There is something uniquely sad about closing the home of someone who’s just died.
At first glance, everything seems the same. The couch where the cat slept; the pictures on the walls, the same dining table, plants, chairs; same knives, forks and can opener. But suddenly they are foreign, drained of meaning and character now that they’re of no use to the person you loved.
The emptiness worsens as these material things disappear. The rooms are empty cubes, save a few stray reminders: a tangled extension cord, a scrap of paper, a patch of dust behind the bed where the vacuum couldn’t reach.
This has been our family’s experience after my sister, Jessica Hoagland, died Feb. 16 after a brain tumor was discovered three months earlier.
However, in our case this unhappy ritual has had a hopeful, even joyful side, thanks to the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Middlebury, Vt., an institution that played a vital role in Jessica’s 81 years.
Last Friday, an energetic crew from the church arrived to fill a pickup truck several times over with Jessica’s furniture and other belongings.
Two bedrooms gave up full-sized beds, mattresses and various bureaus. From the kitchen, every pot and pan; all the plates, saucers and bowls; the tea kettle; mugs, glasses and cups; the microwave oven; the how-does-this-thing-work toaster oven; every spatula and wooden spoon. From the living room, both overstuffed chairs; the TV, its remote and cabinet; the coffee table with the twin basket drawers. From the dining area, the big country-style table, which had to be taken apart. Up from the basement came two upholstered chairs, one with a footstool; another coffee table; boxes of fitted bed sheets, towels, facecloths, a few quilts and blankets; and a bunch of lamps.
The pickup truck’s first stop: an empty apartment in Middlebury, which three days later would become home to a mother and her two very young children, one just 3 months old.
The Rev. Paul V. Olsson, St. Stephen’s recently arrived rector, was thinking out loud about the young family and how it would be weaving these things into a new life.
“A single mother with two young children is going to be facing some real challenges,” he said. “But this isn’t going to be one of them.”
* * *
It wasn’t a given that Jessica’s belongings would have a second act.
The church’s Outreach Committee, which had served lunches once a week, recently refocused its direct work with people who are homeless to match the restrictions of the Covid era.
Members met with Housing Solutions, which coordinates groups and organizations countering homelessness, and came up with “Welcome Kits,” an idea hatched in part by Sandy Ketcham, a close friend of Jessica. The kits would be ready-to-go packages of kitchen and dining utensils for people just arriving in their new homes.
The “kit” grew into a whole apartment outfitting project because of the connections in the coalition approach. Somebody happened to mention there was an apartment ready for occupancy, but with no furnishings; someone else knew that Jessica’s belongings were on the move.
Thus, the Friday moving operation. Arran Stokes, of the John Graham Housing and Services organization, brought the truck. Stokes wears several hats – property management and client counseling – was overseeing arrangements for the new apartment.
The church’s moving crew included Susan Anderson-Ray and Sharon DeHaven, Outreach Committee co-chairs; parishioner Paul Horn; and Father Paul.
They started in late morning, taking apart beds, lugging away U-Haul boxes; and solving geometry puzzles: how do you get a bulky chair through a small doorway. By mid-afternoon, they were finished with deliveries to the Middlebury apartment, as well as more trips with leftover goods to storage space at the John Graham headquarters, 13 miles away in Vergennes.
* * *
My sister would have been thrilled.
We had grown up in Middlebury, where our father was St. Stephen’s rector during and after World War II. Later in her adult life, Jessica moved back, became parish administrator and served in many volunteer roles in the church and the community.
She was involved in progressive causes and always was troubled by homelessness, especially after a man froze to death at the village green, near the church.
For those of us Jessica left behind – including her daughter, Suzanne Sommer of North Carolina; her niece, Sarah Jones of Massachusetts; and me, in Rhode Island – the church’s efforts have taken away some of the emptiness of her death.
The grief continues. But the people of St. Stephen’s provided a new way to consider her passing. Her belongings don’t feel so meaningless; the rooms she left behind don’t seem so empty. There even are moments of humor.
As I was writing this, Netflix reached through the ether with a personal email: “Jessica, try Netflix again today.” The streaming service’s message was encouraging: “Let’s Reunite. (It’s easy, we promise.)”