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Reading My Mother’s Mind: On Packing Up a Personal Library

This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.

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Is there anything more intimate than cleaning out another person’s home—deciding which of her possessions, collected with love or without thought, is important enough to keep; and what, then, to do with the rest?

Aside from the fact that it usually comes with some degree of sadness, the process requires a set of emotional gymnastics, a series of shifts from empathy to self-interest and back again: This thing is archival or an important memory marker; this meant something to her so it now means something to me; this did its duty but now can be set free; this has no conceivable use for anyone, ever. Family photographs are easy (keep). Recipe clippings from the 1980s are easy (dump). Books—or rather a library, as opposed to a half shelf of bestsellers in the corner of the family room—are almost never simple. A library embodies the trajectory of a life and intellect, and to sort, Solomon-like, through someone else’s story in books is a responsibility not to be taken lightly.

The process, the responsibility, intensifies when this person is your mother.

It took my sister and me under a minute to split up the labor of cleaning out our mother’s apartment when we finally moved her to a nursing home. Her dementia had reached the point where even a full-time home health aide couldn’t give her the care she needed, and when mom landed in the hospital after refusing to take a round of

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