Today's guest post is by Cherie Pedersen. Cherie is a freelance writer and teacher of Young Adult Literature at Wilson College. She was honored to have had one of her essays included in the recently published Mormon Feminism: Essential Writings. She lives with her husband, Robert Cook, in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania.
I opened the closet door and looked again at the clothes that defined the man I had loved and been married to for almost 45 years. Dress shirts and ties for his dental office; jeans and flannel shirts for work at our farm; suits and sports jackets for church and special occasions. Touching them one by one, I saw him as he had been before the cancer reduced his wardrobe to whatever could easily be slipped on and off his ravaged body as he lay waiting for what treatments could not halt. Here was the shirt that brought out the blue in eyes that often twinkled with mischief. Here was the shirt he’d worn on vacation to his beloved Canada. Here the orange one chosen for our last family picture on his birthday. And here was the flannel one I’d buried my face in at night to inhale his scent and catch my tears. They were all there but one— the one I had buried him in a little over a year ago.
Now I had to decide what to do with them. Because I knew I could not keep them any longer. I would soon be moving. Others could use them. Besides, they were just things, right? I didn’t need his clothing to keep alive my memories. And so I took them out and began the process of sorting. These dress pants to consignment. These jeans to Goodwill. These hunting clothes to the friend who had been so attentive and kind during those last months. The Harley Davidson jacket that he’d bought when our children were grown and he indulged his dream of a motorcycle was too worn to be of use to anyone. But putting it in the trash seemed like a sacrilege. Almost like throwing away a part of him that even I hadn’t fully known.
“You’re not getting rid of Dad’s things, are you?”
The accusing voice of our son interrupted me. A grown man himself with tastes so different from his father’s that he had passed on all but a few items months before, he stood in the basement looking at my piles in disbelief.
“They’re just taking up space. Somebody could use them,” I told him, reiterating the words I had told myself.
“Maybe you’re ready to move on but I’m not,” he said, an allusion to my recent re-marriage. The words stung, though I had long since given up trying to explain to my children how I could find new love and still grieve for their father.
“I have letters and cards and pictures to remember him by,” I said, surprising us both as fresh tears betrayed feelings not fully resolved. “Besides, I don’t want to be like Grandma,” I added, thinking of my 89-year-old mother who had saved everything and was now coping with the overwhelming job of dismantling a house cluttered with the flotsam and jetsam of stuff that had long since outlived its usefulness.
“There’s no comparison between the things Grandma saved and Dad’s clothes,” my son insisted. “I’ll store them.”
We left the matter unresolved and I went upstairs to make dinner. When my new husband came home I told him about the conversation and the feelings it had brought up for me. He, too, had lost a spouse. He, too, had been faced with the task of deciding what to do with her things.
“There comes a time when holding on to things no longer brings comfort,” he observed. “There comes a time when they simply become painful reminders of what we have lost.”
And now I knew the real reason I was able to give away my sweetheart’s things, the reason I hadn’t wanted to acknowledge. The memories they evoked were more bitter than sweet. Hanging in a closet he would no longer use, they spoke of times that would never be again. Each item was a pinprick to a heart that would always mourn his absence.
Psychologists are fond of terms like “moving on” and “letting go.” So, too, are the writers of articles on decluttering our lives by decluttering the spaces in which we live. There is, they insist, a freedom that comes when we rid ourselves of all that weighs us down.
They may be right. Or not. For my mother, the result of letting go has been emptiness, a tearing away of the fabric that had held her life together. Their loss evokes its own kind of mourning. But surveying the piles of clothing that surround me, I know it is not the things my husband wore that connect me to him. It is not even the cards and letters and pictures, treasured though they may be. No, other than our children and grandchildren, what connects us is not tangible. And like all things intangible, they elude words or even images to give them substance. They just are. They exist in the heart, as real as the clothing I gently touch one last time.
All I know is this: he lived in them once, but doesn’t any more. And if he no longer needs them, then I don’t either. True comfort comes not from things but from the knowledge that we loved and were loved. That love continues still.