Mud Balls in the Basement

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I can’t seem to let go. It’s not so much the practical things. It’s the words scrawled on little slips of paper. It’s the cement-hard mud balls that were rolled up by tiny hands. It’s the heartfelt message on a Christmas tag. It’s the smooth rock from a happy shore.

Bereft of so many of my own childhood memories, I have always clung to little things. I’m so obsessed with not losing something meaningful that I have been known to dig through my children’s trash as they purge their bedrooms. “WHAT!! You can’t throw that away,” I gasp, as I snatch it and add it to my pile.

Now, don’t get the wrong idea, I’m not real big on ticket stubs or figurines.
It’s the more important things — like the little construction paper leaves we cut out at Thanksgiving time. Each of us would take one out of the basket, which sat in the center of the table, and write on it what we were thankful for. When the kids were little, they were always thankful for daddy and the dog.

Or it’s the notes — things that indicate who we have been in the world.
It’s the cards and drawings and well-used trinkets.

IMG_9839As a little girl, we moved across country and practically severed all family ties. Because the tiny fragments of family history that I could remember, were not underscored by tradition or cemented by rehearsal- they began to fade away and get buried in the intensity of the painful every day. While my propensity to collect things that bore meaning began long before I lost my mother, her sudden, violent death caused my inadvertent quest to preserve precious memories to grow more intense.

By the time we unlocked the door to Mom’s condominium, the crime had been solved and there was no one around. The bright yellow police tape, which barred the door, was the only obvious sign that anything had taken place at all. Mom had been brutally murdered and her body had been hidden in a closet in the spare bedroom. Ironically, the house was spotless. There was no sign of the argument that had led to her death. The broken statue that had crushed her skull was nowhere to be found and there was no sign of the gun. The bed was made, the cat was fed, and the dishes were done. It took us awhile to find the shadow in the chocolate brown carpet. It was just about the only clue left. Her blood.

As we began to open drawers and dig through closets, we searched desperately for something we could take away that embodied her essence — something that would allow us to keep her. Perhaps some private note that would unravel the mystery — something that was attached to her plaguing sadness. But there was nothing. No diaries. No special jewelry. No treasured trinkets. Only her smell, which was growing faint in the robe which hung on the back of the bedroom door. I tied the robe up tight in a plastic grocery bag with the hope that I could capture her fragrance there. She was a lonely woman. She had no friends that could tell the story of her heart.

Now, some 30 years later, I am thinking through a recent visit to my mother-in-law’s home. In her prime, Joyce was a proud and lovely woman — the consummate hostess, accomplished homemaker, and a keeper of treasured things. She is spending her final days waiting for heaven in the memory ward of a nursing home, unable to speak. Dad is still walking the halls of the house, but nothing is the same without her. As I ran my fingers over the things that used to mean something to her, which are still neatly arranged in her home, I realize her essence is fading. One day soon, all of the treasures that fill Joyce and Stew’s home will be disassembled and divided. If the stories aren’t told that are attached to the objects held dear, they will one day become items to be taken away in a box.

3229343087_c485ed07cf_bThen, as I sat in the middle of a heap in my own father’s basement, wading through the items he and my stepmother collected over the years, I contemplated what it all means. Sally died of breast cancer a few years ago and it’s hard for my dad to figure out what matters. What if he gives away something that could be meaningful to someone? How can he possibly muster the energy to sort through all the things that have no meaning to him without her? Cookbooks and sewing stuff, and bathroom junk, and pretty pictures, and little statues, and extra shoes, and bags, and jackets? There seems to be nothing that truly bears her essence.

In the end, we all lay in our beds and face the end of opportunity. Our piles of stuff, no matter how well pared down, gather dust and go out of style. Much of what we hold dear will be loaded into boxes and hauled to Goodwill. So how do we capture the essence of what has been? It’s not the things we keep that bear meaning. It’s not the bed or the sheets, but it’s the warm place left by the breathing person who slept there. It’s not the after-shave my husband wears, but the way the room smells after he’s gone. It’s not the swing set, but the bare spots left in the grass from all the days little feet wore away patches. It’s not the field, but the path that runs through it.

So, through the connection of many dots, I have arrived at today. I’m going to approach the pile in the basement, and write down the stories that are associated with my little things. Then, maybe, I can let them go and my children won’t have quite so many boxes to take to Goodwill. They won’t have to wonder why I saved a little wooden box full of mud balls.

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Photo Credit: Locket photo by Paula Bailey

146 thoughts on “Mud Balls in the Basement

      • Thank you for your post. It is still comforting to read and hear thoughts similar to mine. We’re alright.
        Although time has grown since the deaths of my Mother and Father, my memories are vivid and sharp as if they happened yesterday. Arm in arm is the sadness with pain and that’s Ok. There’s no trade equal to my memories.

        Liked by 5 people

      • Thank you for sharing… I’m so grateful that you found comfort by reading my story. I do believe that our pain can be turned to bring hope and help to one another. I found comfort in your words, also. I’m so sorry for your loss ❤

        Liked by 2 people

  1. You gracefully put into words what I know was very difficult to write. I too, linger in the aroma of the contents of my grandmothers old cedar chest. Afraid that one day I will open it and the smell that stirs so many memories will be gone. The best memories are the ones we hold in our heart. Those are the ones that keep our loved ones with us…always. I admire you for your bravery, honesty and gift of putting your deepest feelings into words and sharing. I pray that it brings a new level of peace to your heart. Xoxo

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Your gift with words, your love of people, your willingness to be so open and vulnerable bless so many. Thank you for who you are. I am so blessed to know you.

    Liked by 5 people

  3. Wow! Catherine, you had me hanging onto every single word you wrote! I felt like inward reading a snippet of a best-selling author’s new novel! Thank you for sharing!!! This is a good reminder of what is truly important! I’m sorry about the tragic death of your mother–I cannot even fathom how difficult that must have been to go through that intense trial. You are such an incredible woman of faith! I feel honored to know you and to call you my friend!

    Liked by 7 people

  4. Cathe you are such a good writer, you put me there. It’s not the fact that I know and love those little hands either. I just love your ability. If I’m a writer of my thoughts as good as you someday I’ll be happy. I too smell things and when smelling Mom I know it’s a residue that hasn’t changed as much as She. But it’s changed. I’ll take it as a gift though and hold on as tight as I can. I love you Sis!

    Liked by 5 people

  5. I thank the Lord for His beauty and gifts in your life and I am so glad that you are writing! What a window into your past , and so many years later, I want to say I am so very sorry for your loss, pain, and unanswered questions. “Stuff, heap, Goodwill, piles, things and objects disassembled and divided…..” After going through Mom’s home, knowing the landscape in Mark’s Dad’s home as he fights for his life in ICU in Colorado, and packing and purging our own home in preparation for a move, these words resonated. Thank you for the reminder to savor our loved ones and also for the encouragement to consider the history and stories which may lie in their treasures. I think that cataloging your own personal memories in story will be a priceless gift for your family! You are a resevoir of beauty; seeking it in others and enjoying it from the Father’s Hand! it is fitting that you have kept your little one’s creation of mud balls! Thank you, Catherine.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Oh my, Peggy… thank you for your precious encouragement and thank you for sharing. Did we ever think we would face these days? It’s funny that you can be told a million times that it doesn’t last — but you never believe it once. Even after suffering the tragedy of loss at an early age, the fact that life slows and ends still comes as a surprise. Wading through the things of life is not easy and it makes us consider our priorities. Thank you for sharing about Mark’s dad. I’m praying as I type… you have had a really big few years… and now the move. Maybe you can join me in writing your way through all the things you have to part with now… or maybe there is a musical composition building in your heart? Love you, friend ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Although memories are for ever, it is great how you are going to take the time to write down what went with these memories after you are gone. Your family might not appreciate this now but the will in years to come. Thanks for this awesome post, very enlightening!

    Liked by 7 people

  7. I had to go back and read this again, it’s so stunning. Thank you!
    “So how do we capture the essence of what has been? It’s not the things we keep that bear meaning. It’s not the bed or the sheets, but it’s the warm place left by the breathing person who slept there. It’s not the after-shave my husband wears, but the way the room smells after he’s gone. It’s not the swing set, but the bare spots left in the grass from all the days little feet wore away patches. It’s not the field, but the path that runs through it.”

    Liked by 5 people

    • Oh my… thank you. It’s amazing that our tragedies can be turned to bring warmth and hope to others if we are only brave enough to follow the nudge to share — I have not always been so brave. These comments bring me the encouragement to keep at it and to encourage others to do the same.

      Liked by 2 people

  8. What a heartfelt, well-written post. I had a nurse tell me, after going through a loved one’s belongings, she decided to de-clutter her home. Her comment has always stuck in mind, especially after losing those dear to me. It’s a good reminder to pare down my stuff as well. Yet, it sure is a daunting task, what to keep and what to throw out!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Yes… and oh my… if you could see my stuff! I mean, I’m not like the old man that saved 40 years worth of newspapers- there are no tunnels in my living room- but no one would begin to appreciate the things I have saved. My journals are the only things I would grab in a fire- but it’s super hard to let go of the mud balls. Thank you for your comment ❤

      Liked by 3 people

  9. After my Nan passed away my Mum kept everything she could find with her writing on it, even grocery lists. We smile about it now, but back then she was so desperate to cling to everything that was her Mum. I think it is natural to not want to discard memories because they feel like they are parts of people.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. This a beautiful post. And amazingly so close to home since I preserve my mothers scent as well. Every so often going down to the basement to her special box of memories that I have kept to take a small whiff that transports me back to when she’d hug me so long that her aroma would linger still hugging me even after she let go. I too work hard to keep and explain the things that matter to me most so my children will have an easier time coping with my future loss but enjoying the small things that were huge to me. Thank you for your words. They rang loud in my heart.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you so much for sharing your box of memories with me. It’s so good that you are being intentional about saving and explaining why you saving the small things that really do matter to you, for your children’s sake. Our pain and loss teaches us valuable lessons if we will allow them to ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  11. Triggers. You are describing all of the things that trigger our memories and emotions. The things themselves are just things — even the faint smell of a loved one’s perfume is just a thing. (We have boxes of old photos in our garage that after decades still have the scent of my wife’s mother.) As you say, at some point these things will become anonymous bits and pieces at the Goodwill, having been separated from the people who gave them their meaning. They have no power in themselves. A dried flowed does not sit in its box, thinking smugly to itself, “It is I, yes I who brought happiness to Zooey when she wore me to the dance.” It is just a dried flower, indistinguishable from what the wind blew in from the garden today.

    The memories and emotions that these bits and pieces bring to life are always waiting. They are always fresh, if we let them be so. There is only now, and the depth and intensity of this instant is endless. All that ever happened exists right now, as real as you can imagine it to be. We build for ourselves our own world, with all of its meanings and all of its stories. These things you speak of are props we use in telling ourselves the stories of ourselves. The storyteller, who has the power to intricately weave these tales — to create them from nothing — is us, always me and you.

    Liked by 3 people

    • It is my desire to live now with the depth and intensity you have described- and it is my hope to describe the bits and pieces that matter from the past in such a way that when we throw away the dried flower — the essence of the spirit in which it was given remains… Thank you for sharing your thoughts and for helping me to remember to savor this moment- and trust that the lost ones are accessible to me.

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Wonderful post on Grief and the art of letting go…I have started to take pictures of these little slips of paper (mother’s day cards etc) so its easier to store and retrieve. I remember my mother donating all my father’s clothes except one shirt when he died.

    Liked by 3 people

    • That’s a good idea… my friend suggested I do the same. I was thinking of making an album of sentiments that I could flip through. Maybe after I write about why the notes are meaningful I will feel like I can let them go. I don’t know- I love to see a person’s handwriting. What about you?
      It must have been very hard to see all your father’s clothing go…

      Liked by 1 person

      • A picture still preserves the handwriting…scribbles in case of my children …i still keep the really important ones like the ones where they traced their little fingers etc..
        It was hard when my mother said that she gave away Dad’s clothes …but thinking someone needs it and is thankful for those things helps to let these material things go. Personally I plan to give away my stuff to deserving people while I’m alive and pare down on belongings to essentials… that way my children will only have those very very meaningful things to deal with.

        Liked by 2 people

  13. Catherine, firstly I am so sorry for the violent and tragic loss of your mother. I imagine you will carry that with you always. I wish I could be more like you but alas have followed in the footsteps of my own mother and her penchant for getting rid of anything meaningful or not chained down. Though I have made a point of keeping one or two prized childhood trinkets from my two sons that have special meaning. Alike your daughter, my mother would rid our home of anything she deemed clutter-some. Your story is heartfelt and achingly lovely, though sad. For a smile you may wish to read my short story “Whisked Away” regarding my mother and her ways. https://nynkblog.wordpress.com/2014/11/18/whisked-away-2/ Congratulations on a well deserved FP!

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Completely beautiful post. I too found writing the stories helped after losing both of my parents, my mom when I was just 24. I wrote some of the stories years ago and came back to them recently when I wrote the memoir about the death of my husband’s parents and looked back at mine too. The old stories brought comfort and good memories to me, much the same way photos do but the words were even more powerful. Details long forgotten came back and they were like seeing my parents again. Really glad I came upon this blog. Following and I’ll be back.

    Liked by 3 people

  15. I enjoyed your post. My mom too passed away and when I come across those scraps of paper w/ her writing, I save them. I even have, what is NOT an attractive sweater that still, though growing faint, her smell. My brother and father don’t understand my propensity for saving everything connected to them – but it’s clear that you do, and appreciate these things as well.
    Congrats on the Freshly Pressed recognition as well.
    TAF

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Soon as I got married and had my son, I began saving things. The flower from my wedding, the tag on my baby’s wrist as a newborn, the shorn locks of hair from his first cut. I think I will bring them out and share the stories with my family as we all grow older, but what if life happens and we never do? Thus is why I have a blog. So no matter what, my family will know what my mud balls meant….that I love them.
    Thank you so much for sharing.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Oh my!! Another twin!! You are wise and wonderful to keep a blog- and good idea to bring out your little things and tell stories about them. The retention will comes through rehearsal and then those little things will have meaning to your grown children as well. Loo forward to visiting your blog 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  17. You write beautifully, Catherine.
    I keep my mother’s favorite sweater–the one she wore the day before she died–sealed in a Ziplock bag, hoping to preserve her “scent.” Ironically I’ve been too fearful to open it, lest her scent escapes forever.
    I find she lives on inside me…her essence is in the love and memories and stories shared. It’s hard to let go of the material goods though, and I wish you the best.
    I’ll be following,
    Christy

    Liked by 3 people

  18. Wow! I am speachless. You write so beautifully and have so gracefully put these thoughts and feelings to words. There is a lot of sadness in this post but hope also. I admire the actions you are taking to breath life into those you have lost. Thank you for sharing!

    Liked by 3 people

  19. This has probably been said to you a thousand times over, but your writing is vivid and absolutely gorgeous. I myself haven’t experienced anything close to what you went through, but as I was reading this, I could sense the pain–not feel it myself, but understand, almost, how acutely you do. And parts of this post resonated with me. I have trouble letting go, too, especially of old friends and little useless trinkets that bring back wisps of aged memories.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Could there be sweeter words? Thank you for your precious encouragement. Don’t we all, as writers, strive to help our readers understand things as acutely as we do? That is treasured praise. ❤ Glad to know I have new friends who collect treasures as I do. ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  20. If anyone’s interested you can down load the app ‘polagram’ which you can buy Polaroid pictures from your camera roll and the get sent to you💗 if you use this code at the checkout PG0RTBWD then you get £5 free, which is enough for 11 pictures + delivery and you won’t need to put in any details!🙆😻

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Catherine, beautifully told. My sisters and I lost our Dad in June and Mom just passed in January. We are “going through a lifetime of stuff”. A couple of months before Mom left us she went through all her treasured mementos of our childhoods – homemade cards, colored ponies, scribbled notes, silly photos – and gave them back to us. I laughed at all the little things she kept. Then cried. Now I will treasure those things because she did. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 2 people

  22. I’m a sentimental (too sentimental according to my wife) middle aged man. I don’t save everything but when I go through the saved things from our kids, 21, 19 and 14 — I cry. The only hurt worse than the bittersweet pain from thinking of by-gone times would be not having had them. My latest project is rescuing wonderful digital pictures off old computers around the house, ones that never got printed. Once before returning to college at the end of the summer, I left my mom a little sticky note saying “Thanks for making home such a nice place to be!” She kept it until the day she died — guess that’s where my soft heart came from. Thanks for your story.

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    • Aw- your sticky note makes me cry! That little sticky note not only speaks of your Mom’s love for you, but it likely also served as one of the only formal job reviews she ever got. Mothers tend the heart of the home and when she someone finally affirms that she has done it well- it’s like a jackpot payday. Thanks so much for sharing…
      My husband is also becoming more and more sentimental by the day. 🙂
      I want to do what you are doing: rescue and print photos that are locked away in some old computer that I haven’t gotten rid of, because it froze, and I know there are treasures locked inside. I wrote another post entitled, ‘Stories Matter’ where I touched on that topic a bit. Thanks so much for reading and sharing. I’m inspired!

      Like

  23. This was an incredibly beautiful and moving piece. Thank you so much for sharing your story, even the painful parts. In certain ways, I can absolutely relate to this feeling…this coveting of memories, almost like trying to build your own personal, tiny empire or narrative from things left behind. Sometimes it feels so wrong to throw even little things out. What if I regret not having this one day? What if I forget? Thanks again for writing and posting this.

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Not letting go of things from the past, is important. I think we get closer to our identity and personal narratives when we hold onto something that meant a great deal at one point in time. It is often easier to remember more when we have something that reminds us of how things were. When I am 80, I want to be able to think about what I have experienced, and I think that old pictures and text will help me with that. Keep being yourself, and don`t feel that you have to get rid of something just because you have a lot of things!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you for your thoughtful encouragement ❤ What you say is true- until you can hardly open your desk drawer because it is so full of sentiments LOL!! Kidding aside, I do think you're right and I hope to strike a balance that allows me to do a little precious saving and a little letting go. ❤

      Like

  25. Reblogged this on bits and pieces and commented:
    Read this wonderful piece under freshly pressed category. Reblogging it to make it easier for myself to trace it down to re-read. Hope some of you who have not seen it at freshly pressed read it here. It eloquently expresses the sentiments felt by so many of us.

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Incredible.
    In my (limited) experience, meditations on grief are let down either by hysterical prose or a forced minimalism. Your voice, on the other hand, is balanced between pain and clarity. One can almost imagine the speaker/writer sitting among the trinkets in question, holding them to the light and trying to remain composed long enough to hold a level argument with herself.
    Thank you for sharing this!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Your comment leaves me speechless (well- almost 🙂 Can we, as writers, ask to do much more, as we groan in labor to express, than evoke empathy by drawing our readers through pain and clarity? Thank you for your deeply encouraging comment.

      Like

  27. Catherine, your story was so well said. I agree that we need to record, in some form, those moments that make us joyful, sad, inspired, amazed and a zillion other emotions. Our families nowadays are so scattered, busy, and just too far away to daily interact with us. The desire to have a sense of who we are and where we came from is, I believe, instinctual. At some point in everyone’s life, the curiosity about where we came from will lead us to search out as much information as we can about our ancestry. It is such a wonderful gift to the next generation when we can leave behind a written memory that provides our loved ones with the story behind the trinkets we cherish.

    Liked by 1 person

    • So true… very well said. I wonder how difficult it will be to piece together the past when so much of it has been sent to the cloud? LOL. How many photos have been lost on missing flash drives or in dead computers. How much will we learn from our little narcissistic Instagram posts? And you are so right, because so many of us have scattered- many of our ethnic and familial traditions have been lost due to lack of access and rehearsal. Our writing is important! Now you have me started 😉 Thank you so much for your comment and for liking my posts ❤

      Like

    • Thank you for sharing your post with me. I think that I’m in that wiser place (and growing wiser daily, with miles to go), where I realize that I must savor experiences and be still enough and aware enough to collect all that those experiences hold for me. Of course, much more to say here- so perhaps I will save it for a comment on your blog. 🙂 I do believe what you say is true- writing will give me peace. Thank you for reading and commenting ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  28. I lost both my parents apart when I was 33. Grief and loss are such difficult subjects and it sad to think of what happens to all the stuff you gather throughout your life, that in the end finds its home in a box and may or may not get passed onto someone who knows their story, and why they were special. I have a new respect and love for life, that I did not before I lost so many so close to me. Thank you for sharing your story.

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    • I’m so sorry for your loss…
      I agree that to lose someone dear to us causes us to experience life a little more deeply and with greater appreciation for the little things- for moments, for symbols and for meanings. Thank you for reading and for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

  29. Beautiful words, I loved reading this! I’m on the other side of the world to my whole family – so reading this was really an eye opener for me as I have two little ones. I’m a sucker for sentimental bits and bobs so I too will be following your lead so my children have the memories 🙂 thank you for such a lovely read – will be keeping my eyes peeled for more!

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad that my story can inspire you to write and record. I am a huge fan of journaling, so I have volumes of journals that are related to my spiritual growth and healing- but I wish I had done a better job of keeping a diary of sorts. My kids used to love it (and still do), when I find an excerpt about them and their crazy antics and read it to them. If I could go back, I would be sure to describe the little things consistently. I hope you can do that. You will grow as a writer, as well as bless your family ❤ Thanks so much for your encouragement…

      Liked by 1 person

  30. I can’t quite find the words to express how lovely this was, Catherine, though I agree with everything written by other commenters. Is it enough to tell you this filled my heart so much that a sigh-filled silence seems the best way for me to savor your words here? Thank you for sharing such tender stuff through your gift of writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  31. Reblogged this on (re)making moe and commented:
    Bryan shared this with me this morning. I have a tendency to collect in a similar way – scraps of paper, ticket stubs, random colored wrist bands, etc. Since the fire I think it’s gotten worse. We lost a lot of family photos and memories. Many of the losses I don’t think have even been accounted for yet (they may never be). Reading this makes me want to start scrapbooking or art journaling again right now. It’s hard to realize that it’s the essence of a family or a person or a relationship, even just a moment in time, that you’re really trying to hold on to when you save that scrap of paper. The longer they sit – the further away that essence and story becomes if it can’t be captured in some manner.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “The longer they sit – the further away that essence and story becomes if it can’t be captured in some manner.” What you say is so true! Since I had the epiphany, in the middle of the night, that caused me to write this- I have been consumed with other priorities and have not ventured to find the next object- even when the ideas persistently knock on my head. I’m so glad you are inspired to scrapbook and art journal- your words inspire me as well… who knows how long we have left? One thing I will say, realizing what makes me cling to little things has released me from some shame. I don’t have to apologize without insight to my ultra minimalistic daughter who does not have a drawer full of cards, or sweet Christmas tags, or little notes. Well, she does save what is most important- but I’m a little over the top 🙂 and I love words and fonts and textures. God help my heirs 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Forgive me- somehow I managed to miss the opportunity to reply to your thoughtful comment. I’m so sorry to hear that you have suffered through a fire. I hope you were able to begin art journaling or scrapbooking. Funny, the moment I made I made the commitment to wade through my scraps and bits- the s**t hit the fan and all kinds of things kept me from writing for personal reasons. I began to do more freelancing and took some other work- and then there was all of life. Now, as things slow into the winter, I’m hoping to do some of the writing and artwork that I long to do. I too, fear that moments have been lost that can never be recaptured. We. must. write. Thank you so much for your comment!

      Liked by 1 person

  32. Pingback: Mud Balls in the Basement | Humanity is Action

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