If you want to ride an emotional roller coaster, start sorting through “the past.” Six years ago, my mom passed away, leaving mostly me to go through her photo albums, boxes of “loose” photos, and what seemed to be “millions” of slides. (Remember those?) It took me two YEARS of dogged slogging to sort through those years of memories.

Roxanne Henke

Roxanne Henke

I sorted the photos into envelopes that got mailed to an assortment of relatives (most to my sisters). Then, I set up Mom’s old slide projector and screen, and my best (and patient) friend spent an entire weekend with me viewing and sorting slides. You can imagine the stories I needed to stop and tell. I took those “piles” to a photo shop and had them ALL scanned on DVDs with copies for my sisters and the grandkids.

After that, I took a break (mostly for emotional reasons) from the rest of my mom’s paperwork and letters she wrote when I was in college. They could wait (and wait) until I was ready. This past winter (four years later), I was once again ready to revisit the past.

I went through two large baskets of letters. I tossed almost all of them. I decided I didn't need every single letter my mom ever wrote me. (I swear she wrote me every day I was in college! It’s a good thing I dropped out, as it took me a couple months to read through them all.) All I wanted to keep were a few so I can remember her handwriting – it was beautiful. I did save about 30 letters she wrote while I was in college.

I’d previously read many letters I wrote to HER during that time. They were hilarious in my pathetic indecision. In one letter, I loved fashion merchandising. In the next letter, I was going to switch to business. In the next, I was thinking about being a flight attendant. And, then I was planning to quit school and move to my aunt’s house. Would Mom please ask if they’d mind me living with them? Oh, and I also was considering quitting school and getting married, even though I didn’t have a boyfriend at the time!

And then there were notes and letters that turned into an emotional minefield. I’d be laughing over one piece of paper. Like this note I wrote on “a cold spring day” (Mom had added that to the note with a blue crayon) when I was 7 years old: “I am running away because I am MAD. Love, Roxanne.”

Suddenly, I remembered my little, white doll suitcase, trimmed in red. I’d packed it with a Bobbsey Twins book and a peanut butter sandwich wrapped in waxed paper. I “ran” as far as our playhouse in the backyard, sat on the ground and ate my hastily made sandwich and was cold and homesick.

Then I opened a card my mom gave me the evening of my high school graduation and burst into tears, sobbing so hard I couldn’t read more than the first sentence. (My dad had died six weeks earlier. My graduation was in the high school gym – the same place my dad’s funeral had been held.) She wrote: “Dearest Roxy, As you know, the typewriter is what your father suggested to get you for a graduation gift.” Did he somehow know I would grow up to be a writer? I sobbed more, finally blinking away the tears enough to read the rest: “How proud he would have been to share this event with you. He told me many times how much he loved you and how proud he was, what enjoyment he got seeing happiness radiate through your eyes and smile. My prayer is that God will fill you with love and concern for everyone, especially those who are less fortunate, and that He will give you courage to face difficulties and disappointments that come into your life. These 17 years have gone much too fast and I want to thank you for being a wonderful daughter. My love always, Mother.”

The tears continued to flow (and do again as I type this). My dad has been gone more than 47 years and that grief is still “right there.” This task was cathartic, but hard. Once again, I had to take a break.

I ended up finishing the letter-reading process by putting them all in a box by my bed and reading a few every night. I’d gotten through the “hard part.” What was left were accounts of coffee parties and local news (who was dating who, and which team won the ball game). The fun part was discovering snippets of my mom’s quirky (and hilarious) humor. She wrote about the test paper my middle sister had left on the kitchen counter. My sister had gotten every problem wrong but one. On the bottom she’d written: “On my honor, I did not cheat.” Mom, an excellent seamstress, wrote about the beautiful stretchy fabric she’d found. “I sewed my jumpsuit Friday night and it fits good. The only thing with that soft material it makes my stomach look like I swallowed a whole watermelon.”

I’ve gone through it all now – photos, letters, bank statements, insurance papers, birthday cards, newspaper clippings. I tossed the mundane but kept the saddest and the funniest. I’m left with the best of the past. It’s composed of tears, laughter, memories and love. It’s called “my life.”

Roxanne (Roxy) Henke is on a mission to make sure her daughters don’t have nearly as much “memorabilia” to sort through when the time comes. Watch for a future column about downsizing and minimizing, and what she’s discovered. Roxy is the author of eight novels. You can contact her at roxannehenke@yahoo.com