By Miranda Pollack

I sat at the table surrounded by boxes. Full Boxes. Full of old letters, bills, expired coupons, plastic bags, clipped articles, broken pencils, unidentifiable small objects and just "stuff". Separately stacked, there were the old newspapers; not kept because of their significance, such as John Kennedy's assassination. Just the "never getting around to reading them and throwing them out" newspapers. I had been surrounded with and had to climb over my mother's "stuff" all my childhood. Neither I, nor any of my family could ever figure out why she did this: kept everything. We struggled with it for years. When I lived with her I couldn't have my friends over to visit. Well, unless their house was also like this. I couldn't wait until I was old enough to get out. But when I was 18, I didn't have to find an excuse to leave, because she kicked me out. Kicked me out because I "wasn't being pleasant."

So in 1968, I was on my own. In New York, at18 years old it was tough to be on my own and in college. My mother decided that part of getting kicked out was that she would not help me at all. She told me later that she had the idea that, once on my own, I would somehow realize I couldn't make it and I'd come back within 6 months, ready to live at home “the way it was.” Even the money from my father's child support checks (which continued until I was 21) was withheld from me. And she didn't give it to me until ten years later only after I explained to her over and over again how I came to the conclusion that she owed me $2500.

In 1978, I moved cross-country so her house no longer was an active issue, and after a time, we grew somewhat closer via telephone. I enjoyed listening to her tell me about her life and her activities and was pleased she was getting out of the house. She helped me out when I needed it, by listening to my troubles. But if the issue came up, she was still determined that I was wrong about my intolerance of her "stuff.”

And now, here I am, in 2002, once again surrounded by her "stuff.” But this time she is 82 and has had a massive stroke and has been admitted to a nursing home, in a semi-coma. Now it is up to me to get rid of all the stuff. To go through it piece by piece, just in case she hid anything of significance between the old Ann Landers articles and the long outdated coupons.

I began. And found family history. There was a letter written in 1955 from my mother's sister, describing a day in the life in her household. According to this first letter I found, Grandma (who lived with my aunt and died in 1959) had made lunch that day for her brother, Great-Uncle Julius. (died in 1956). My cousin Larry (who had polio as a child) was doing well on the clarinet (he died in 1961 at 16 years old, killed by a drunk driver). My cousin Cheryl would be in a play in 4 weeks. Also, there had been some boy named Bernard who wanted to ask Cheryl to a school dance but was too shy.

My God! Life was in these boxes. On little scraps of paper were our lives! And my mother had kept them. I became more and more excited going through things. There was a letter from my cousin Paula, written in 1952, when she was 10. There were letters from my grandfather (who died in 1959) who deserted my grandmother, mother and aunt when my mother was two years old. There were bitter, irrational letters from my father to my mother during the years of them working out their divorce. With those were the actual negotiation papers between the lawyers. There was testimony to my mother's capacity for friendship in boxes and boxes of letters from friends that she kept in touch with for 57 years and many letters from one friend she'd had since she was 13.

Of course there were also the boxes of newspaper clippings. But many of the newspaper articles my mother cut out, reflected her ideals as a human being. She didn't necessarily live by them; apparently as reflected by her habits, she was unable to. But it allowed me to get to know her all the same. My feelings on my mother's "stuff" softened. My aunt, now 85, and my cousin Paula, came to the apartment while I was clearing things out. Without telling them what it was, I handed them the two letters from the 1950's that they had written to my mother. I quietly watched from across the room as they read them. When they were done, they didn't say anything. Just tucked them into their pockets as archeological treasures.

And I went about the business of choosing what to keep and what to throw out. But in the midst of my mother's chaos, I knew that she had done something important. She had preserved history.

Miranda Pollack has worked in many aspects of the helping professions. including Recreation Therapist in Nursing Homes, Hospitals, and Assisted Care facilities. She is now a Special Education teacher's assistant in Los Angeles, California. Miranda lost her mother in August 2002.

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