What I’ve learned from going through my mom’s things it is that I’ve got her in me, both good and bad.
My mother was a hoarder — but not like on TV shows of. My mother lived amidst Swarovski Crystals and Faberge eggs, not cases of Crystal Lite and hardboiled eggs from 1973. Maybe hoarder’s not the right word, actually; archivist might be a better one, because she had some pretty nice stuff.
But having so much of her stuff meant that, when I needed to go through her papers, more than a year after her death, it wasn’t just a way to stay busy and help with the grief process.
The year after her death was one of the darkest times in my life and, during it, I wrote “The Book of Joan,” which was cathartic. But putting together the scrapbook, “Joan Rivers Confidential,” after that wasn’t the catharsis people said it would be. Writing about my mother in the midst of my grief was cleansing. Putting together a scrapbook of my mother’s life and career for other people was too chaotic to help me move past anything, at least initially.
At first, I wanted to keep everything she had, because every item had memories attached to it. But reliving every moment of our lives sent me on an emotional rollercoaster, which is not good because, since I turned 30, rollercoasters make me sick. (It’s something to do with the inner ear, I’m told.)
So rather than spend the year in a constant state of emotional upheaval I decided to channel Howard Carter, the Englishman who found King Tut’s tomb. (For what it’s worth, if the timing had been right, my mother would have set me up with Tut. I can hear her now, “Don’t stand on ceremony, Melissa. Yes, he’s short, but he’s rich and he has jewelry! You could do worse.”) I treated the entire process like it was an archaeological dig: I searched through everything, threw some things out, kept some things for the book and held on to others for posterity — and always remained open to discovery.
I broke things down into three categories: Professional, Personal, and Potpourri. (Thank you, Alex Trebek). Into the latter, I put anything that didn’t fit into the personal or professional categories, wasn’t large or important enough to create a separate category for, but which I also didn’t want to throw out in case some lingering paparazzi decided to go through my garbage, looking for dirt on my mother. (In hindsight, I think that was just the grief speaking; what kind of “dirt” would they find on my mother? A love letter from Neil Armstrong, saying “Joan, you sent me to the moon and back?” Nude selfies of Winston Churchill?)
Going through my mother’s professional keepsakes brought back a lot of good memories — photos, costumes, videotapes, concert programs and those famous joke cards from her career through the years. From her early appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” to her work on “The Tonight Show” through the daytime talk show era and right up to the end on Fashion Police, her career was laid out in ephemera. I went back in time with her from New York to Las Vegas to Beverly Hills and back to New York.
When I watched the tapes, I laughed and laughed. Sometimes I forget — because Joan Rivers was my mom — how deeply funny she was. It also gave me perspective on my mother’s impact on the world. For over 50 years, she was one of the leading voices of social commentary, and helped shape the way we look at the world. I miss hearing that voice. (Although not when it was saying, “Melissa, I hate your dress. And what’s with the bangs?”)
Going through the personal, family stuff was much harder. I had to decide — in some cases forever — what was too personal, what was too private. I knew that, if I didn’t put enough private stuff in the book, I might not be being honest with the readers, but there were things I wanted for me and my family alone. There were so many family photos — of my mother, my father, and me. I had to choose whether to put in private photos of my mom and dad, or include photos of my mother giving me a bath?
It was a grueling process, making so many decisions about what to hold onto for me, what to make available to the people who loved her, and what to simply discard as not worth it to either.
What I started to learn from it is that I’ve got her in me, both good and bad. In some ways we were so alike; we spoke an unspoken language that only we understood. And now that I’m the last of the Mohicans, I miss her more. I even miss the eye-rolling, although it’s never far away: I have a 16-year-old son, who learned that from Grandma.
This scrapbook is, ultimately, a gift to him. Because if you think his future first wife/actress/model will want go through all of my mother’s stuff knowing full well the good jewelry is long gone, you’re crazy.
This book is not a gift to you, though; you have to buy it. (I learned that from my mother, too.)
In hindsight, now that the scrapbook is finished, maybe putting it together was cathartic despite the chaos; It didn’t provide me the same immediate outlet for my emotions as the memoir, but I did find more catharsis going through the process.
Although I still hear this little voice, whispering on my shoulder, “But not as cathartic as shopping, Melissa …”
Melissa Rivers is an American actress, television host, producer, equestrienne and philanthropist. Her new book “Joan Rivers Confidential” was published on October 24.