When author Julia Ridley Smith’s mother and father die six months apart, disposing of their treasured belongings is no small task, especially because the family business was Greensboro’s Tyler-Smith Antiques. The “trifles” that Smith finds include a tall Japanese screen, a 19th-century quilt, and a pair of prosthetic legs, just to name a few of the thousands of items she combs through.
On the surface, The Sum of Trifles is a memoir about sorting: From the mountain of items left by loved ones, what to keep, donate, or toss? But Smith’s candid essays go deeper into the burden of domestic expectations, the complexities of family history, and her own persistent grief.
Smith’s writings offer intimate and often humorous portraits of her parents, especially her vivacious, chain-smoking mother, who knew how to decorate a room. In one vignette, her mother stares up from her deathbed and says, “I can’t believe I’m going to die in a room without crown molding.”
While she adores her mother, Smith doesn’t idealize her ancestors. She sees that her family’s former wealth, embodied in her maternal grandparents’ elegant 1820s home, was made possible by the labor of enslaved people. Struggling to reconcile this fact with family lore of heroism, Smith finds that she cannot exonerate them. “There was always a choice, and my family made the wrong one.”
This book is about loving even when loving is hard, and about letting go. As Smith works through her grief, she comes to understand that a tag sale can be its own kind of memorial service, and that her parents will live on in stories. In beautiful writing that doesn’t hide from hard truths, Smith brings us a clear-eyed view of her family, herself, and the Southern culture that shaped them all.