What to Do With Mother’s Stuff?

How long does it take to dispose of a parent’s lifelong possessions? One month, my sister thought, but I wanted to do it in a week. We’d recently moved our 94-year-old mother from her home in L.A. to a facility for people with Alzheimer’s disease, and we knew she would not be coming back.

After negotiating, we agreed to clear two weeks from our calendars.

My sister, Terry, lives in Hawaii, and I live in Colorado, so we flew to L.A. and hit the deck running. Our first task was selling the car, a ’98 Honda Civic our mother had driven only 37,000 miles. I checked the Blue Book, thinking we’d be lucky to get a couple thousand, and was surprised to see it valued at $6,800.

We listed it online at $5,900, doubting we’d get that much, and within minutes the phone rang and did not stop. People were begging to come right over and take it sight unseen. Clearly we’d priced it too low. Everyone was panting for a gas-thrifty car with low mileage.

What to do? Should we cancel the ad and list it at a higher price? Hold a bidding war? We didn’t have the stomach or time for a war. Terry said, “Someone will be blessed. Haven’t you ever gotten a good deal that made the difference in whether you could buy something or not?” Yes, I thought. My house. So we sold the Honda to the first person who brought us full price in cash. It was gone within the hour.

But the rest of the job did not go quickly — the melancholy task of emptying out every room, every drawer. I wanted to be ruthless and get rid of everything except the pieces family members wanted. The rule I’d been taught by Joan Didion, whom I’ve known for more than 30 years, is that at times like this, you should touch an object only once. Make a decision and move on. But Terry wanted to make a “yes,” “no” and “maybe” pile. The compromise was: I kept what I thought that I or my kids would want, and she made “yes,” “no” and “maybe” piles. At night, after we’d quit working, she’d go through her “maybe” pile and mull.

We started with the hardest part — the papers, photos and films. My father, who died in ’89, was a radio and camera freak who’d made primitive home movies in the ’30s and reel-to-reel tapes of family gatherings. I persuaded Terry that we should discard them all. We had no projector to view the movies, and nothing that would play the tapes. We hadn’t looked at them since they’d been made, so why drag them to our homes to gather dust?

I’ve come to regret that decision.

We moved on to the furnishings. The Honda, it turned out, was the only item our mother owned that anyone desired. We called a woman who conducts estate sales, but after viewing our mother’s crystal, silver, china and furniture, she said, “It’s bubbie stuff. No one wants it. It’s not worth my time to handle.” There was one object in the den, however, that “everyone will want,” she said. I went in and tried to guess, but everything looked like junk.

“That lamp,” she said, pointing to a cheap lamp from the ’50s. “That’s what’s hot now — mid-twentieth century.”

We ended up selling most of the furniture to a secondhand dealer for bubkis and donating everything else to charity.

We had fun with the clothes, though. Our mother liked loud colors, garish prints, frills and ruffles. We’d hold up a blouse covered with ric-rac cactus and mariachi players and crack up. “How could she buy this, let alone wear it?”

We finished the job on schedule, utterly spent. In the end, everything she possessed, including the Honda, went for a total of about $10,000. Flying home, I resolved that as soon as I had time, I’d go through all my rooms and shed, shed, shed. Because someday my kids will be going through my boxes of notebooks, fishing through my stacks of purple shirts, Indian jewelry and decaying snorkeling gear, throwing most everything out. They’ll surely laugh. “I can’t believe she bought this. What was she thinking?” Sara Davidson is the author of “Leap: What Will We Do With the Rest of Our Lives?”