Mama’s Shawl, Papa’s Wallet… Is It Alright to Give Away Your Dead Parents’ Belongings?


Mama’s Shawl, Papa’s Wallet… Is It Alright to Give Away Your Dead Parents’ Belongings?

Illustration: Nayonika Ghosh

There are two deceptively heavy suitcases stored away in my home, full of old, yellowed, handwritten letters. There is something so intimate about the time when people wrote to each other. For my siblings and I, these letters have an even greater value — they are one of the few remaining physical objects in our possession that once belonged to our dead mother and father. Some they had written to each other, and others were written to them. When we first found them, we read a few, and then realised that we might have been encroaching upon their privacy, so we let them be as is. One thing we have never done, is consider discarding these intensely personal reminders of the people who brought us into this world.

Nicole Krauss, in her heartbreakingly beautiful book, History of Love, writes, “All the times I have suddenly realised that my parents are dead, even now, it still surprises me, to exist in the world while that which made me has ceased to exist.” The same thought has crossed my mind several times since my father passed on nearly two years ago. My mother had died five years earlier.

It really is an odd feeling when you think about it, but it rarely interrupts your daily schedule. Wake up, check. Drink coffee, check. Walk the dogs, check. Think about dead parents… What? No. And yet it’s a reality that defines my constant state of being, that forces me to acknowledge its presence every time we decide to clear out a little bit more of my parents’ cupboards and trunks.

It’s almost as if we are physically unable to give away anything that once belonged to our parents. My mother’s cupboard remains untouched, baring the rearrangement of a few of her sarees that we continue to wear. Everything else is exactly how she left it seven years ago when she went to the hospital. That cupboard holds within its doors our childhood. It is an ocean that has given immeasurably — important documents, alta for dance performances, laces for an art project, all neatly put in place by my mother. And yet we have given away her sarees, her shawls, her knitting kit, and design magazines to her sisters or relatives who asked for them, because we knew these would be cherished wherever they went. And that memories of her were not just ours to keep.

What is it about physical objects that make us associate people’s memories with them long after they are gone?

What is it about physical objects that make us associate people’s memories with them long after they are gone? Why do we insist that the belongings be treasured, wherever they end up? I don’t just mean statement pieces that require maintenance; it’s also everyday things like a spectacle case that my father used, a harmonica that he played, or diaries with nothing but mindless doodles on the pages. What do we do with them? None of us know how to play the harmonica and yet we can’t seem to part with it.

So much about what we hear or read about death is a cliché, and so much isn’t. Yes, our loved ones live on in us and in our memories, but they also live on in the little and not-so-little things they leave behind. There is another quote from History of Love that comes to mind. “At the end, all that’s left of you are your possessions. Perhaps that’s why I’ve never been able to throw anything away. Perhaps that’s why I hoarded the world: with the hope that when I died, the sum total of my things would suggest a life larger than the one I lived.” Is this why people hoard? One can never know.

My parents were compulsive hoarders, and discarding the things that belonged to them has been a wrestling match between sentimentality and practicality. The first few years after my mother died, sentimentality kept winning all the points. Later, Team Practicality started throwing some serious punches, so in a way, we were better prepared to deal with my father’s stuff, who was the greater hoarder between the two. And yet, years after their death, there still pops up an old, tattered wallet with grocery lists written in their handwriting, and you find yourself back to rooting for Team Sentimentality again.

Cleaning out my parents’ cupboards has taught me a lesson in minimalism better than Marie Kondo ever could. I definitely inherited the hoarder gene from my parents, but ever since I have had to debate keeping or giving away a dry fruit tray that my mother bought, I have become extremely aware of the things that I own, and which, someday will land in another person’s safekeeping, who may or may not know what to do with them. The thought itself is scary, but I have made a decision that my life will not be strung together by my belongings — not by a solitary mother of pearl button that I found lying on the school playground the first time I did not flunk a math test, and definitely not by my favourite pen at my first workplace that doesn’t even work now!

Discarding your parents’ possessions, too, is a step in grieving them.

With experience, we now follow a few basic rules when it comes to our parents’ stuff. If it is in good condition, give it away. If not, recycle it. If it’s something you’d want to pass on to the next generation, put it away and label it. Discarding their possessions, too, is a step in grieving them. You realise that you breathe just fine after giving away your mother’s wristwatch or your father’s favourite sweater.

And when it comes to the things you just can’t throw out, make them a part of your own life. Which is why I’m contemplating taking up the harmonica.