing at attention under a plastic shroud. The once-white baby shoes, turning gray. The dusty martini glasses, forgotten in a cabinet, inscribed with the initials of a long-dead groom.
These are the objects that make up a life; the things which make her home her home. Who will she be once she has left them for a room in an assisted-living facility hundreds of miles away?
It’s a human instinct to hang on to what we have, even after we’re gone. There’s a certain immortality that comes from our possessions living on in libraries or museums or in the homes of our children. These days, people even try to cling to their own dead bodies, and their pets, by freezing them in cryogenic tombs. They must be driven by the same feelings that prompted ancient Egyptian kings to be embalmed and buried with piles of gold.
But for most us, the end of life means surrendering what we own. We spend our youth and middle age acquiring things that define us — houses, clothes, paintings, books — only to give them up, one by one, in old age. When the eyesight goes, so does the car. When the hearing goes, the stereo. When memory goes, and the pot is left burning on the stove, we are forced to give up the kitchen. We cling to our things as long as we can. By the time we relinquish them, so many are out of fashion.
Still, the relinquishing must go on. Being elderly is about taking stock of life, and keeping only what’s absolutely necessary.
“You want to take that clock?” I ask.
She shakes her head. The clock radio with the big red numbers is far more important.
My great aunt — the daughter of Italian immigrants, who worked in a dress factory and married a World War II veteran — never bought herself expensive things. Yet today she frets about what will become of her treasures: Her menagerie of porcelain animals. Her flock of angels. Her Christmas village.
As she grew frail — so frail that too hard a hug might have snapped her like a chicken wing — she sent me home with an old brooch fished out of a jewelry box.
But her apartment is still full of items she couldn’t give away fast enough: a candle her grandmother bought so as not to give birth in the dark, to be mailed to her daughter. A gang of dolls for Melissa, the dear soul who took her out to lunch every Wednesday for the last eight years. A folder with my father’s name on it, full of photographs. My dad’s sister, who spent a week here sorting and clearing, has already collected her inheritance: an impressive stack of Tupperware.
Standing in the clutter of her cast-off possessions, I have a new appreciation for the Viking kings, whose weapons and ships were set ablaze on their funeral pyres, to cement their social standing in Valhalla. It strikes me as odd that, in a culture as materialistic as ours, we go meet our maker empty handed.
It is amazing to discover, in the end, that all that is truly essential fits into a single hot pink suitcase.
I wonder if, deep down inside, my aunt feels liberated by the lightness of so few possessions. “You all set?” Melissa asks, tears in her eyes.
But I recognize that my aunt is mourning the loss of her things as deeply as one mourns a death. The giving up of one’s own house, of one’s own place in the world, is a rite of passage; a ritual with no name that each American family performs its own way. Tomorrow, Melissa will drive her to the airport, where a six-seater plane co-piloted by a grand-nephew will fly her into the clouds, toward an unknown place.
On her last day in the apartment she knows by heart, she nods bravely: “I think I’m ready.”Farah Stockman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.