What They Left Behind: Photos of Things People Kept to Remember Their Deceased Loved Ones

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By Leah Sottile

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The last time I saw my aunt Pat was at a party on her back deck on a sticky summer afternoon when it seemed like everything was fine. She wanted a party for her birthday and we gave it to her, flying from all corners of the country, knowing it might be her last. She wore her best wig—a smart gray bob—and smiled like there was nothing to be sad about. It didn’t really seem like she was dying.

She’d been in a standoff with cancer for years, but it swiftly took her a few months later, and I found myself again halfway across the country, standing in her home, looking at the spare belongings of a woman who’d lived for years looking over her shoulder, knowing death was close by.

If there was jewelry, I didn’t want it. If there were heirlooms, I didn’t ask for them. Instead, I took a cassette tape—green plastic, with a handwritten label that read: “Nixon’s resignation. SAVE!” I also took a copy of the April 1972 issue of Cosmopolitan magazine, the edition containing Burt Reynolds’ famous bearskin rug centerfold. More than anything else, these things reminded me of my aunt: funny, bookish, smart. You’d never know these are some of my most prized possessions.

If I could cherish an old cassette tape and a dog-eared copy of a magazine, I wondered what other people had saved of the people they loved. What I found was that in death, what we want most aren’t the heirlooms or the valuables, but the things that help us remember our loved ones for exactly who they were.

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Merrilee

My grandma had a lot of fancy statues, trinkets, and jewelry. When she passed away, I only asked for two things of hers: this toad magnet and a “naughty” light switch cover.

She was really, really funny, and the magnet was just another funny thing of hers. She always played pranks on my aunts and uncles when they were teenagers and she had this huge, wonderful, cackling laugh. She always bought us funny cards—never sappy ones—for our birthdays and she had a light switch cover in one of her spare bedrooms that was a flasher. You know, a naked dude in a trench coat.

I come from a big Italian family and every Sunday growing up, all the local relatives would go to my grandparents’ house for dinner. That toad magnet was on the fridge at grandma and grandpa’s as long as I can remember and now it reminds me of those Sunday dinners and being a kid. My grandparents had a huge yard with a swing set, big raspberry bushes, a jungle gym, a vegetable garden, a flower garden, and an in-ground swimming pool. More fun times were had at that house than I can count. I keep it on my fridge, so I see it every day.

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KENDRA

The molar is from my dog Rose; the little one is from my dog Hannah. I also kept a lock of hair from my horse I had as a child. I wanted to keep the teeth because after they die, you either bury them or have them cremated, which leaves you with an unrecognizable lump of ash that you can’t touch or hold. I wanted to keep the teeth because I will always have a little piece of them… even if it’s a gross tooth.

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Kevin

My youngest sister’s body was found ten years ago, on the day dedicated to Our Lady of Sorrows. She died by suicide. She became a psych nurse in order to help others who, like her, struggled with depression and the off-kilter life as someone bipolar.

When my brother called with the news, I drove 2,000 miles non-stop as fast as I could. After the wake and the funeral and discussing what best to do for her two sons, we turned to cleaning out her house. I drove home with two boxes of the family china and other mementos. They have remained in the boxes on my front porch for the last ten years. The loss has been that hard to accept.

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James

My grandmother was always a tremendous positive force in my life. I watched her fight cancer for 20 years and somehow she always managed to have a positive outlook. She could be in tremendous pain and discomfort and still look at me with a smile as she made fun of her misfortune.

I was probably somewhere between six and eight when she fell and knocked her teeth out. I don’t remember the specifics of the story, but I know she lost seven teeth and broke her jaw in several places. I vaguely remember her trying to set me at ease by smiling and trying to joke around with a mouth full of bloody cotton the night it happened.

Her last two weeks of life were spent in the hospital. I stayed by her side as much as I could, sleeping at the hospital and hanging around every day. She died late at night with me holding her hand. We sat alone together like that for about an hour before I alerted the hospital staff.

My mother and I flew to Maine the fall after her death, to spread her ashes at Pemaquid Point. It was her favorite spot as a child. We hung around the lighthouse all day goofing around, taking photos, making fun of people, trying to find a discreet spot to spread her ashes. We finally found a really cool spot to the east of the lighthouse on top of some boulders below an apparently forgotten rusty mermaid statue overgrown with weeds. I remember being surprised that the ashes were heavy. I expected them to scatter in the wind but they kind of fell onto the rocks below in clumps.

Then her bridge bounced off of a few rocks making a very distinctive clink upon hitting each one. My mom and I gave each other the what the fuck was that? look, and I jumped down and immediately started sifting through the dense ash. We knew what it was immediately.

There was still enough shape to it that you could clearly make out the teeth. We both laughed as I shook the rest of my grandma’s remains off of my hands. It wouldn’t have occurred to me not to keep it.

I generally keep it on an old vintage trunk that I use as a nightstand next to my bed, but sometimes I’ll stuff it my pocket at random. I always bring it with me when I travel. I don’t know why I keep it. It’s just as valuable a treasure as the other trinkets I’ve collected over the years—rings, old post-punk pins, a few tie clips, a trilobite or two—and all that’s left of my grandmother.

Joe

My grandfather owned a little corner grocery store in North Jersey, in the town of Roselle. It was called Leo and Fred’s, but when the stock market crashed, Fred killed himself. Leo was the butcher, and my father bought Fred’s half and ran the shop. There was a bar in the back too, so the regulars could have a drink—at a grocery store, because why not?

One of my grandfather’s regular customers worked on Wall Street, and this guy taught my grandfather how to invest in the stock market. And so my grandfather started doing that and would look for other ways to invest—one of which was when coins went down to being mostly made with nickel, in the 60s, I think. Before that there were actually a lot of silver in American coins, which of course has value; nickel does not. So my grandfather would save all the half-dollars and dollars from before a certain date, the silver ones. I have a half-dollar of his, which I often carry in my pocket.

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Sheri

After my dad died, my mom doused a polyester shirt in his cologne—he wore a lot—and sealed it in a plastic bag. I’ve sort of wanted to get rid of it because whatever my dad wore is super strong and kind of gives me a headache. One time I took him to a bluegrass concert and the people in front of us got up and moved! It was sweet of my mom, but also kind of weird. It isn’t the memento of him I would have saved for myself.

My dad’s library card, on the other hand, means a lot to me given my profession—I’m a librarian. My dad was the one who first took me to the library, on his motorcycle, with a giant helmet balanced on my three-year-old skull. He was totally blue collar, worked as a plumber, but really believed in libraries and had a current library card for most of his life.

I also have his map stash, which is this giant leather-like pouch that he kept behind the seat of his truck. It still smells faintly of cigar. I love that one of the maps dates back to a year after I was born, and another he’s traced colored routes all over. The lines could mean anything.

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