“What in the world will we do with all this stuff?”
Soon after our mother passed away, my sister and I were faced with the daunting task that so many of our generation are dealing with these days: sorting through a lifetime’s accumulation of clothes, jewelry, tchotchkes, and mementos. Drawer after drawer revealed scarves, purses, music boxes, aprons, gloves, shawls, and costume jewelry dating back to the ’50s and even earlier. We found shoeboxes in Mom’s closet that contained the high heels that we wobbled around in when we were little girls– unworn for over forty years. We found the purses dyed or purchased to match the size 5 ½ shoes, all still stacked in their original boxes. Some of the ceramic earrings we remembered from the year we lived in New York; our mother bought them from a street vendor in Greenwich Village in 1958. The orange ones went with the orange wool dress and matching heels.
We had to do something with all of this bounty. Some of the things we kept for ourselves, but we started to think about which of our friends might like this or that necklace or handbag. We doled items out one at a time, but then we came up with the perfect idea: we would put on a “bring your own bag” trunk show, and let our friends choose from the dizzying array of accessories and “what-nots” that filled our mother’s house. Once we decided to put on a give-away party, it helped us categorize the items: keep, give-away or toss. We decided to give our mother’s treasured things a second life, with new owners.
The day before the event, we set everything out on my extended dining room table. But that wasn’t really big enough, so we used chairs and other horizontal surfaces until we found a place for everything. It was an impressive array of stuff. We also set out for display many of the hats that our mother made during her millinery phase throughout the 60’s and 70’s. The hats had all been boxed up in a large closet; her creations of feathers, fur, flowers and straw had not seen the light of day for decades. The hats ranged from “Wow!” to “what was she thinking?” but all together it was quite a body of work.
When the big day arrived, our friends walked around the table slowly, taking in each category: the jewelry, the shawls and kimonos, the scarves, hats and knick-knacks. At first, they treated the display as if it were under glass at a museum. But then, someone tried on a necklace or held up a scarf… and the fun began. We were delighted as each of our friends found something special to take, and we encouraged everyone to “try that on!”
Some of our friends brought their daughters, lured by the promise that many of the items were truly vintage. No one went home empty-handed, and more than one person filled a couple of bags.
We tried to tell a story about each piece, so that its new owner could start out knowing some part of its history: Mom bought that in Greece, or Italy, or London; it was a birthday gift or a present she bought for herself, she wore this to the symphony or the theatre.
Many of the women who came to our event have since told us tales about their new/old finery.
A charm bracelet, a beaded evening bag, a pair of earrings, a floaty chiffon wrap–they are enjoying these things as our mother must have.
The handmade wool scarf that was my most recent Hanukkah gift to my mother kept my friend Chris warm in winter. The antique lace-trimmed velveteen pincushion now resides in England with my friend Debbie– a funny reminder of our shared agony in junior high sewing class. New memories are in the making.
The second lives turned out to be good ones for these treasures. We gave them a great send-off for the next part of their journey.
And a sad postscript: After my sister passed away in 2015, I did this again with some of her treasured things. Many of the same friends came to my house to take home a memento. The stories poured out: I gave her this for her birthday; we shopped for this together in Italy; I was with her when she bought those earrings…. The mood was very different, though. People were reluctant to take things that had been hers, but they soon got into the spirit of it, knowing that she would’ve wanted them to celebrate the memories and the good times they shared with her. The occasion provided us with an opportunity to share a moment, some laughs, and a few tears. Her memory lives on in each piece of jewelry, every framed photograph, and all the rest.