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.
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.