words and images: Marcus Coker
Jennifer Canada is forty years old and lives in Fort Smith in a house that used to belong to her late mother, Janet. The paneled walls inside are covered with everything from family photos to sticky notes, outdated coupons, and handwritten recipes. Many of the rooms, in addition to the garage and two storage buildings, are stacked high with boxes filled with collectibles, baseball cards, and holiday decorations. Jennifer points to a prescription bottle with her name on it from the mid-1970s and says, “Mom wasn’t really good at getting rid of things. She held on to a lot. And her children have inherited a good bit of that – not wanting to let go. I think we’re all having to learn this lesson in our own way.”
For Jennifer, it’s a lesson that’s been almost twenty years in the making. “I grew up all over Arkansas because my father was a Methodist minister, but my parents were from Fort Smith. They moved back around 1993 when I was in college in North Carolina,” says Jennifer. “Dad died in February of 1995 of cancer, and I graduated in June, then moved back. So I’ve lived in this house off and on ever since.”
Living in Janet’s house, of course, meant living with Janet, and life with Janet was never dull. Jennifer says, “I don’t know that she was really weird. She just saw the world differently than other people. Whatever she wanted to do, she was going to do it whether it made sense to anyone else or not. She’d paint each fingernail a different color and have really big hair when nobody else would. She said she wanted it to touch both sides of the doorway when she walked in a room. She was just magical.
“She loved to play cards, and my friends called it the Card Table of Truth because they’d sit down to play with her and end up telling her their whole life stories, things they’d never tell anyone else. People connected with her because she was authentic and real – with all the flaws. She didn’t try to hide anything.”
One of Janet’s eccentricities was that she collected Bradford Exchange collectible plates, Disney items, and minted coins, among other things. “It’s hard to tell what that was all about. Occasionally she’d say she envisioned having a store, but that never materialized.” In addition to collecting Star Wars, G.I. Joe, and The Simpsons action figures, Janet also saved trivial items like Sonic straws and recipes from Velveeta Cheese boxes. “She’d sit for hours and cut out scenes from Christmas cards, saying she intended to make Christmas ABC books – A is for angel, B is for Bethlehem. But she also admitted that was her therapy because she didn’t do things like when my father was alive.
“I just think coming back to Fort Smith wasn’t what she expected. Dad died, she wasn’t able to find the job she wanted, and everybody’s lives were different. Her close friends were married with kids and grandkids. I just saw her slowly decline.”
Janet died in June of 2008 of cancer. Jennifer and her siblings wanted the memorial celebration to be something their mother would have enjoyed attending, so they decorated the tables with Janet’s holiday things – one table set up like Christmas, another like Halloween. They served hamburgers and Sonic vanilla Cokes (Janet’s favorite drink), set up a fingernail painting station, and played music by Boy George. “Mom loved Boy George. And RuPaul. Who knows why? I think she just loved people that were their own people, people that were different and living out loud.” Last but not least, they even gave out door prizes because Janet was big about door prizes and people having fun. “People were special to her, and she wanted them to know that.”
In the five years since Janet died, Jennifer has been living surrounded by all of Janet’s things. “It’s overwhelming having all of this stuff around, and it feels like it’s always pulling toward entropy and messiness. But in a strange way, I associate that feeling with her. A lot of people just go in and get rid of everything at once – rip the Band-Aid off – but that doesn’t work for my family. I just don’t think we’ve been ready because letting go of the stuff feels like letting go of her. But I know it’s time to move on and have something new.”
Part of the answer for Jennifer has come in the form of an online estate sale. She recently started a Facebook page called ‘Janet’s Bizarre Bazaar’ where she will be selling many of Janet’s things, including dolls and antique furniture. She’s hoping the project will not only allow the items to go to people who will enjoy them, but will also allow her to sell the house and be open to new opportunities. “I’ve realized that holding on to stuff holds you back and slows you down. It’s a way of keeping roadblocks in your life. So I’m giving myself a deadline and would like this project to be done in a year.”
The process of sorting through everything has been bittersweet. Jennifer cried when she found a letter her mom had written to a friend in the 1980s but never mailed. It said that Jennifer’s parents had recently gotten Jennifer glasses but couldn’t afford new prescriptions for themselves, so they were struggling to see, especially at night. Still, for every sad moment, there is a happy one. “Mom had the bathroom decorated with Elvis ornaments, dozens of them hanging on the wall, their legs swinging. It took me the longest time to get it – Elvis died in the bathroom. It’s an inside joke that she never said anything about when she was alive.”
Visitors to ‘Janet’s Bizarre Bazaar’ Facebook page should be prepared to find a little bit of everything, including those Elvis ornaments and fashion accessories. “Mom used to tell us, ‘You kids gripe about all the stuff I keep until you need something and find it here.’ And she was right. While digging through closets, I’ve often found sunglasses or purses to match an outfit just at the right time.”
And that’s how Jennifer plans to list things for sale – one or two items at a time, in the order she finds them. Likewise, she hopes to heal piece by piece. “I miss having all of my family together. Some of the joy is gone, and I’m hoping it’s on the other side of this journey. Maybe Mom knows that. I think that’s the legacy she’s leaving, reaching out from beyond saying, ‘Don’t hang on to me. Don’t hang on to this stuff. Don’t do like I did. Keep the good things, but learn from my mistakes.’” It’s a lesson any good mother would teach, a lesson we could all learn – how to let go, and trust that there is something better ahead.
A portion of the proceeds from Janet’s Bizarre Bazaar will be donated to Goddard United Methodist Church, a place Janet considered home. For more information, visit facebook.com/janetsbizarre or email firstname.lastname@example.org.