My mother-in-law died recently. She was 94 and had had a long, rich life full of travel and friends. She was not a collector of things as I am. When she moved into assisted living, we helped her clear out her possessions. We did a further sweeping away when she moved into skilled nursing. What was left in her room when she died were several small glass blue birds given to her for her volunteer work at the local hospital.
In the last couple of years of her life, she and I became closer than we ever had been before, enjoying the time we spent together. These birds, an accidental collection of hers, have taken on special meaning to me. They represent memories of Lillian.
Starting with my grandparents, I have kept a memento of each passing elder. The token brings back the person whenever I look at the object. My grandmother was the first to go, and the jade plant on our back porch is a cutting from the original jade plant that my mother brought home after my grandmother's death. My grandmother told me family history, taught me the 'proper' way to do things, and saved my favorite magazine so that I could cut out the paper dolls in the back. She had a small garden where iris, grapes, and calla lilies grew, which sparked my interest in gardening.
My mother sent me envelopes of autumn leaves each year. I've saved them in a box and added many more of my own. When I sift through them in September, I remember her and realize how often I use leaves as symbols and motifs in my artwork.
The most unusual memento, an electric can opener, represents my grandfather. Yes, a can opener, which was the only thing left in his apartment after my mother had packed away the things she treasured. The can opener continued its useful life for many years until it finally gave out. Now it sits in my workroom as a bookend. I have other objects that belonged to my grandfather now, but the can opener always brings a smile to my face in memory of the whimsical, fun-loving storyteller who was my grandfather.
Iris Apfel, who is 93 and still a designer, once said in a New York Times article: "I think it's wonderful to have stuff and live with memories and things you enjoy." If Iris can do that, so can I.