Sorting a Life ~ Jamie’s Blog for The Caregivers

Jamie O’Reilly’s Thanksgiving Blog

Ready for anything. Sorting a life. 
For the caretakers this Thanksgiving

“I think it’s time to consider the possibility that you might never reuse your old jars.”

Several people with whom I am close have the task upon them to sort their loved ones’ things. Family members who are unable to care for themselves, need to move, have moved, are ending their days, or have passed on. For various reasons, their loved ones can no longer speak for — or care for themselves. My friends have learned they must be ready for anything. Stories behind their things become unimportant and sentimental in light of the urgent matters at hand. But sort they must.

THINGS, in crates and boxes, shelves and drawers, burgeoning closets, under the bed, over the top, need to be gone through. These possessions, a road map to how they lived, what they invested in, what they put-off till tomorrow. A living history of who they were.

The British call caretakers “carers.” I like that. It is an arduous job, infused with gravitas, as we grapple with the immediate and what is needed to get over the next hurdle. Seeing someone through the end days, when aging and deteriorating conditions have advanced, wipes us out. We do not have the luxury of making sense of the past, of who they are, who they were. Of contemplating what-ifs — what we wished they’d been to us, or how it could have been different. It is nose-to-the grindstone. As we sort possessions, manage paperwork and finances, what we need is a few hours more sleep, and a stronger back!

Peace-of-mind, what we hope they will leave us with, may be a long time coming.
We wish for angels.

I am no longer caring for an elderly person, or tending a failing loved one. My mother died two years ago, nearing her 95th birthday. Our family circle had few elderly relatives. Aunt Margaret, now 90 and lovingly cared for by her daughter Ellen, is the last of them. I never knew my grandparents. I know the end is a difficult chapter to see through.

I have the gift of memories now, and time to sort the past.

Sorting. I told myself when I moved from house to apartment, the meaningful things of mine would reveal themselves. They’d be what I kept. Cherished things have gallery-worthy presence here: Aunt Dorothy’s piano, six painted chairs, a folk-art mosaic of Our Lady of Guadalupe (Great Uncle Tuck made from my mom’s ironing board in the 50s), Grandfather Otto’s charcoal of evening in the woods, a cabinet of old sheet music, and Christmas ornaments.

I’ve added eccentric purchases from resale shops and estate sales to an already full space. Giving new life to somebody else’s treasures, vowing I won’t grow emotionally attached to them, but I do. My home during Covid-anxious days was a still-life to before, when people gathered and sang together. Its rooms awaiting set dressing, like early rehearsal of a new play. Always anticipatiing the next party.

I am trying to revive the way it was. Home has changed after so many losses in the past few years, but still each season gets its due. Vases, china, artwork, and coffee table books are moved around, keeping me company while I write or read. Objets d’art from friends — Loretta’s way-cool gourd-vase, Maureen’s fairy treehouse, the “Margaret” dishes and countless tchotchkes from Anne, ‘just because she thought of me’, get prime placement. I move Michael’s Martin guitar, kept in its case, from place to place. It is never far from my sight. I hang two glass bird ornaments from my Mom on arrangements of willow branches in the spring, and on the Christmas tree in December.

As I shift from autumn to winter, sorting what stays and what goes on now clutter-clear counters and bureautops, I think about the stories I will tell my grandchildren. I’ll wait for them to discover a little bell, dish of pebbles and beads, or the “very fragile” music box, they’ll pick up, (knowing they may overwind it, or even drop it) and I’ll tell them its story.

Hoping when it is my time to go, they’ll remember.

Ready for Anything
On Saturday, I dug through the top-dresser drawer and retrieved a winter hat. Cold was predicted that day, maybe even some snow. I picked-up my two eldest sisters, in two different cities, and drove toward the lake. It’s been over a year since they’ve seen each other. It’s an animated reunion, as we remark on the winter gear we’re wearing — scarves, hats, boots, mittens — which are gifts from family, which were bought in-person, from this store or that, before the pandemic, and whether they are holding up well.

“I’m wearing Bella’s hat,” I tell Gloria and Cecilie, tugging on the slouchy brown stretch cap. Remembering countless winter days, when our late sister Beth Ann arrived at the party, snow-dusted in stiff snow pants and ruddy boots, laughing, and ready for anything.

My sisters nod. We all go quiet, and watch the winter-clouds gather. The Canada geese head south over the lake.


May you find rest as needed, and peace in the days and months ahead. Happy Thanksgiving.
Dedicated to Judy, Maureen, Miki, Connie, Paul, Ben, Ellen, Jeanne, Ruth, Theresa, Margaret and Nancy.


Vinegar Man CD

Listen to Jamie, accompanied by the Rogues, sing Vinegar Man

2021 ©Jamie O’Reilly, Jamie O’Reilly Productions
Website and Blog


Cartoon image shared from The New Yorker