Items From My Parents


Items From My Parents
by Lydia G. Fash



7 Deadly Sins Wall sculptures Design Toscano, antique snowshoes, antique washing white ceramic basin & pitcher, wall hanging dream catcher made by Jill, carved cuckoo clock from Switzerland–not working, hardwood benches–2, pottery (made by Lydia?), antique leather football helmet. The spreadsheet of 702 things to give away is getting longer and longer as my parents work through the parts of their house where they have squirreled away items for thirty-three years. Each room becomes a heading for a jumble of the past. Each object awaits a new destination—the retirement apartment, a family member, a thrift store, or the planned auction. Each cell represents something to be claimed—and all of the emotions that go with it.

As I read the spreadsheet, I try to conjure each object in my mind. What is the ceramic tchotchke bowl with life print, tiny or pinky orange colored carved serving dish? Are they things that I had passed by again and again on my biweekly visits to their New Hampshire house? Or, worse, an object that I had lived with back in grade school and high school but can’t recall? The spreadsheet, with its copious entries, makes me feel like I am drowning. 

Ceramic vase made by Lydia. If I’m honest, I am a little bit hurt that my high school ceramic projects are listed as needing to go. But I don’t want them myself—neither the responsibility of having them nor the task of putting them in the dumpster.   



My father sends the third version. 934 items. Now we have the upstairs hallway and the unfinished part of the attic: plastic Easter eggs, shell collection, bronze watering can, Puritan statue missing a foot

The dismantling of their home weighs heavily on my parents, and their distress distresses me. They are sleeping poorly and so overwhelmed, they don’t believe they have time to go grocery shopping. Instead they eat rice cakes, tortilla chips, and canned chili. I bring batches of stew and lentils, and I hope that they will live long enough to move to and enjoy their retirement community. Both of them fear that they won’t, and giving away objects makes them face their mortality. For my mother, sorting evokes a feeling of defeat. Worried that she might not be able to complete the task if she waited, she started giving away books last year. Each load to the public library is a sadness to her—books she had read, books she hadn’t read. Her intentions and her past, off to the $1-per-book sale shelf. For my father, sorting is an even more acute experience of grief, and he has, until this last month, studiously avoided the activity. As he looks through photos and items stored in piles and corners, I think that he relives his parents’ deaths, and I know that he worries about family memory. Coat of Arms Plate, he writes on the spreadsheet indicating a ceramic piece with the armorial crest of his—our—Italian family, a clan with cousins in the States and cousins in Emilia-Romagna. He adds a note next to the plate: Keep in Family. He writes the same thing for the labeled door-knocker, a customized slate sign, a taxidermized bear head from a hunt with Pal (my grandfather), my bisnonno’s (great-grandfather’s) meat cleaver, and the silver toothpick holder Pal made in the 1940s. Keep in the Family.      

I don’t plan to take the bear head, which I’ve never liked. I don’t plan to take the toothpick holder, or the slate sign or the door-knocker. I am not going to do my part to keep it in the family, and as much as I try to care for my parents through phone calls and visits and chores, through becoming their health care proxy and their wills’ executor, I worry that refusing their clutter is some kind of unforgivable act. But I have chosen to live in a small city apartment and actively work against acquiring that which I will not use well. 

I take a navy-blue ceramic creamer that is, practically speaking, worthless and didn’t even make its way onto the spreadsheet until after I claimed it. I take it for my own memories, not my parents’ memories. I remember the creamer from pancake mornings. My mother would fill it with maple syrup—the real stuff from New Hampshire or Vermont—and heat it in the microwave. If I close my eyes, I can see the amber liquid flow out of the spout in a montage of pancake mornings over many years: my mom flipping flapjacks or my sister and I making thick crepes from a recipe in Fanny Farmer. On the rare mornings when he was home, my dad would make leaden flapjacks better called rock-cakes. Mostly he was at work—starting, building, and eventually selling a computer company—while my mother, a stay-at-home mom, made the meals, did the laundry, drove me to ballet lessons, and bought the Christmas presents. It was a good thing my mother was the family cook: my dad’s other culinary experiments (grape nuts with tomato sauce and cheese) were as successful as his rock-cakes, which had to be drowned in maple syrup. 

When I ask for the blue creamer, my parents don’t remember where it is since they haven’t listed it on the spreadsheet. Once the creamer has been a mainstay in the kitchen, but in the past decade, it’s disappeared into the back of some shelf. With some effort, I find it in the kitchen credenza (pine, very New England in design, from the 1850s; my brother will take it) and report my discovery: “Look, Mom! I found it in the credenza!” A minute later, she sees it on the kitchen island and, confused, asks me: “Where did you find that?” Each time we have such an exchange, I feel a stab of pain, but as I always try to do, I smile and reply. These days, my mother doesn’t know where to put the dishes she’s taken out of the dishwasher (and which have been in the same spot for decades), and she can no longer follow a recipe. A few visits ago, my parents were talking about my uncle and five different times, my mom turned to me, as if having a new idea, “What you need to understand is that he was very, very handsome in his 20s!” 

She can no longer recall the history of many things they have listed to give away: “I’m not sure where we got that,” she tells me. I wonder, what do the objects mean if you’ve forgotten them?


Inventory-Items-Rev4.xlsx now on Google Drive

My father sends a fourth version of the spreadsheet. More new items had appeared: decorated Easter eggs, oval plastic frame with photo of hot air balloon, and Fusion 1999 duffle.  1,416 items. This time my second eldest brother pushes him to put the file on Google Drive, so we can all know we were seeing the same up-to-date version. My father, whose business had a close relationship with Microsoft, hates Google but reluctantly agrees. 

It is the moment for my siblings and I to start hoseying items, and it is an odd feeling. I’m too much of my father’s daughter to not be seduced by the idea of free good stuff, but I strive for an uncluttered home. I both want to want things—want the items to be those I would choose rather than those my parents chose—and want to not want them, for where are they going to fit? 

My parents, concerned about transparency, insist on listing the all-but worthless navy-blue creamer that I take—even though I’ve already texted my siblings to get their permission. Their actions are informed by their experience with my mother’s father (the man whom we called Popi), When he died years after my maternal grandmother, my mother and her sister had to “buy” their mother’s jewelry from their portions of the inheritance. Popi had refused to distribute the items as his wife, my Grandma, had wished, and then, because he hadn’t gifted them to his daughters before he died, they became part of the estate, subject to legal accounting and the terms of his will. It was a terrible thing for my mother, the way that her brothers demanded because of “fairness” that she pay for her mother’s wedding ring. My mother, face pale with red blotches in the center of her cheeks, haltingly told me some of the happenings much later; the details I learned from my father. It was one more wrong in a list of many committed by a man who distained women.

Determined that no such thing would happen to her daughters, my mother gave me a ring with a large lavender stone a couple years ago. My grandmother had bought and worn it, then gifted it to a much younger version of my mother. I planned to wear the ring like costume jewelry and think of my maternal line, for it is a pretty ring. And I did wear it a few times. But, at the university where I used to teach, my colleagues stared at the ring as if it telegraphed a lack of serious intellect. Now, at the private school where I teach, I feel lumped in with the wealthy parents who can pay $65,000 a year in tuition. The ring encourages a different misreading. 

I no longer wear the ring. In this way, I am unlike my mother and my Grandma who, feeling it underscored their worth, delighted in expensive jewelry. 

When I look at the jewelry that I don’t wear, I wonder how soon it will be that the rings my mother used to love join my collection—especially the one she had made to include the birthstone of each of her grandchildren. Slipping on the bathroom floor, she broke her hand last year and, though she’s regained much mobility, her knuckles remain swollen and her fingers stiff. Now, she wears only the wedding and engagement ring she has worn for forty-nine years. 

My father wears his wedding ring too, not diamonds, but a carved gold band, its pattern softened through wear. As my mother becomes more muddled and more irascible, I watch my father bow to her verbal attacks and compensate for her difficulties. In sickness and in health, he tells me, with tears in his eyes. ’Til death do us part. 

That’s what we’re driving towards, object by object. Driving towards death. 


Inventory-Items-Rev4.xlsx now on Google Drive, ready for sorting

I open the spreadsheet at my parents’ house, where I have gone to retrieve all the objects that my siblings have requested and pile them in separate boxes ready to be taken. It is a massive scavenger hunt. Read the spreadsheet, find the item, put the item in the properly labeled box, note its new location on the spreadsheet. Repeat. Into the cellar for the orange cooler from the 1970s, and the original versions of Clue and of Trivial Pursuit. Upstairs for an under-bed Tupperware container and a large candle. Into the Family Room for a ceramic muppet my sister made and an inlaid wooden cutting board from my parents’ wedding. 

A few objects into the hunt, my mom retreats to the attic: it is too upsetting and confusing to watch me. A few weeks earlier, she had told my sister that she spent her life trying to acquire nice objects to prove that she was worth something. And now, as she gives them away, she thinks maybe she lived life all wrong and hasn’t achieved anything. This is Popi’s legacy, I think, my mom’s self-doubt. I wish I could enter it in the spreadsheet as something to auction away along with the items that neither I nor my siblings want. $1 for a collection of sea shells and a lifetime of paternal bullying. 

While I am retrieving a stuffed bunny that we incorrectly think my mom has made, my eldest brother texts us, his three siblings, asking if someone would just volunteer to take all the good stuff, as my dad would say. My dad would be overjoyed if someone wanted his house and all the objects in it. To both my parents, the action would affirm what they had valued and the way that they had lived. Yet none of the four of us is willing or able to cram their goods into our smaller homes or move to where we grew up, and honestly, we have our own items, our own memories. 

Maybe, I tell myself, maybe it’s better for these objects to be like the chrysanthemum that bursts in the night sky and then shimmers outwards. Maybe these objects, radiant or forgotten in my parents’ house, will move along a glowing path towards other places and other owners. Maybe they will carry the ghost of a memory, of a life, touching family and strangers in this dance of existence. And maybe as their new owners place their memories on top of these objects, my parents’ past will somehow live on. 

Having mixed the pancake batter, I wash the dust out of the creamer. I fill the vessel with hot maple syrup for my sons in a recreation of mornings past and of my parents’ care. A way to capture memory in sticky amber liquid.


Lydia G. Fash earned a PhD in U.S. Literature and then fought a long, good fight at the tertiary level before leaving to teach high school English. Having published a monograph with UVa Press (The Sketch, The Tale, and the Beginnings of American Literature) as well as many literary critical articles, she now writes nonfiction and fiction that people might want to read. Her current project is a humorous novel about a young professor desperately trying to secure a tenure line in the English department. Hijinks ensue!

Image source: Shane/Unsplash

Follow Vol. 1 Brooklyn on TwitterFacebook, and sign up for our mailing list.