This fall, my 81-year-old mother moved out of her home of 27 years into a senior facility in a neighboring state. During a bittersweet long weekend, our family came to help her pack. Throwing open closets and drawers, we sorted through every inch of the house, discovering old books, crumbling scrapbooks full of yellowed wedding announcements, and a particularly cringeworthy set of slides from the 70s. One closet yielded a trove of family silver, long forgotten, and the generational divide opened wide when the grandchildren showed not the slightest interest in the pieces — “No more things” became their rallying cry. 

The boxes of old letters distracted me most. I poured over my beloved grandmother’s stash of handwritten notes, her distinctive handwriting triggering a wave of emotions. I discovered a folder of letters that my father wrote to his own father in the late 1950s, as his marriage was breaking up — an intimate glimpse into a part of his life I’d known little about. Afterward, dusty and aching from hauling junk, we capped the busy days with long, loud family dinners, until the dining room table left in the back of a pickup truck, bound for new owners.

If you’ve ever had to pack up a childhood or a parent’s home, you will understand the stew of emotions that rides along. It’s a deep dive into what was. For me this was the second time around. Nine years ago we sold a beloved family cabin in Vermont that I’d first visited at the age of six weeks, shutting a rickety door on decades of childhood memories. I’d made my own home and life, but I truly mourned the loss of that place. 

This time around, while poignant, felt different — I was filled with gratitude, not sadness. I’m at that stage of life when almost everyone I know is grappling with aging parents, whether health, emotional, or caregiving issues or just dealing with houses and apartments filled with So. Much. Stuff. My mother, still healthy, chose to make this change herself, so her move felt like a beginning instead of a diminishment. I‘m immensely  proud of her resilience and adventurous spirit.  And my family did all this joyfully, without rancor. We may not be gathering around that particular dining room table this year at Thanksgiving, but we are still together.