Two Lives Erased

I stood on the front terrace and looked at the beautiful view one last time:  across the Parc Alsace Lorraine at the hills surrounding Nice, France.

The floors of the 6th floor apartment had been swept clean.  The last pieces of furniture had been removed and trash tossed.  Twenty years of a couple’s life had been cleared out:  one full truckload to the auctioneer and one full truckload to the garbage dump.

In three days of hard work … sorting, packing, and cleaning … two lives had been “erased:”  those of my aunt and uncle who had died well into their 80s.  Their decision to have their ashes strewn among flower beds meant there weren’t even headstones to mark their journey through this life.

I chose a few pictures I wanted as remembrances of the good times we shared.  Then, as they had no children, I asked myself who I’d give the piles of photo albums to.  Photos of trips to Marrakesh and Casablanca.  Their gorgeous villa overlooking the port of Marseille.  The olive trees on their hillside property that provided each year’s rich olive oil.  What about the document trail we all create: birth certificates, marriage licenses, baptisms, and death certificates?  Suddenly they were bits of paper with no further use.  Gone.

My Aunt Elizabeth was born in Dijon, in eastern France, and was a teenager when she saw trains moving people through her hometown in the late 1930s (there were whispers that those were Jews being relocated), often in the dark of night.

Her father was a local farmer and her mother had died when she was a child.  I never heard her speak of any other family.  From the photos I found, she had had a rough start.  But Paris beckoned by the early 1940s as a place of greater opportunity.

One of those “opportunities” took the form of a young captain in the U.S. Merchant Marine who made voyage after voyage across the North Atlantic throughout the war, supplying the Brits in their war effort.  Convoys of up to 24 ships would leave the States, and at times only 2 would make it to England.  He was one of the lucky ones.

As they say, “the rest was history.”  My Uncle Arthur met Elisabeth in Paris after the war and never returned to the U.S., except for short visits.  He finished out his career sailing for different shipping lines around Europe.  As for the small inheritance he received from his father (my grandfather) in 1946, he turned that over to Elisabeth.  With that, she built business after business, invested in real estate, and financed a pretty nice life for the two of them.

I met them in the 1980s when my international career took me to Belgium and France to live, and I slowly became the daughter they never had.  After Arthur’s death in 1999, I became Elisabeth’s lifeline and eventual caretaker (even if at a long distance).

Fast forward to the present:  the elderly widow who died around Christmas 2009 had surrounded herself with antiques, rare books, and valuable paintings.  Over the years, she worried about them, put in alarm systems, and installed an impenetrable steel door.  She paid high premiums for decades to insure her treasures.  And she obsessed over what she was leaving behind.

It took over a year to resolve some legal issues and be able to empty the contents of her apartment.  Last week I enlisted the help of my best friend and we undertook that task, working with three different sets of movers.  First was a pair of priests who would take whatever did not have “commercial value” but would be useful to the poor they assist.  Then came an international mover who packed up the handful of things I wanted, both as remembrances and as pieces I had always loved.  And lastly, the local movers who would take everything else to the auction house and to the dump.

I watched the local movers sort between things that had any value at an auction house and those that didn’t.  Perfectly usable things went into the dump group.  And when the mover’s boss made the comment that what was left … all of Elisabeth’s antiques, rare books, and valuable paintings … wouldn’t even bring enough to cover the $4,000 cost of the move, I was speechless.

I know we all give far greater value to the things we own than we do to things owned by others.  And I know she was particularly attached to her belongings … and overvalued them … because she had come from nothing and had made something of herself.

But to realize that what she insured so highly, what she spent all her energy protecting and obsessing over, wasn’t even worth enough to pay to move it out of the apartment …

Suddenly, even the physical pieces that had survived the death of the couple became transparent, diminished, and almost valueless.  Erased.

This was another valuable reminder about priorities, particularly about how we spend our money and how we treasure our “things.”  At least it was for me.

Once again, thank you Aunt Elisabeth.

xxxxxxx

Sharon O’Day is an expert in global finance and marketing with an MBA from the Wharton School. She has worked with governments, corporations, and individuals … yes, she was the secret ‘weapon,’ if you will, behind many individuals in high places. At age 53, she lost everything: her home, her business, everything. Since then, Sharon has interviewed women and done extensive research to understand how that could have happened, especially with her strong knowledge of numbers and finance.

The surprising answers will be shared in her upcoming book “Money After Menopause.” Today her focus is to show women how to reach financial security for the long term. She has developed a step-by-step plan to get past all the obstacles that keep women broke and scared … and from reaching the financial peace of mind they so deserve.

  • Sharon, this is such a beautifully written story that reminds us that the real value of the true legacy we all leave behind is in the living we did, the lessons we pass on and the memories we share…thank you for sharing a bit of your Aunt Elisabeth’s with us!

  • Carol Bender

    I love decorating with antiques. When I did therapeutic foster care, social workers looked around and reminded me that these troubled children often break THINGS. I laughed and told them that I buy what I love and didn’t pay more than $40 for any one thing. I love children more than any thing. I’m sure your aunt loved you more than any of those treasures she surrounded herself with. It’s nice that you have special pieces to remember her by. The relationship the two of you had sounds more valuable than all the stuff in the world.

    • Carol, the relationship was often affected by money and “things.” In fact, at one point she and her husband said they wanted to adopt me so I wouldn’t have to pay 60% inheritance tax to the French government. It would be easy since we already had the same last name and my parents were both deceased. That so skewed the relationship, that I withdrew for 4-5 years. I never wanted them to think it was all about the money, yet it was hard to talk about it openly. It took years to heal the break, but Elisabeth finally understood it was all about her and not the money. Talk about convoluted!

  • Duchessherri

    Sharon, This message is very enlightening. I shall continue to lighten my load as I de-clutter my home and my life. What a lesson to learn, insuring things that have sentimental value to us but no real value to anyone else. The insurance money paid over the years could have been used for charity, travel, meaningful life experiences, tickets to the opera, a great orchestral concert, building a playground… Shall be mulling over this lesson some more and I’m sure there is more to learn than the obvious. Thanks again for sharing and for your valuable insights as to what really is important in life.
    Duchess Sherri Ann Fransen

    • So glad that these little missives give you food for thought … as they do me!

  • And yet Elisabeth’s legacy lives on in you, Sharon…. she modeled good care of finances, managing businesses, and her life itself was her greatest treasure as she lovingly shared it with you, her ‘adopted’ daughter. This is a great picture of the difference between true wealth and worldly wealth and it causes us to think more deeply about what we are investing the most of our time and energy into! Thanks for the picture into your own life, Sharon, and the wake up call to invest into true wealth!

  • And yet Elisabeth’s legacy lives on in you, Sharon…. she modeled good care of finances, managing businesses, and her life itself was her greatest treasure as she lovingly shared it with you, her ‘adopted’ daughter. This is a great picture of the difference between true wealth and worldly wealth and it causes us to think more deeply about what we are investing the most of our time and energy into! Thanks for the picture into your own life, Sharon, and the wake up call to invest into true wealth!

  • It reminds me of the time my parents died when I was in my early twenties; we went through all the memories and the things that they gad accumulated in our home. What do we leave behind; what will people say about us; what did we do make this earth a better place? Great article Sharon, thanks!!

  • I love this story. It is amazing how you spend a life time taking care of your stuff for some one to clean it out and most of it is trash… again … what is really important is not what we think it is. Enjoyed this

  • Fay

    This reminded me of when my husbands parents passed away a short time ago. The ‘things’ certainly accumulate. Thank you for sharing Sharon.

  • Amazing! Sharon this story brought me to tears. I remember when we cleaned out my grandma’s house, 50+ years of memories and treasures. Grandma, like your aunt came from nothing and treasured each “thing” she ever bought. We found things in her closets that were brand new, still in the boxes…now to put into a garage sale. She would have been devastated, but we could not incorporate her whole home into our humble one. I hope many people will read this and think on your key points for they are more valuable than pure gold.

    • Carla, part of the lesson in all this is about the expectation your grandma and my Aunt Elisabeth had that somehow all the things they treasured “should” be housed in our homes. I think it’s up to us now to not leave major messes for those we leave behind … and be okay with the fact that our treasures are not necessarily their treasures. They too have the right to gather those things they want … and not hold on to ours out of guilt or loyalty.

  • Wow, Sharon. So beautiful and an abundance of wisdom, as usual.

    I’ve never gotten attached to things, so it’s a puzzle to me that people go to such lengths to find, pay for, protect and store “stuff.” I’d much rather have “experiences” be my treasures 🙂

    • Amity, you’re fortunate to have been raised with those beliefs. My experience is that you are in the great minority in whatever messaging you got as a child. I hope you’re passing those same messages on to your children: they’re a true gift!

  • Something churn inside of me as I read this…as I imagine her belongings, once precious and cherished, now gone just like her. It must have been emotional for you to walk through that process. Gives us more reasons to value relationships and creating memories together more than stuff. For the past year, sometimes, it is nauseating to me even to see things in stores when I have to do the occasional shopping. Valuable lessons here.

    • Claudia, I think I just walked through the last set of “in-your-face” lessons from my Aunt Elisabeth’s passing, but will continue to benefit from the wisdom she shared over the years. I must admit, I’ve come home focused on releasing things to people who need and want them if they’re not part of the few treasures that I love sharing space with!

  • Wow, Sharon. So beautiful and an abundance of wisdom, as usual.

    I’ve never gotten attached to things, so it’s a puzzle to me that people go to such lengths to find, pay for, protect and store “stuff.” I’d much rather have “experiences” be my treasures 🙂

  • You have such a gift!!!!! Loved this story & I love who you are for sharing so freely! 

  • A beautiful story of a timeless lesson. Things can always be replaced. People, however, cannot! Looking forward to reading more of your “life” lessons!

  • Linda Toqe

    Very timely message in this for me! Just this week my sisters and I are going through our mom’s belongings after she passed away in July, and there is very little real value to all the stuff that is left. Like you said — a very few things that have sentimental meaning, but so much just goes in the trash or gets donated to different causes. Made me think a lot about the stuff I’m keeping around. I am a “collector” — especially of books and information in other forms, too — but I realize that all those things I save will have little to no value to those who will live on after me — and be left to deal with it! Hmmm… need to get started now and pare down! Like Amity, I also LOVE collecting experiences, but at least those don’t take up any more space than in my head! Thanks for the encouragement, Sharon!

    • Linda, I reread this post after seeing your comment.  It took me back to those strong feelings of the disproportionate importance we put on things.  Amity’s right … as are you.  Experiences take up far less room!  (But I do still love having — and using — the few special pieces I salvaged …)

  • Yetunde

    Thank you Sharon for sharing this. Brings to mind the exact feelings I had when we were clearing out my late Mother’s belongings. She had passed on when I was fourteen but my Dad kept all her treasurers for us to sort out when we were older. ( That was done about 24 years later. Most of the things had no more value. Even though it was so long after losing her, it was such an emotional experience. I believe our most important treasurers are our life experiences and ones we hold dear in our hearts – not the material things for they will pass away.