It was time for my parents to give up the family home on Ferndale Drive. They had clung to the house, and to their independence, beyond the point that they could live safely on their own. When frequent 911 calls became the norm, the decision to move to assisted living seemed obvious, even long overdue.

But what to do about what was left behind? We had a family museum filled with objects and memorabilia from my parents’ seventy years of married life, and even older keepsakes from my grandparents, stored securely in closets, cupboards, drawers, and neatly boxed in cartons stacked high in storage rooms. My mother dated and labeled, stored and preserved everything, until she couldn’t—until, as she called it, pieces of her mind went missing.

At first, tearing into my mother’s boxes and opening closets and drawers felt intrusive, almost voyeuristic. Throughout my childhood, closets and cupboards held...

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