What’s left behind: How my husband’s pocket junk revived old grief

I opened the box filled with my husband Jim’s “pocket junk” and bric a brac from the kitchen. I’d filled it shortly after he died of pancreatic cancer in December 2010, and then tucked it away. But now, it was time to sort through it, save what I must, and throw out what I could.

I wasn’t prepared for the sensations I experienced when I opened the box. I suddenly could feel Jim’s presence in the kitchen that I’d claimed as my own. I could hear his voice, smell his scent, feel the warmth of life pulsing through him and the touch of his skin. The last five years I’ve lived without him melted away and I felt like he would walk into the kitchen from the living room at any moment and ask me what I was doing with his stuff.

I was sitting at my kitchen table with my friend Alice when I opened that box. Goodness, I was glad I was sitting.

Many of the things in the box were “signature” items I considered part of Jim’s identity, and they brought him back to me so tangibly that I felt grief-stricken all over again. I looked at Alice, whose calm demeanor buoyed me to the present, and to my appointed tasked. With my stomach in a knot, I picked up each item, felt it in my hands and decided its fate.

Sassy with Jim's hunting boots.

Sassy with Jim’s hunting boots.

The miscellaneous screws, new and bent nails, molly bolts, wire nuts, and the like were easy to keep or discard, depending on how specialized they were and my need for them.

Other things were more personal and more difficult: Jim’s blood glucose monitoring stuff, his mustache trimmer in its charger, the many almost used up and slightly bent Xacto knives he brought home with him from work in his pocket, his watch with its broken strap, an old pair of glasses, a steel measuring tape he prized, various jackknives and cigarette lighters, loose change, earplugs (he was a retired pressman), his MP3 player, and his old Leatherman multi-tool that had a broken tip.

I kept one Xacto, one jackknife and one cigarette lighter, and they, along with his watch, old glasses and Leatherman, will go into his jewelry box for now. When I can, I will donate his glasses to help someone else. Earplugs are useful at flyball (remember the dog relay racing sport) tournaments where dogs bark with abandon. The steel measuring tape stays, as does the MP3 player. The rest was discarded.

Here are a few of the items I kept that I consider some of Jim's "signature" items.

Here are a few of the items I kept that I consider some of Jim’s “signature” items.

Is this what we come down to? A box of bric a brac? Life felt so futile in those moments of deciding what stays and what goes, yet I managed to take comfort in the signature items, even as they tore at my heart while I held them lovingly in my hand.

The box had been living in the hall closet, where I had stored it more than five years ago during the days of preparing for Jim’s funeral. I had needed one room in the house to claim as my own. I had gathered the baskets and little containers of pocket junk from the various surfaces in the kitchen and put them in the box. It was the first actual change I made to my surroundings after Jim’s death.

Even though memories in my early widowhood are fleeting at best, I did not forget I had put that box in the closet. I would think about it every time I opened the closet door to get something, or even just passed it while walking between the kitchen and living room. The promise of the task to be done seemed huge in my mind and something for which I had to gear up my brain and shore up my heart in order to face it.

I sort of knew what else was in the closet too, which is really the space under the stairs to go up to the bedrooms in my old farmhouse. It is where I store trash bags, my gallon bottle of shampoo, and my extra boots.

On a recent Sunday, I decided I would tackle the hall closet after church, if my friend Alice was available to provide reinforcements. She was.

Besides what I expected, including boxes of books tucked in the back, we found Jim’s motorcycle helmet, filters to my bedroom humidifiers, Jim’s hunting boots, miscellaneous hats and visors, a spare patio umbrella canvas, shotgun shells that had fallen out of hunting jacket pockets, and miscellaneous items I could give to our church’s silent auction or my flyball team’s yard sale.

And the box containing Jim’s pocket junk.

Alice and I sorted through everything else first. We had three large trash bags full of discarded stuff. Some of it was difficult to throw, like clothing Jim wore, and some of his old shoes. I kept his motorcycle helmet and his felt hunting hat.

I cleaned the inside of the closet and neatly rearranged what was staying, making it another space I had claimed as my own.

Among the items we found were Jim’s leather hunting boots, which I initially planned to throw away. They’re well-worn, and no one else would be able to wear them. I talked the keep or toss decision through with Alice. Well, I talked. Alice listened to my rambling. Logically, it made sense, so into the trash they went.

But the heart isn’t always logical. I couldn’t get those boots out of my mind. So the next day, the hunting boots came back out of the trash.

They may not be useful but they carry crucial reminders of my beloved husband — the shape of his foot, and the memories we made tromping through the woods and fields together.

Maybe another time I will be able to let them go. But not this time.

Sassy and Bullet have missed Jim too.

Sassy and Bullet have missed Jim too.

Julie Harris

About Julie Harris

As a longtime employee of Bangor Daily News, I have served many roles over the years, but I now have a dream job as Community Editor. I live in Hermon with my four Brittany dogs: Sassy, Bullet, Thistle and Quincy, who keep me busy in various dog sports. I was widowed at age 51 when my husband, Jim, died of pancreatic cancer.