My husband’s Aunt Betty lived in a tiny town in southwestern Kentucky, near where the Bluegrass State dips its pinky toe into the Mississippi. She saved fabric and notions – boxes of them – sewing sundry scraps into crib quilts for my children, edging plain vanilla pillowcases with intricate lace. Boxes of costume jewelry – labeled by color – hats she had worn as a girl on Sunday. Empty notepads, dress patterns from the 1950s, petticoats and crisp starched sheets. She kept them all, because, well you just never know.
Betty lived much of her life alone in the house her family moved to when she was in high school, though she spent her last couple of years in and out of a nursing home. She died the day after her 87th birthday without husband or children to mourn her, so my husband, who’d managed her health care long distance, was left to dispose of her things.
So after driving 700 miles, we stood on her back porch, surrounded by her boxes. In theory, we’d known it would be an undertaking, though now we were, literally, head-deep in fact.
I’d heard about Rick’s grandparents’ home for years, but I had never seen it. His childhood memories are peppered with stories of summers there, riding bikes around the courthouse square – where he once saw a man poison himself on a park bench – and of the Mississippi park he and his sisters used to visit.
So, what to do, in a town where you know no one, to tackle this undertaking? Call the undertaker, of course.
Doug works at the funeral home across the street, transporting the dead to their final resting places. (A few weeks before, he had helped bury her.) He and his wife, Connie, run a flea market and help people like us sort through what’s what in houses the dead leave behind. Together with Martha, an antiques dealer, and Tina, manager of the town’s Mission Store, we set to work, sifting through the remnants of Betty’s life.
It was tense, back-breaking work – no air conditioning, just a few fans to blow the sweat and dust around. None of these kind strangers knew Betty in life, but we grew to know her better as we emptied her kitchen cabinets and rifled through her drawers.
At times it felt like a violation, our sorting and purging of things she valued. Yet it was a treasure hunt, too, the contents of her house mapping the clues revealing pieces of her to us.
And what treasures. Rick’s grandfather’s wallet – Social Security card, fishing license, photographs and handwritten IOUs intact from his death in 1959. Betty’s high school scrapbook, (class of 1946), and the newspaper clipping of my in-laws’ wedding. A matchbook with Rick’s baby picture on it. Eighteen family photo albums, some dating to the early 1900s. In one, Rick’s grandfather stands with a crew, deep in a Kentucky coal mine; others show his grandmother and mother as children and new mothers, his parents as newlyweds – shots he’d never seen.
On Sunday, Betty’s neighbor spread out a midday “dinner” for us the likes of which I’ve not eaten in years. A self-described “hillbilly,” Pam lived across the “crick” from Betty and often made her plates for Sunday dinner. “What’s mine is yers,” she told us, in her Kentucky twang. “Betty meant that much to me.”
We kept a few things – the albums, vintage hats, some trinkets for Rick’s sisters, and set out for home, wondering what Betty would think about her life’s collection of things soon to be scattered among strangers. Why do we hold on to so much? Ticking down the miles, I sorted through my own stacks, vowing to purge so my children won’t have to.
Many of Betty’s things have new life in homes across the rolling corn fields of western Kentucky. You just never know, but maybe a Mennonite woman donned a new petticoat this morning, made up her bed with crisp sheets, the pillowcases trimmed with deep lace. Or maybe that woman who lost her home the week we visited pulled a coffee cup from the cupboard, sat down at the table – a little scuffed – but hers. Or maybe a grandmother pulled out Betty’s remnants from the box, and started to sew.