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Memories and Stuff

A fountain w/ bricks from his father's home
This will go down as a momentous year for my family. Not only have my two children reached the ages where they are a lot more independent, but we have also had to deal with two deaths in our immediate families. In January of this year, my mother's husband died, and it was a relief. He was difficult and mean, and I had endured him for decades.

It was after his funeral that I was finally able to see my mother's belongings, four years after her death. Her husband had refused to even let me see them. I saw what my brother had managed to salvage, what my mother's husband hadn't given away or taken to the dump.

Memories are strange things. Unlike the narratives we read or see on the big screen, they are rarely all good or all bad; they tend to be bittersweet, and they change over time. But nothing brings back the full force of those long-forgotten moments than going through boxes of belongings of a loved one who has died. This rush of nostalgia and all its inherent emotions is coupled with another impressive occurrence. As each box is opened, the deceased's personality emerges, fleshing out the life of an entire person, someone who was much more than just your mother. For instance, on one of my mother's high school report card I read that Anna could be a careless speller at times. Yet, she was always the go-to person in our home for spelling and definitions, complete with context and alternate spellings. Who needed a dictionary.

At the end of January, I found myself having to go through a house full of her personal effects. The experience was so overwhelming that I had to remind myself to breathe. My mother had kept so many things: my blond hair clippings, report cards, hand-drawn mother's day cards, certificates and sports ribbons. As I opened a box of fabric remnants and old belts, I came across a yellowed Barbie wedding veil (apparently Ken and Barbie had tied the knot around 1971). When I opened the tattered and stained lace, I discovered four of  my baby teeth. I slammed the box shut; it was all too much. I took a carload of things without much reflection and left.

I've tried on two occasions since the winter to go through the boxes, which sit in a part of our basement I rarely visit, but I never get very far. I start out carefully examining things, and then begin to hastily purge. A few days ago, as I went through a box, a foreign language caught my eye on a piece of paper destined for the recycling bin, it was a birth certificate handwritten in Finnish. It was my great grandmother's.

A few weeks after my stepfather died, we learned that my partner's father was very ill. His father had lived alone for decades and was known to accumulate things that he thought were of value. He died at the end of May, leaving his Laval bungalow, the family home where my partner had spent most of his childhood, jammed full of furniture, newspapers, scrap metal, tools, appliances, empty pill bottles, memorabilia, bills since 1965, des trucs, cossins, machins...stuff.

But my partner and his two siblings didn't have the luxury of grieving. They had to act fast. The property and house had miraculously been sold just weeks before his death, leaving them three months to clean the place out. Entire rooms were jammed with furniture. The only uncluttered space was a tiny path that ran through the home, leading from one of the three bedrooms to the bathroom and kitchen.

Each time my partner arrived home, I asked him how things were going. Often all I got was the wave of a hand and no answer. Luckily, they had official documents to look for; otherwise, they wouldn't have known where to start. Masks had to be worn because of accumulated dust and mold. Within a few days, they were overwhelmed, exasperated and discouraged. But giving up wasn't an option.

They found plenty of construction machinery and tools, vintage sleds, bikes and assorted vehicles--all collector's items; that is, if they could find a collector. But that took time and a lot of patience. His father maybe hadn't considered that something was only of value if someone wanted it. Otherwise, it was just junk.

The scrap metal man came numerous times for pick-ups, and they filled an industrial-sized dumpster with wood. A fair bit was sold to passers by, and some larger items were sold over Kijiji. Five 50-gallon recycling bins were filled and emptied eight times over the summer.

My partner brought home very few things. There was just so much that many objects quickly lost their sentimental value and were tossed. Sentimentality was a luxury that no one could afford.

He saved an easy chair with some beautiful woodwork, a bike and some bricks from his father's house. But he told me that he still hadn't digested everything he'd come across, and it might be months before he had.

The hardest part of sorting through someone's belongings is just making a decision or decisions, and then having to live with them. There are just so many emotions that complicate things and lead to endless dithering.

Once the emotions are finally stripped away (I'm hoping this will happen over time), we are left with stuff and a lot of it.


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World of Glass by Jocelyne Dubois

Louise Bourgeois's Araignée
World of Glass
Jocelyne Dubois
Quattro Books

World of Glass has recently been nominated for the Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Award for Fiction.

Leaving la Ville Reine behind and her partner who has moved on, 30-year-old Chloé returns to her Québécois roots, landing a job at a fashion magazine selling ad space to high-end Montreal boutiques. This is a fresh start. She finds new love and explores la métropole, a city of dizzying possibilities. But there are indeed stresses, a lot to get used to. There is temptation and plenty of heady stimuli competing for attention. The reader, too, will experience this adrenaline and inability to focus through Dubois’ brilliant use of adjectives, once considered a no-no in fiction writing.

When a love interest sours, just as the twin towers crumble, Chloé falls into a fragile, rudderless realm, and the reader experiences the highly unsettling world of mental illness. Chloé’s return is a stiff climb, but she refuses to let her illness rule her life. She lives as openly and honestly as she did before, rediscovering love and creativity, with a realistic misstep along the way.

Bipolar disorder, formerly known as manic depression, is used too freely as a synonym for mood swings these days. World of Glass serves up the real thing, while successfully side-stepping the pill-popping shut-in narrative we all imagine. This novella gives a much-needed look at bipolar disorder and offers an accurate depiction of Montreal. Love can indeed be found at Toi, Moi & Café.

At only 93 pages, World of Glass offers an intense few hours of reading. It's a little like going to a restaurant for dinner, but only ordering what you really want--dessert.

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