It’s All Just Stuff (Mary’s Teacups)

I thought about Mary’s teacups continually as I cleared out my father’s home following his death.

My late mother-in-law, Mary Chifos, had the most marvelous set of teacups. Each of the six cups displayed a single flower on both saucer and cup exterior, as well as within the teacup itself. But the loveliest thing about each of these teacups was that cup and saucer were each fashioned to resemble the flower displayed. The daffodil cup was formed into the trumpet of the flower, with the saucer its crown; the rose cup and saucer were gently sculpted into the shape of petals.

Mary, who loved to give dinner parties, always served after-dinner coffee in those cups. I usually chose the rose teacup for my beverage, appreciating my coffee even more when served in her beautiful china.

But Mary became ill with the utter devastation that is Alzheimer’s disease, and I, by then divorced from her son, had no say in her care. Her lovely little apartment was abandoned, along with most of her things. I never knew what became of her exquisite tea set—the cups that should have been left, if not to me, then to my daughter, Mary’s only grandchild.

I thought about those teacups continually when, throughout the first months of 2022, I endured the difficult process of clearing out my father’s home after his death. Dad was not precisely a hoarder, but disposing of 58 years worth of accumulated household goods and personal possessions is, nevertheless, a substantial effort. It’s a recipe stirred together of packing to move an entire household, blended with nostalgia, and spiced with pinches of grief, disbelief, and sometimes even wrath. Every possible bit of disorder and disorganization is on high display, infuriating to the nth degree (“Dad! For the love of God and little green apples, why did you save EVERY checkbook register from 1964 onward? Why were none of your personal papers filed, so that we could locate the information we need?!”)

There were many things that had been undoubtedly precious to my Dad, but meant nothing to us, his survivors, as well as numerous items that were just the opposite. Not being Roman Catholic, I cared nothing for the silver-and-crystal rosary I discovered in his bedside table, and gifted it to a devout family friend. But I was delighted to have a set of inexpensive turquoise water glasses that he didn’t even use, but which matched my tableware.

I suppose, in the end, that’s what it all comes down to: not the financial value of a possession, but whether it is valued, and by whom. Mary cherished her teacups, and I, had they been given to me, would have done so, also. But the people who inherited them cared nothing for the set. I suppose they were dispersed to a charity or resale shop.

Mary Ellen Set

I, meanwhile, have spent years searching for and collecting similar cups, never finding the precise teacups that were Mary’s, yet reassembling a comparable set in her memory and honor; treasuring them, as she did hers.

But the experience of losing items I would have prized, coupled with that of sifting through nearly 60 years’ worth of my father’s accumulated detritus, has caused me to look at my own home and possessions with a very different eye, and to remember my grandmother’s remarks after having to clean out the home of her three sisters when the last of them passed away. Determined that no one would ever have to endure what she had done in emptying that house, Grandma began to organize her personal property. She collected music boxes; now she went through the entire collection and wrote on the underside of each the name of the person who had given it to her, so that upon her death each could be returned to the giver. Grandma cleaned out paperwork and told trusted people (and, sadly, in one case, someone who could not be trusted) where her few valuable possessions were hidden.

Now I, taking a leaf from my Grandmother’s book, and remembering the all-too-recent experience of cleaning out my father’s home and property, have begun the arduous process of organizing and clearing my own personal possessions. Tons of paperwork has already been shredded, and books sent to a charity shop. A huge box of photos awaits examination, to be pared down to the most precious few that might mean something to my survivors. Notes have been appended to a few books, explaining why they meant something to me, or whether they might have actual monetary value. Information that my survivors might need has been organized and filed.

This will be, I realize, a long, slow process, and one that requires constant upkeep: to make my home orderly for those who will, once I am gone, have to sift through everything I owned. And, with the exception of (I hope) my written works, and no matter what I annotate or explain, I know that they will decide to keep only what is truly meaningful to them, personally.

For now I truly understand that, in the end, no “thing” has importance unless it is appreciated and cherished. In the final estimation, it’s all just stuff.

If you found something you liked in this post, then please consider scrolling to the Archives at the bottom of this page, and reading “A Memory Walk” from September 11, 2019. And, as always, feel free to re-post this blog, with attribution, elsewhere.

Aging Is Difficult Enough Without…

§ At least some of the tests on which we rely for determination of diminished brain and physical function are completely, utterly and totally bogus! §

I recently read that an efficient self-test for diminishing brain function was to count backwards by seven. Huh, I thought.

Now, the truth is that I was cutting class on the day God handed out the math portion of the brain, so I can barely count forward by seven. It requires a wrinkled brow and strong concentration, as I carefully add seven to the preceding figure. Seven, fourteen, twenty-one, twenty-eight… Then I run into trouble. That’s because I’ve never been able to recall my “Eight Plus” tables. I have to stop and think carefully, “What the hell is eight plus seven? Oh, yeah, seven plus seven is fourteen, so eight plus seven is….” I realize that, even to those people who are otherwise uneducated, my inability to calculate indicates that I am an idiot born of morons. But in the dashboard of my brain, the trouble indicator light for mathematical functions is always lit.

Language and literature, now, that’s another matter. Except for an occasional need to punch out to a grammar site to determine whether to use who or whom—and then argue with their conclusions–I have a fair degree of literary competency. (How many people, after all, know that might is the past tense of may? Oh, yes, it is! Look it up.)

This literary ability does not, however, extend to reciting the alphabet backwards. Years ago, when breathalyzers were uncommon and police relied on ridiculous “field sobriety tests”, an older acquaintance discussed being stopped by a traffic cop. Stone-cold sober, he was asked not only to do the silly touch-nose nonsense, but to walk heel-to-toe in a line—then given a pass on that one when it was apparent that he would have to use his cane. Instead, he was told to recite the alphabet backwards. At this point he awarded the very young officer a stern look, explaining that sixty-plus years after the first grade, he had never learned nor had any occasion to need knowledge of the alphabet in reverse. (The young cop gave up and let him go, telling him to drive safely.)

But what all this nattering is in point of is that so many of the tests on which we rely for determination of diminished brain and physical ability are completely, utterly and totally bogus. Shoving totally aside the “seven backward and forward” question, the brain function test administered at the doctor’s office to those 65 and older is simply demeaning. Condescending. Belittling. (Of course, after now having dealt with an entire citizenry that endured weeks of pandemic quarantine, the medicos might finally realize it’s almost useless to ask a retired person what day of the week it is. When one is no longer bebopping off to an office every day, that question simply has no relevance. None whatever.)

I once ventured onto a site containing those “Alzheimers Test” questions, and was doing quite well with the test until I came to the question regarding the Prime Minister’s name. Uh… I’m in the US. I hadn’t, unfortunately, realized that I was on a UK site. The best I could answer I could frame was, “Well, it’s not still Tony Blair” (that being, at the time, the last Prime Minister to whom I’d paid much attention).

Then there was the time that I attended a Senior Fair, and was asked to place my hands behind my back, one over the shoulder and one under, and link my fingers. Say what?! This was not something I could have done even in my twenty-year-old heyday, and certainly not now that I’ve experienced a broken collarbone in my time. But even without that consideration, what does this test really say about limberness, or lack thereof? Are the buffoons devising this type of idiocy aware that people’s arms vary in length? So do fingers, for that matter. Not only that, but (having attempted this many times since) I find that I come a lot closer to having my fingers meet using right-arm-over-shoulder/left-under, rather than the reverse.

At the same Senior Fair, I was asked to grip a handle that calculated my hand strength. The problem with this was, though, that in the days leading up to this fair, I’d been doing an enormous amount of work at my computer; my carpal tunnel syndrome was so troublesome that my toothbrush felt heavy. So it seemed to me that what was being measured was not my hand strength or lack thereof, but how close I was to requiring surgery.

There are enough limitations, humiliations and concerns associated with the slow process of aging without being troubled by senseless tests devised by youthful minions who remain quite clueless about the realities of aging until it assaults them.

And, by the way, I’d still flunk that UK test. For the life of me, as I wrote this, all I could think was, “Boris Bad Hair”!