My Sister’s Stuff: What I Found When She Died

This entry is part of my personal series on grief, called Wish You Were There, that’s unrelated to travel.

It feels like I’m being cruel to write about my sister via the things she owned. I mean, how weird is it that when you die, all your stuff is left just sitting there, like makeup on your bathroom counter, and then your little sister goes and posts photos of them on the internet?

I’m going to do it anyway! Kim’s things do reveal a bit about her life, and even mine because I ended up with so much of it all when she died.

I swear, I was in full-on beast mode with her possessions back then. I needed to sell what I could to pay for Mom’s assisted living, and then I needed to downsize everything to move into the Airstream. Sorting, cataloging, selling and re-homing Kim’s stuff became my job.

Also, she really loved beautiful stuff. I don’t like thinking about how overwhelming it all was, but I love remembering individual items.

I have lots of stories related to Kim’s stuff, from the TR6 our dad gave her for her 16th birthday, with squealing brakes we could hear a mile away, to her record album collection she gave me when she went to college (she must’ve really liked some boy to buy all that Neil Young). There’s the china set she bought for me because she thought I‘d like it (I did) and the antiques we bought together to fill her new-to-her old farmhouse she bought from Mary Chaplin Carpenter in the mountains of Virginia

Which leads me to this story that happened soon after she’d died, a story I should start with because I talk about it so often.

Her stuff in Napa, briefly

It takes place after I had gone to her house in Napa where she died. I didn’t realize when I took that trip, but of course I had to sort through her belongings there and bring some back.

It wasn’t a lot (in terms of Kim) because she was trying to downsize to move to Mexico. But I had sorted and catalogued and brought back so much that I had to have a list of what was in each suitcase.

Mostly it was jewelry (I’ve mentioned that maybe enough times already), and computer hardware items and purses. Lots of purses that I had no idea would fetch so much money or I’d have been afraid to travel with them.

What’s this bill for storage units?

I was sorting through this Napa stuff when I came across a bill for storage units in Virginia, near that farmhouse she used to own. She’d moved from there eons ago, though, to Hawaii and then back to Virginia (but just apartments) and then on to California. What’s with the storage unit out in the country?

Lucky me got hold of the combo to the lock to one unit, and it turns out the second unit opened onto the first. My ex-husband was nearby so he opened it for me to take the first peek. This is what he saw.

The shots of the furniture were taken from on top of the boxes. You had to climb this storage unit to get a view of what was in there. Seriously.

Just one look and I knew she had asked someone to pack up all her stuff from that farmhouse and shove it into these storage units so she could move to Hawaii and not think about it anymore. All that beautiful stuff she and I had picked out at antique shops throughout Virginia.

Her grandiose mahogany headboard (that looks like my kid in her bed there). Her eight-seat dining room set a century old. Marble lamps shoved on top of leather chairs on top of unusual tables, with throw pillows stuffed between.

What was strange was how much junk she had been paying to store, as well. A box of curlers. A suitcase with a pill case inside populated with a month’s worth of mystery prescription meds. Under that, about 20 travel size tubes of toothpaste and a lifetime supply of Nicorette gum. Why would she save that stuff? And in a suitcase? Was this her escape bag she never used?

So this is where being on social media as much as I am pays off. I’d posted about this storage unit, and my cousin Lisa, whom I knew but wasn’t close with (yet), volunteered to help because she was riding a horse nearby most weekends. Bless her, she spent two Saturdays with Tracy and me, pulling boxes out from under arm chairs, sorting books from heating pads, and being delighted in Kim’s beautiful belongings. But then …

What should I do with all this stuff?

I.e. how do I make money from it quickly for Mom?

First, I tried to sell the whole two units as they were to estate dealers. No dice. No one was willing to sort through what they wanted and haul it out of there. They all were used to their being a house to display housewares, which makes sense.

So, then I tried to find a venue to stage it all in so I could hold an estate sale. Rent a community center? Use a real estate agent’s open house? I even found an estate-sales-expert person who would hold the sale with her contacts and take a reasonable cut if only I could find a venue.

I so wanted to play house myself with Kim’s furniture and art: set it all up, with dinnerware on the lovely table and embroidered linens laid out on a fake mattress, and I wanted to watch people walk through and ohh and ahh. No dice.

I was running out of options; I was paying monthly for these two storage units while every dime was coming from Mom’s savings, and Mom’s savings was running out. Plus, every time I showed off the stuff to a prospective buyer, I had to drive about 5 hours round-trip, and I was busy working and visiting Mom and selling the Napa stuff. It was time to take drastic measures.

Tracy had already helped me 1) move to my apartment, 2) move Mom to her assisted living, 3) move Mom to the memory unit building nearby, and 4) move me to his house. He agreed that moving Kim’s stuff to his house was a pain in the ass, yet necessary so I could regroup.

This is what that looked like.

With help from my beloved ex-laws and a couple of friends we hired, we got it all out of the units, into Tracy’s truck and a uhaul trailer, and into Tracy’s house, and I mean jammed in.

That’s when I started selling in earnest. Here are a few screen shots of my photo albums of stuff to sell: arm chairs, art, benches, china and porcelain and silver and pewter, it went on and on. If you and I were facebook friends back then, I apologize for how many times I posted photos of stuff I was trying to rehome. It distressed me to think of strangers with her things, so I tried to place them in friendly hands.

I mean, who else has a fox-hunting crystal set, with a lone fox running around the lip of each martini glass? A Martini Sisyphus perpetually running for its life.

Her knitting stash wasn’t yarn like regular people. It was full of cashmere and mohair.

* Notice how she shoved her lovely knitting and fabric swatches into a bright pink sewing kit, with projects half-knitted. Kim started everything she did with a bang, and then she moved on to the next bang-inducing project, leaving a bright trail behind.

Who has an original portrait of a boddhisatva on linen and a beautifully framed photo of the performance draft horse she studded out

I was on such a mega roll to turn items into cash for Mom that I didn’t spend much time on her stuff: I valued it, determined a seller or receiver, and sent it on down the line. Furniture ended up at an antique dealer—sadly, ironically, very near where we’d taken it all out of storage. Jewelry, handbags, scarves ended up with this very fancy consignment seller called TheRealReal, which I can tell you all about in another post: Luxury resales is a fascinating business. I donated, gifted, even sold to friends when I could. I was ruthless.

And then Mom died. And I looked around and wondered what I should have saved. I even wrote to my sister-ex-law and asked for a pair of earrings back, which is absurd because I don’t think I’ve ever worn them. Who wears earrings when they live in a trailer? Look at them though. They are so me.

I kept one of her silk jewelry travel bags that I now use for my brain stimulator anti-insomnia device. That device is such a sketchy-looking thing, with electrodes and straps, and the blue silk bag with embroidered lotus flowers transforms it into something lovely. I kept one pearlescent porcelain tray I take out from my t-shirts when we’re in place for a while for my eyeglasses at night. That’s about it. But I did learn a lot. But this, I didn’t know exactly what a sapphire looked like, much less what Le Creuset or Hermes were. Or the Bodhisattva Ksitigarbha. I mean, really.

Kim found comfort in beautiful things, amidst sleeping upright in chairs in the pediatric unit on and off for years on end, moving from hospital to hospital, living through her own mental health crises—beautiful items were her solace.

Oddly, I didn’t keep much of them because I moved into my own beautiful thing, our Airstream. She would have approved, for sure.

Let me know if I’ve mentioned something in this column that you’d like to hear about in the next installment. Or, if you’d like to contribute, either about my family or about your loved ones, I’d very much welcome that.

  • That set of fabric swatches turns out to have belonged to my friend Jacqui! Her taste is exquisite, as well.

4 thoughts to “My Sister’s Stuff: What I Found When She Died”

  1. I had a bit of a moment when I came across a photo of mine in there, I’m thinking oh my god, she had the same stuff as me! And then, no wait a minute, those *are* mine. Which photo is it? 😄

      1. Yes I’ve got a couple of spoons and an an amazing cake server that I try to use as often as possible and the pug stuff, and yes that’s my fabric 😂