The things you leave behind
In cleaning her father’s cousin’s apartment, Nancy Braus found this photo of Madelin, left, with her partner, Renee.

The things you leave behind

Sorting through a 96-year-old relative’s belongings paints a picture of a life well lived. It also evokes some observations about our worldly possessions.

PUTNEY — About 30 years ago, my sister and I agreed to be the executors for Madelin, who was a first cousin of our father. Of course, when you make this sort of a promise to a healthy, strong 60-year-old, the reality is far in the future.

Madelin lived to be 96, although the last four years or so were a time of mental decline, so when she finally died in mid-November, it was a blessing in many ways.

A tough, assertive, and outspoken woman, she was a great role model for me and for many who knew her.

A lifelong New Yorker, she had a special love for the city and all it had to offer. She particularly enjoyed the High Line, a relatively new elevated park that was built from a closed rail line and has become a huge attraction. She also loved the many museums, and as she lost her sight in her old age, she participated in an amazing program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for people with limited or no sight to learn to appreciate the art by touch and description.

Madelin came out gradually as a lesbian about 35 or 40 years ago. She had a long-term partner: Renee, an artist, who was a few years older than she was and died about five years ago.

Our father and Madelin grew up together and maintained a close relationship when they were both able to do so. She had a number of interesting jobs, from special educator to her work for a New York bank, which offered employees paid education and she was the one to counsel them about how to use the benefit to improve their possibilities.

One of Madelin's closest friends was supposed to clean out her apartment, but he was too distressed over her death to do this work. So, as her executors, my sister and I dove into the job.

* * *

Madelin had an amazing old age. She was very active in a New York group, SAGE (Senior Action in a Gay Environment). For about two decades, she was quite public.

One morning, while listening to Morning Edition on NPR, I heard a very familiar, and distinctive, voice. Madelin was being interviewed about her activism, and when asked if she was out to her family, she said mostly yes, but “I haven't come out to my brother yet.” Stated on national radio.

She and Renee were on the front page of the Village Voice as the elders at a Catskill LGBTQ swing dancing weekend. They were frequently in parades, and an absolute high point for them was attending a lesbian and gay meeting at the White House with Michelle and Barack Obama.

They never lived together, but for about 30 years they spent every weekend with each other, and they traveled together when they could.

* * *

Of course, we were not alive when Madelin was a young woman, but as I was weeding out the thousands of photographs, most of which are sadly in a landfill by now, I came to a few conclusions.

• Nobody wants your old travel photos. Nobody will keep photos of people who are forgotten to the world. The digital photography revolution will change all this, but for those with boxes of unlabeled photos, either organize and label them, or they will definitely not outlive you!

• Why do people keep certain items?

My sister found a trove of love letters written to Madelin by two different men, before she found her sexual orientation. One was a classic “dear John” letter with the expected ”don't ever contact me again” message stated repeatedly and eloquently. The other man, who may have actually been her fiancé, wrote beautiful, passionate, informative, and lovely letters for a few years. This man was eventually dumped by Madelin, who may have had insight into her preference for women at that point, but we will never know.

• Like printed photos, handwritten letters with fine, descriptive language are also a disappearing art - or maybe gone already. As my sister read some of these out loud, we really got a strong sense of who this man might have been and even felt we knew him a bit. My sister went online to hunt this man down, with no success.

• I feel fortunate to have had Madelin in my life and to be able to help with the important jobs of sorting out her remaining possessions, helping plan a memorial at the SAGE office, and sharing whatever tasks remain as an executor.

• Short of a fire destroying your home, someone will have to go through the things you leave behind.

* * *

I am already feeling the need to begin to thin the junk herd. Old holiday cards? Clothing that has not left the drawer for 10 years? Souvenirs that are meaningful only to me?

While I will never be Marie Kondo - I don't believe that possessions create joy - this task has definitely made me think.

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