Artifacts by Mark Liebenow

2018 Theme Issue: Keepsakes

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close up of empty wooden hangers in closet

Most Memorable: July 2018

Bones have piled up in my home like the catacombs in Rome filled with the bodies of dead saints. Evelyn sits on the desk by my left elbow. Father-in-law Stan rests in the muslin bag in the drawer. Our cat Vashti is curled up in a tiny pine box on the shelf.

I hold Evelyn’s bones in my hands, breathe on them in the morning’s cool air, and for a moment she is warm again. But bones do not breathe or go away. They remain behind and reveal the hard truth that marriage ends this way.


A month after Ev’s death, still in shock that someone in her 40s could die without warning, I sit in the silence of a house emptied of her voice.

Behind where I eat breakfast by myself, at the table with an empty chair, are Evelyn’s collections of Irish Belleek pottery and ceramic bells. What do I do with them? And what do I do with everything else that she loved enough to save? Walking around the house looking at her possessions, I stop at the theater posters on her workroom walls. Although she was an introvert, Ev loved to perform in theater shows, especially when she was able to sing, dance, and play comedy.

Photographs of her at different ages, photos of our trips up and down the West Coast, and pictures at parties with friends are displayed around the house. The one I like the most, though, is the one from a rehearsal of Quilters, taken the night before she died. Her energy had slowly returned after a year in bed dealing with the fatigue of Candida, and she had recently returned to teaching part-time. In her eyes I see the strength to endure whatever came next.

Evelyn’s possessions sit in drawers and in closets, on tables and on her desk, waiting for her to return and finish her work. Each one speaks of her interests and passions. The energy that was part of them has cooled into shadows, and they remind me, over and over, of the loving person who is no more. Wherever I look, there is something else that stabs me with a happy memory.

Looking for a ruler in my desk, I find the bundle of cards and letters from Ev that I’ve saved over the years, and risk reading them, including the one she sent after our first date. I forgot how open she was from the start.

It would be easier to throw all her possessions out and be done with it. This is what Beverly Gordon did. In her book, The First Year Alone, she says that she got rid of all her husband’s clothes in a week because it was emotionally hard to have them around. But then she had to deal with all the empty spaces in the house. Possessions are what I have left, and if I did what Gordon did, I would lose all the memories that Ev’s possessions bring back, so I am proceeding carefully.

In the beginning, I wanted to keep everything, and I mean everything, even her handwritten notes identifying food in the freezer, and the to-do list on the board, with a smiley face indicating her preference for which task we should tackle next. I didn’t want to lose anything that might remind me of some part of her personality, humor, or style. I was the default gatekeeper of her life. Dying forty years earlier than she expected, Ev didn’t have the chance to decide these things on her own, so this task is left for me.

Not all of the memories I treasure are possessions, like the feel of her body when we hugged, the look in her eyes when she woke in the morning and smiled, or holding her hand as we walked around town doing our shopping. I saved the sound of her voice on the answering machine so that I could listen to it in the future if I began to forget, but this was lost to a power outage during a thunderstorm. I don’t know how I am going to preserve the intangibles.


Then came a time when some of Ev’s things began to get in the way, like her bathrobe on the back of the door. Every time I took a shower, I felt annoyed that I had to take it down and put it back up. It was an old habit that no longer served a purpose, other than to keep part of her close. I realized that I was shifting from living with someone to living with a ghost. I also began to understand that if I didn’t let go of some of her things, I would never be able to reset the house and begin the new life I didn’t really want.

My sorting began two weeks ago with things I knew I’d never use. I packed up Evelyn’s teaching resources and took them to one of Ev’s friends who teaches nearby in a poor school in Hayward. Now Ev’s workroom looks bare.

Last week I sorted her bathroom gear. There was an assortment of shampoos, soaps, brushes, combs, tampons, a new razor that Ev wanted me to try (a Mach 3), hair caps, the tint we used to lightly color her hair, and a number of mysterious beauty items like blue goo for cleaning your face. Feeling silly, I gave it a try, letting it work on my face as I continued sorting. The aqua-colored paste heated up when rubbed with a little water, turning blue as it cleaned the pores. Afterward my face was silky smooth. And a little raw, like it took off a layer of skin.

I saved the Chinese herbal medicines from Evelyn’s sister, Barb, a certified Chinese acupuncturist, and several gallons of conditioner bought from a hairdresser friend. I threw away the pill bottles prescribed by various doctors in the months before her death to deal with the aches and pains that would not go away, no matter what we tried.

Today I’m dealing with Ev’s clothes. I take her nightgown off the bathroom hook and place her shoes in a large box. In the closet, her clothes are grouped in different sizes, reminding me how long Ev struggled with her weight. She tried different exercise programs like swimming and water aerobics, and I went with her to Jazzercise a couple of times. We also sampled new diets together when they came out. The bean diet was fun because of the sound effects, and we liked the taste, but Barb casually mentioned that we should consider using Beano.

I take Ev’s professional clothes to an organization that helps low-income women find the business clothes they need to interview for decent jobs. I deliver the rest to Goodwill.

A few clothes I will keep for sentimental reasons, at least for now, like the white cotton house coat that still has her scent, her ruby-red wedding dress, the low-bodiced Renaissance Pleasure Faire costume that accented her breasts, and the blue dress she wore at Molly and Francesco’s wedding in Yosemite last fall. Some I keep simply because they are tactile, like her nubby black sweater and her silky blue slip. These and others I put in the side closet with the presents for friends she had stockpiled over the last year. I will dole the gifts out for their birthdays and at Christmas, hoping they won’t think it’s odd to receive presents from a dead woman. I also keep the small onyx box that held her special jewelry, adding her wedding ring to the contents.

When her clothes are packed away, I shut the closet door, close the empty drawers, and feel that I have moved Evelyn another step away.


Over the years, I’ve kept one possession from other people I’ve loved and lost to remind me of them. I saved my grandmother’s letter opener with the carved wooden handle because she loved to write letters, and expected you to write a letter in return–a discipline I honor by getting out pen and paper whenever someone takes the time to write me a letter. From my grandfather I kept a deck of worn playing cards. In his years of retirement working at Schultz’s Apple Orchard in Wisconsin, I imagine him leaning back after a day working with the other pickers and playing a few hands before going home.

I don’t know what I will keep from my parents. Their house is filled with interesting art and craft objects, including over 160 paintings and sketches that mom has created over the years.

There are several shipping barrels in the basement from when dad was in the Army during the Korean War, and I shudder to think what he has stored in them. Dad is a retired family doctor but has kept a variety of medical paraphernalia. Among the items are old medical instruments (forceps, bone saws, tourniquets, syringes), a monkey’s heart preserved in formaldehyde, and the top half of someone’s skull. The skull is smooth to the touch on the outside, but its inside undulates with little ridges, nubs, and holes where blood vessels went through to nourish the scalp. I won’t hang on to them, but I may keep dad’s old Army socks from the 1950s because they never seem to wear out, even though I’ve been hiking in them for 20 years.


Dealing with the boxes from our last move makes me realize that I could prune my own accumulations. I don’t want to become a troglodyte of trash. Both Evelyn and I were children of parents who grew up during the Depression and learned to save everything that might be useful. I begin decluttering by making a monthly donation of clothes to Community Assistance and giving extra winter coats to a local group helping the homeless stay warm. I give away until what remains fits in my closets and drawers.

And books. Do I need them all? The short answer is no, but the heart answer is yes. This is the hardest parting for me because books are my passion, and it took a long time to assemble my library. I searched a long time for these books and bought many of them at used bookstores at good prices. It’s not likely that I will find them again and many are out of print. I know I would benefit from reading them, but now I have more books I haven’t read than those I have. I’ve kept one philosophy book because of the photograph on the cover. I make three piles — books I value because of the subject matter or amazing writing, books that I want to read soon, and books that I probably will never get to, including some that I inherited from my father-in-law. I donate the third group, and continue the winnowing process until my stacks of books are off the floor and on existing bookshelves. By the time I’m done, I have donated 2,000 books to the local library and kept my favorite 1,000. I resolve to maintain it this way, meaning that if a new book comes into the house, then an old one has to leave. This will keep my library fluid and in touch with my current interests. My library will change as I change. What I seek in books is wisdom, not an accumulation of facts and trivia.

If I make it to old age, I suspect that I will push to stay in my house until I no longer can. By that time, I will probably shuffle and limp around the house with only enough strength to cook, pay the bills, and do subsistence cleaning. There won’t be any energy left to sort through and dispose of my things. I will be in such sad shape that I will probably have trouble forming complete sentences and need assistance packing my bags as I go into assisted living. Few of my things will accompany me.


I admire the criteria for divestment that Joan Chittister and her covey of nuns in Pennsylvania use. If they haven’t used something in a year, they give it to someone who needs it. In Japan, Marie Kondo’s method of decluttering is to hold each object in your hands and, if it doesn’t bring you joy, then get rid of it. Sweden has a tradition called death-sweeping that seeks to help you deal with your possessions before you die so that you don’t burden your children with having to clean up after you. It also aims to simplify your lifestyle so that things don’t get in the way of your spiritual development. Thoreau said, “Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify. Simplify.”

Religions have long counseled their followers to keep their lives simple, although some push this emphasis too far for me when they say that we should live as one dead. Takeda Shingen says, “Zen has no secrets other than seriously thinking about birth and death.” Rather than being morbid, I take this to mean that our time on earth is limited, so do not waste it. Being aware that I could die at any time—as Ev’s death makes clear, dying of a heart problem we didn’t know she had—helps me live my life in mindful ways. I do like a fresh baked doughnut now and then.

If we knew that we would be dead in a year, we would live this year differently. We would live intentionally and do what we thought was the most important — taking the trips we always wanted, and making sure that the people we care about knew that we loved them. This is how we should be living anyway, instead of putting things off. The reality is that most of us live as if we think we won’t ever die. We’re surprised when the moment comes, and there’s no time to do what we wish we had always done. I want to reach that moment with no regrets.

I also don’t want to leave a mess that someone else has to clean up, and I’m not sure who this would be since we had no children. I sit down and make a will so that friends will get the possessions they’d value. Sue agrees to take care of my cats.

I also want to declutter my life so that I don’t spend so much of my free time dusting and maintaining things. I want to spend my time on deepening relationships, reading books, and hiking in nature. When people come into my home, I don’t want them to talk about my amazing possessions (well, maybe a few oohs and aahs about my library). Rather I want us to share what’s going on in their lives. I want there to be creativity and sparks flying between us as we share our ideas and dreams. I don’t want our time together to be a slideshow of the past.

Most of us are not collectors; we’re accumulators. We aren’t trying to collect first editions of books, or looking to own one masterpiece by every major Impressionist painter. I want the books that I will read again because they continue to challenge me. I want to focus not on things, but on helping each other follow our bliss. It is important to be aware of our past, who we’ve been, and the people who changed our lives, and physical things can help us remember these events and stories. Sometimes, though, we live so much in the past that we neglect where we want to go now, what we want to explore and try. Possessions too easily become comfortable substitutes for living the real thing. Continuing to take risks is the only way I grow.


The other day I wanted to do something for my friend Francesco, because his wife, Molly, had recently died in her thirties of cancer. Although they hadn’t experienced the death of someone close yet, their compassion did much to keep me going as I struggled to recover from Evelyn’s death. All the while, they were also dealing with Molly’s brain tumor, chemotherapy, mobility issues, and their growing fear that she wasn’t going to survive much longer.

Molly was loving, creative, and a painter with a wonderful eye for composition, especially when creating collages. She loved Yosemite, Francesco, and the Native American culture of the southwest. Despite her struggle, Molly kept reminding me to live in the moment, to celebrate what was good today, even if other things were going wrong. To be with someone you love is everything, she said, and to deny this joy was to deny life.

When Molly died, I knew there was nothing I could say to Francesco that would take his grief away, and little that I could do to cool his anger at the injustice of Molly’s dying, because I was still angry over Ev’s death. They had only been married for seven years, and most of that time involved dealing with her cancer. They had moved to Long Beach, 500 miles away from me, to be closer to her doctors who wanted to try a new experimental drug. I can’t stop by after work to sit with him in the silence that fills his heart and home, and help him bear the weight of grief.

Looking for something to send him instead, I see the native craft items that Ev brought back from a trip she took to the American Southwest. She went there two months before she died with Barbara, a childhood friend. It was to be a therapy trip for Barb who was grieving her husband’s death, and Ev went along to provide support.

As they traveled around, Ev took photographs of the red rock landscape near Sedona, sacred to the Yavapais and Apaches, the blue-shadowed snow, the rainbow rings in the petrified trees, an insistent raven that followed them, and the abandoned Wupatki Pueblo where Zunis, Navajos, and migrating clans of Hopis met and shared resources for thousands of years. There, walking among the remains of ancient civilizations, Ev discovered a spiritual home. When she came home, she brought several pieces of native artwork — Kokopele, a woven basket, pottery, and silver and turquoise jewelry.

What catches my eye is a small pottery bowl on Evelyn’s wooden table that holds signposts of where her life had turned. With a simple, red and black zigzag design, the bowl was crafted by Chinana of the Jemez Pueblo, one of the living remnants of her culture.

I carefully wrap it to send to Francesco, thinking that he could store some of Molly’s ashes in an art object made of the burnt earth and sacred pueblos they loved. But ultimately I could not give away this artifact of Evelyn’s rebirth. I send words instead, scraped from the dry canyons abandoned in my heart.


Eventually if I get down to one remaining possession of Evelyn’s, I think it will be something that she never owned. Shortly after she died, I saw a red alabaster heart in a store that was large enough to fill the palm of my hand, and bought it. Her heart and compassion for anyone who was suffering is what I treasure and miss the most — sitting with Giff as he was dying of AIDS, flying to Utah with a friend whose mother had died, and the late night phone calls to comfort someone whose son was struggling. This I never want to forget.

When a life ends, possessions filled with shadows remain behind. They hold echoes and emotions that do not fade like a switched off television. They haunt the lean hours, and scold for all that was not done. They linger, clog doorways, and smother any stray smiles that we somehow manage to make. Then, when we can no longer bear the memories, we throw their possessions out, and our dead die again.

Is this the weight and shape of love, what it’s reduced to in the end? Urns of ashes. Baby shoes bronzed. Snippets of hair carried in lockets. Notations of first and last words spoken?

Is this how love comes down, and what we rise to?

Mark-LiebenowMark Liebenow writes about nature, grief, and the wisdom of fools. The author of four books, his essays, poems, and reviews have been published in over 30 journals. He has won the River Teeth Nonfiction Book Award, the Chautauqua and Literal Latte’s essay prizes, and the Sipple Poetry Award. His work has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and named a notable by Best American Essays. His account of hiking in Yosemite to deal with his wife’s death, Mountains of Light, was published by the University of Nebraska Press. Visit him online, here.


STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Mark Grapengater

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