The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

I cleaned out my mother’s things years after she died. As I lost the clutter, I gained clarity.

Blake Turck with her mother Deborah in 1986. (Family photo)
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For 10 years, I couldn’t bear to look at the belongings of my late mother. I kept them in a storage locker in New Jersey, going into debt to pay the monthly $200 fee, but too afraid of my emotional free fall to actually go there and open the boxes.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and I was homebound in my Manhattan apartment. It was finally time.

My mom Deborah was a creative, spiritual person. She was also secretive, right up until the end when she hid the gravity of her health issues from me. It was a cancer resurgence. This Mother's Day marks just over a decade since she was gone.

When she died at age 64, just before my 30th birthday, she took with her answers to my many questions: Why didn’t she pursue relationships with relatives after her parents died when she was young? What happened during my parents’ 1983 divorce? Why didn’t she open up to me more?

We were very close. A special bond between a single mom and her daughter. But once she was gone, and I’d inherited her possessions, I closed myself off to the memories. Acknowledging it would mean facing that she was no longer here, and neither was the apartment where I grew up.

Instead I sent all her things to the storage facility. As I watched the movers drive off carrying my mother’s life in boxes, I found solace in knowing they were all in one place, not too far away. I also shoved my grief in there and shut it away with her stuff for the next decade. I accrued thousands of dollars in storage fees I couldn’t afford because I did not have enough courage to face any of it. Cleaning out the unit would be like erasing my mom. At least that was what I convinced myself.

I moved on with life. I met someone wonderful two years after my mother’s death, whom I married. All the while, my storage continued taking up a cluttered 10-by-10 space that was burning a hole in my savings, a space that separated where I could mourn her absence but avoid processing the loss.

But preparing for parenthood, my priorities changed. It didn’t feel right anymore keeping all of her stuff there, all of my feelings at bay. It took one day during an August 2019 heat wave to rent a U-Haul, drive out to Newark, empty out the unit and bring everything to my apartment.

I squeezed boxes and files into closets. Pretty corners became clogged with more boxes. My mother went from absent to suddenly being everywhere. It elicited waves of sadness so strong I didn't know how to deal with it.

Then, when I was stuck in my apartment in the pandemic, I could no longer look away. I opened a tattered folder, tied together with decades-old string. Notes and colorful postcards fell out, immediately transporting me to the 1960s. My mother was kind and overly loving, yet she’d never told me about her life before me.

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Shortly after she and my dad met, they were young hippies in love. As I sat on my current-day bedroom floor in a worldwide pandemic, I experienced their romance through dilapidated correspondence. I couldn’t put their letters down. There were love letters and cards from my father when he was still in college and she was in New York City. I had only known contention between my parents, so seeing their courtship on paper was both surprising and moving.

Reading about their relationship was cathartic and brutal. Each written word leaped off the page, as if coming directly from their lips.

Tucked in other folders were notes of aspiration my mother left me in lunchboxes, and mantras written on paper ripped out of spiral notebooks. I teared up seeing words of encouragement in birthday cards.

There was a tiny Post-it I found taped in her 2010 planner: “Life isn’t about waiting for storms to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.”

She’d likely written it after receiving her final diagnosis. I taped the Post-it to my bedroom mirror, where it reminded me to try to live in the present. She was guiding me without even being here.

There were endless items: Broadway records like “Evita” and “Cabaret” that we listened to at dinner. I uncovered Scientology tapes and a copy of Dianetics. She was perpetually curious. The digging went beyond my mother’s generation, back to my grandmother, Beatrice, after whom I was named. She also died young, even younger than my mom.

In a box containing telegrams between my grandparents were mottled black-and-white photos, the kind with white scalloped edges that you see in a flea market bin. I found my grandmother’s journals, missing her husband off at war. Both my mom and grandma (from what I knew) always seemed like vibrant, happy people, but clearly, under the surface, there were private emotions.

The most amazing thing I found was an old, laminated card that displayed my mother’s name, spelled Devorah. On the back was the name written in Hebrew and its translation: Bee. My name is Blake but my mom called me Bee. After she died, I had a bee tattooed on the back of my neck to honor her. But not until now, all these years later, had I discovered the actual meaning of my mom’s name, a symbol of our perpetual connection.

As I looked through her things, it felt impossible to differentiate between what I should discard and what I should keep.

Some were obvious. I didn’t need boxes filled with all her birthday cards. Other small things elicited hours of conflict: a handwritten note from her telling me there was “coffee in the fridge, and have a beautiful day.” An old pillowcase that still smelled like her perfume. How could I create categories like Keep, Throw, Donate, when the tiniest, simplest things felt valuable?

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Cleaning in the comfort of my adult home was gratifying, but it took me to places that were hard to face. I had to accept my mom was gone, along with the old me. I would always be her daughter. But now, I was a wife and hopefully soon a mother myself.

By the end, after weeks of sorting, I finally settled on what to keep, what to say goodbye to. As I lost the clutter, in return, I gained clarity. I found solace in finally understanding that stuff and memories were two very different things. And the memory of my mother was something that could never be thrown away, because it lived inside me.

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