What do you do with all the “stuff” that’s left after someone you love has died?
As someone currently mired in combing through my late husband’s disorganized-pack-rat accumulation three years after his death, I’m plagued by the question. So I decided to talk to some of the women I know who have been through it.
Esther Crayton, who will turn 79 on July 27 and lives in Palm Desert, is one of the many Coachella Valley widows who has faced that issue.
First married at 17 just before high school graduation, Esther had the first of two sons about a year later, and remained in that first marriage for “about seven or eight years—it’s hard now to remember the exact dates.”
Why the divorce? “He said we had to move to Mexico, and I decided I’d rather end the marriage.”
Subsequent to that divorce, her children’s father “took the kids to Mexico, kidnapped them.” Esther was finally reunited with her sons when her ex came across the border to work and was picked up on the warrant for his arrest following a traffic violation.
Esther had always wanted to be a nurse, so in her late 30s, after her sons had graduated, she enrolled at College of the Desert in what was then their 2-year R.N. program. She retired after more than 20 years as a delivery-room nurse at Desert Hospital in Palm Springs.
”I loved that sometimes I would be at the market, and someone would come up and say, ‘You were my nurse when I had my baby!’” she says.
Esther’s retirement came after she successfully helped bring a nurses’ union to the hospital. After several years of intense wrangling, the California Nurses Association representation was finally approved.
“We marched out in front of the hospital to get a union,” remembers Esther. “When I was working in an aerospace company way back when, having the union was one of the reasons we got good pay and benefits, and I wanted that for the nurses at Desert. The amount of money the hospital spent to fight the union would probably have more than paid for the increases we were asking for.”
Esther was also very involved in the women’s rights movement, and had a leadership role in the local chapter of the National Organization for Women for several years.
After the end of a second marriage, Esther was reunited with a man she had met many years earlier, while working at the aerospace company. “Sunny” was married at the time they met, and he decided to stay in his marriage until his children were grown. Later, he and Esther lived together, eventually becoming “registered domestic partners” until his death eight years ago.
Why the nickname “Sunny”?
“It was funny,” says Esther. “His first and middle name were the exact same as my second husband. One night, we were out, and the music playing was ‘You Are My Sunshine.’ I told him that from then on, he would be ‘Sunny,’ and he was.”
When Sunny died, “his kids came and took some things. The one thing I remember we fought over was a painting. Other than that, I didn’t keep much of his personal stuff. I was in a daze, so upset, and not really paying attention to what was happening. The big problem was selling the house—his kids wanted to cash out his share, and I couldn’t buy them out.” Esther had to move.
Today, Esther now says simply, “I miss him. He had always handled some things, and I wish I had taken more time to figure it all out.”
Another woman who had to deal with what to do with the “stuff” after a death is Marilyn Mitchell, also of Palm Desert. Marilyn was widowed after 38 years of marriage to Gordon “Whitey” Mitchell, a well-known writer and jazz musician. Marilyn has distinguished herself as a long-time leader and supporter of the Palm Springs Women’s Press Club.
“I got rid of the socks and underwear first,” said Marilyn. “I did keep a tuxedo that meant something in terms of memories, and some other clothing items that had meaning to us based on where we bought them, or where he had worn them.
“Whitey was very organized,” she says. “That made it much easier, so it didn’t take too long to go through and decide what to keep. After some time, I finally sold his beloved bass to Neil Diamond’s bass player. Whitey would have been so upset, because it wasn’t going to be playing jazz!”
I asked Marilyn if she had any words of wisdom to help me in what seems like an insurmountable task. “I asked myself: Who will really care about this years from now? I know someone who kept absolutely everything for over 25 years. For me, it was finally time to just let go and move on.”
Good advice from one of our neighbors.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM.