Prompt from Maiya: Estate Planning
I need to write a will. Now that it is only me, the transition if I die isn’t so easy. When Scot died, we held all the big stuff in Joint Tenancy, so what was ours, was now mine. There were a few loose ends, but really not so much, not too difficult, not too costly.
But when I die, there are more complicated issues. There are our three kids, their kids and properties, cars and retirements accounts that they will need to take care of.
But even more overwhelming is all the stuff. Not just my stuff, not just Scot’s stuff, but my mom’s stuff, Scot’s mom’s stuff, the kids’ stuff that they didn’t take with them, and miscellaneous stuff that accumulates like dust.
Early in 2012, when my mother’s health was failing, I was spending a week with her, and thought I would broach the subject of all the stuff. We were sitting at the kitchen table, clutter everywhere, breakfast dishes waiting to be cleared, the day’s newspaper spread carelessly about. I turned to her and asked her, “What do you want to do with your stuff, afterwards?” She looked at me, fully understanding what I meant, and deadpanned, “What stuff?”
After she died my three sisters and I went through the house, room by room, drawer by drawer. We had eight boxes, one for each of us kids, and we would throw old letters, school awards, drawings into the boxes, sorted by sibling. At the end of the week, we gathered together, from oldest to youngest, and picked over the remains, selecting mementos, making trades, but eventually each of us getting a little slice of mom and dad’s stuff.
Around 2015, five years after my father-in-law passed away, my in-laws’ lake home, which became our lake home, was still vacant but filled with their household goods. My mother-in-law had moved into the cities to be closer to her kids. We had come out of the recession, and our small business was back on its feet, but money was still tight, and I knew that it would behoove us to try to support the lake house with rental income. So in the spring of 2015, I announced that I would be renting the lake home, and anything anyone wanted or that they wouldn’t care if a renter stole or broke could stay, but everything else had to go. It felt like a harsh sentence, but it was true—I didn’t want to have a cherished heirloom dropped by a drunken partier.
The process was heart wrenching. With my mom, there were enough family members—kids, grandkids, great-grandkids—that virtually everything found a home, at least long enough that I didn’t have to watch it go to the dump. But with the lake home there was only my husband and his two sisters and all of us had homes that were already overflowing. My heart broke for my mother-in-law—treasures she had kept for a lifetime went homeless. But the heartbreak wasn’t enough for me to volunteer to keep it. There might have been room in my heart, but there wasn’t room to store it anywhere.
Our three kids were embarking on their lives, establishing their own homes but even they didn’t need or want more stuff from their grandmothers. My daughter said curtly, “I want one item to remember Gramma Emmy by.” I gave her a Japanese porcelain cat, forever curled on a pillow, hypo-allergenic.
Right now I am dealing with my own household goods. We sold our home of 33 years in May, downsizing to a two-bedroom, two bath condo. In a few weeks the last of the storage unit stuff will be moved to my second bedroom. I’m determined not to emulate my sister who’s had a storage unit for years, the contents of the musty, dusty boxes forgotten.
It begs the question: what is important in life? What is the greatest gift we can give our children, our sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles, our friends near and far? Is it the sterling silver? The Royal Doulton china? The Waterford crystal? The house on the lake (that demands backbreaking maintenance constantly)?
In the olden days, all that stuff represented wealth. It truly had value. Today entire sets of china are being sold on Craigslist and eBay for less than one place setting sells at retail. Waterford listings are endless, everyone trying to garner more than shipping costs.
Money still has value. It is effortless. Who doesn’t appreciate a few hundred, thousand, tens of thousands? I don’t know, because I haven’t gotten a windfall, but money can always be put to use. But if we’ve been lucky, our kids are making their own way in the world, with steady incomes and good jobs. They don’t need our money, just like they don’t need our stuff.
Maybe the gift we can give as we grow old, or the gift that we have already given our kids, is time and space. Through giving of our time we give them guidance, love, respect. Giving them space lets them grow.
That’s all I want from them, too.