10 Things I Learned While Cleaning Out My Parents’ House

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I pried open the overstuffed file cabinet and found, amid tax returns from the twentieth century, a hanging file marked “Birth Certificates.”  And there they were, the birth certificates for Ray Fred and Debi Briana.  My mother’s Cabbage Patch dolls.  My brother and sister, I guess.

My mother died three years ago, and my dad and his bride of six months moved to a cute cottage in the Evergreen Retirement Community.  They took their bedroom furniture, their kitchen table, their clothes, some dishes and pots and pans and, well, that’s all.  I told them I would be happy to clean out the house, and I was, and am, happy to do that.  Truly.

I had bragged that, after all, we had sold our house and everything in it in a couple weeks.  I told my dad’s sweet wife, “I’ll get it done in a day. I’ve got this.”

That was three weeks ago.  And I’m not finished.

What happens when hoarding meets the Protestant Work Ethic and is all wrapped up in an ill-advised organization plan?  My parents’ house, that’s what.  I never realized while my mother was alive that she never threw anything away because she worked so hard at containing and organizing her stuff.  If you walked in my parents’ house, which was decorated and organized mostly by my mother, you would probably not have suspected what was in drawers and behind doors.

But maybe the walls would be a clue.  I never knew my parents’ walls were so desperately in need of paint because of the hundreds of pictures and artifacts hung on them.arctic a shadow box containing Bengal tickets from the first season in the new stadium; a numbered print of a kids’ pick up football game.

trackSome were treasured souvenirs:  a boomerang from Australia; an iconic pointed hat from Vietnam; somebody’s third place ribbon for a 1923 Mill Creek Valley track meet.

Most puzzling of all was the 2’ X 3’ framed sepia tone photo of a stern looking couple that were presumably relatives. I asked my dad, “So who are those people anyway?”  He said, “I don’t know.  Your mother and I never figured it out.

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Then there were dozens of certificates of “achievement,” the kind of achievements only money can buy:  one each for Mom and Dad proving they’d been to the Arctic Circle; one for riding a helicopter; several for donating money to the U.C. Boosters.

And wreaths, maybe a dozen:  three made from shells; one from peacock feathers; one with dried/crumbling eucalyptus leaves; numerous with clusters of dusty silk flowers.  (In the garage here were three more wreaths, these for the Christmas season.)

So many counted cross stitch pictures:  ones with scripture and aphorisms; pictures of cats and dogs they’d owned (these all look too angular to seem the least bit realistic); ones signifying anniversaries; ones I made for my grandparents that landed on my parents’ walls (the trickle down theory of inheritance).

saltpepperThen there’s the salt and pepper collection, displayed in a custom-made wood shadow box:  Salt rooster and pepper hen.  Milkmaid salt shaker and farmer pepper shaker.  Politically incorrect salt and pepper shakers:  squaw and warrior; black faced mammy and pappy; squint-eyed Chinamen.

More collections:  one hundred one-inch figures of people from various Vietnamese regions; thimbles from around the world and around the corner; spools of thread, a rainbow of colors thimbleson tiny dowels.

And the most curious framed collection of all, hanging above the pantry door, a collection of swizzle sticks from famous nightclubs in America.  This from my mother who never saved a report card or award or dance program from my youth.  (But, then, she was an alcoholic, sober for the last 23 years of her life.  If my mom read this, she would laugh at the irony.)

And you might have suspected Mom’s saving obsession, looking at the windowsills and shelves and curio cabinets that housed glass thingies and whatnots:  a miniature brass mariachi band, bud vases, Russian nesting dolls, paperweights, votive candles. Six plants, all mothers-in-law tongue (or is that mother-in-law tongues), probably cuttings from the same “parent,” planted in four mugs, one china rooster, and a pot my daughter made in art class twenty years ago.  A half dozen ashtrays, even though nobody had smoked in this house for 25 years.

Off the walls and into the drawers . . .  A huge 6-drawer dresser, the one Mom and Dad bought in 1949 when they got married, is filled with fabric:  great swaths of gabardine, squares of felt, irregularly shaped pieces with long tails and circle cuts out, and lace from the dress my mom made for my junior prom in 1968.

Under the bathroom sinks:  Grecian formula for men (my dad has been bald for a few decades); nail glue; dried-up shoe polish; wrinkle filler.  Products for pooping and not pooping and pooping comfortably.

gooseIn the closets:  a tuxedo; formal gowns; several dozen velour jogging suits; sweatshirts with patches from every state; t-shirts Mom had embroidered for every holiday.  A full wardrobe for the concrete goose in shoe boxes, labeled by season.  A leather goucho hat; high heels Mom’s bunions wouldn’t allow her to wear; thirty men’s belts in a variety of sizes.

In the pantry:  a hoard of incandescent lightbulbs (instead of those curly ones the tree huggers sell); ; “green” cleaning solution (go figure); defogging liquid for eyeglasses and windshields; cat urine neutralizer; jars of fancy salsa and olives (gifts from me, probably); Tupperware turned yellow and brittle.

In the garage:  three aquariums; fishing, golf, and baseball gear; a meat smoker; two hand-held steamers; six brooms.

I learned a lot from this experience, beyond the physical limitations of my 63-year-old body.

  1. When your parents say, “We need nothing,” they are probably right. But we keep buying them stuff– why, I don’t know.  To show our love?  To assuage our guilt for not calling enough?  Because it’s “what you do”?  If I had it to do over again, I would have skipped the gifts and spent time with them instead.
  2. Your parents may seem independent and self-sufficient, but it could be that they need your help. When I had all of their mildewed, rusted lawn furniture hauled away, I realized they probably had not sat on it for years.  I mean, who would want to?  They needed someone to power wash that stuff every year.  And by “someone,” I don’t mean an octogenarian.
  3. The prodigious detritus of life can be crushing. I don’t think there is any way my parents could have thinned out their stuff,and I am sure while they were living among it, they wouldn’t have wanted me to plow through it either.  And if I am lucky enough to live another twenty-five years, I will be the same way.
  4. birthCleaning out your parents’ home can help you achieve closure. By touching all these things my mother touched and filed and hung and arranged makes me feel like I am touching her.  I am relieved that there have been very few surprises (aside from my “sister” and “brother” Cabbage Patch dolls’ cetificates of “birth”), but there have been reminders of all my mother was and cared about.adoption
  5. What may seem like junk to you, may be valuable. An antique cherry pitter is worth $100.  Three mid-century modern stack tables must be worth far more than the $15 I sold them for because I had five offers in as many minutes.  And those vases with the RR on the bottom?  Rookwood, worth up to $500. (Cowan’s Auction emailed an appraisal in a couple days, no cost, no obligation.  They are going to auction the three items for me.)

    tall vase side 2

    $500? Really?

  6. You can rent a dumpster. And you should.  When there is a dumpster, everything suddenly looks like trash.  It’s much easier to get rid of an orange vinyl couch when there is a huge rubbish receptacle stationed in the driveway.  (I highly recommend Bin There Dump That)                                                                                                                                                                                                                        And yet . . .
  7. . . . you may feel disloyal pitching things your parents valued and loved. I’m not sure there’s any way to prevent that.  It just is.
  8. Don’t harp on your parents about getting rid of stuff. They can’t and they probably don’t want to.  It’s what gives them comfort and something that can remain the same when their bodies are falling apart and their friends are dying.  This cleaning out is YOUR job, it just is.IMG_2668
  9. Stop judging. Stop it!  My children won’t figure out why I am saving a chocolate microphone my friend gave me after I did stand up.  Or my daughter’s baby spoon that she still used in her teen years to eat her yogurt.  Or my deceased friend’s eyeglasses and steno pad.  Or my mother’s nearly empty bottle of L’Origan perfume, her red, red lipstick, her eye mask, and her license plate.   Your stuff is your stuff, and you have every right to keep it.
  10. You will never stop missing your parents. You will always be their child.perfume

 

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My friend Stella was 95 when she died.  She had no children, so I kind of became her daughter.  I was the executrix of her estate.  Her home was filled with antiques, thing she frequently reminded me were valuable.  She said, “When I die, don’t give my antique furniture to my cousin.  She’s too fat.”  (Stella was legally blind and apparently didn’t realize I was too fat, too.)

After Stella died, her cousin did want the furniture (and the jewelry and the paintings . . .)  I had an appraiser come in to assess the value of the antique furniture.  “It’s junk,” he said.  But to Stella, it was valuable and she liked it.

I gave  all the precious antique furniture to her fat cousin.  (See #7, above)

Post Script:  Since writing this post, I have cleaned out two more family homes.  When Rick and I cleaned out my 97-year-old mother-in-law’s house–where she lived for 69 years–I used two more services I wanted you to tell you about.

We donated almost all of Mrs. Lingo’s furniture to St. Vincent de Paul. We scheduled the pick up, and that day they called with a one-hour window.  They arrived on time and worked efficiently.  They took almost everything!  The Cincinnati number is (513) 562-8841 

I highly recommend 1-800-GOTJUNK. My mother-in-law’s house has three floors.  On the top floor we had 4 old televisions, 3 sets of mattresses/box springs.  In the basement there was a dishwasher, 2 army footlockers, an exercise bike, several rusty cabinets, and boxes and boxes and more boxes of dishes, silverware, coffee carafes, ash trays, trophies . . . well, you get the picture.  There was a big screen tv (the kind that looks like it’s wearing a backpack) and another bed on the first floor.  The garage had a mountain of garbage bags, tools, and small appliances.  GOTJUNK arrived on time, concluded that they would fill two trucks, and in about an hour and a half, cleaned out the house.  It cost about $1,000, and it was worth every penny!

  

Copyright © 2016 Sandy Lingo, All Rights Reserved

 

 

42 Comments

  1. Wonderful blog, Sandy. Cleaning out my mom and dad’s house took months. She kept so many things and added to the legitimate family belongings with bargains she found at yard sales. We never knew whether or not to believe her when she said something had been in the family for a long time. To her, it COULD have been and that was good enough. Your tips 1-9 are genuinely good, but #10 says it all.

  2. Ah, Sandy, reading this makes me realize that my time is coming. I can just hear Anne, Penny and Linda saying a few years from now “why did she save all this junk?” And my beloved “Queen stuff” will all be devalued. We oldsters keep things because they remind us of happier times when we didn’t think about time running out and the future seemed endless. Treasures are in the eyes of the beholder!

    You have done a great job of clearing out.

  3. Another moving piece that hits me right in the heart. I’m not an English major and do not have the knowledge to judge writing but to me this was just perfect – perfect! I love your sensitivity and care for your loved ones memories. I could not agree more with your list. When we moved my father to a retirement home my siblings and I were left to clear out our large Victorian style home that had quickly became filled with junk after my Mom passed 15 years earlier. My Dad desperately wanted someone to take the Britannica Encyclopedias – the expense of the purchase had almost ended my parents’ marriage when my mom purchased them 30 years ago. To appease my Dad I told him that I would take them – my husband was not happy about that – he assured me that they would not make it into our house. So to compromise, I took two of them and my husband threw the rest away. So when my Dad asked me if I still had the encyclopedias, I said yes and was glad that I did not lie. Fast-forward 25 years or more and I am sure my son will wonder why I only had two random books of the 1975 Britannica Encyclopedias. Keep writing and thank you.

  4. This was great. I’ve cleaned out several houses. My favorite was my in-law’s house. We found 47 pairs of unworn, double knit polyester pants stashed all around the house. See Rule 1.
    Thanks for writing, I so enjoyed it.

  5. You are killing me Lingo, we are in the midst of this right now at Jerry’s mom’s house. I must admit my children have had a bit of fun there, reminiscing about all their adventures at Grandma’s house. However it’s a lot of work and who knew my mother-in-law had 3 full length fur coats purchased at “Shillito’s” fur salon. And #10 is spot on.

  6. Isn’t it odd how friends at times share certain experiences in different ways. You are sorting through your family experiences and we are sorting through our family experiences. It is exhausting and emoitional. It has made me stuck. Going out for a short while is the exception because the stuff is still here and well it needs me to “think deeply” about it.

    What it is, why is it here and should it go. It was nice reading how the experience has affected you. Like shuffling cards over and over again. Things keep jumping around from meaning to nothing then back to meaning.

    It isn’t a bad experience, just a surprise. Thank you for writing this piece. Enjoyed each word. Now gotta get some sleep so we can once again go through more stuff tomorrow.

  7. I enjoyed reading this piece, Sandy. The ten “tips” were so insightful, kind and loving. Renting a dumpster is a great idea. I hesitate to share that one with the kids, though. I would like them to keep at least one or two things. Oh well, its up to them…See Rule #7

  8. Another great post! I am grateful that my parents are not collectors or clutter bugs. My husband calls their house “the monetary.” OUR house is the issue! Both my husband and I are pack rats (but of course he’s worse than me). I have trouble letting-go of the things the kids have made– I still have a Thanksgiving centerpiece my
    now 15 year old made in kindergarten! Like you said, this stuff means something to me now. “The prodigious detritus of life can be crushing.”

    • I have some gummy lumps from my kids’ grade school days, and they will have to be the ones to pitch them. Keep your junk if it makes you happy and comfortable. You don’t have to stop living before you die just to leave a clean house for your kids. Thanks for reading and responding.

  9. ^^ oops . My parents’ house is the monastery, not monetary!

  10. Sandy, thank you for sharing your work about your work! My mother-in-law passed at age 101 after 3 years “down-sized” in a 2 bedroom apartment in a retirement community.
    My hubby agonized over cleaning out her apartment for about 10 minutes before giving it over to her 3 granddaughters.
    After squabbling like chickens over the contents of 4 rooms for a week, they declared the job completed (and still aren’t speaking to each other). What remained went to Goodwill in 4 pickup loads, driven there by a grandson.
    Hubby succinctly put it this way: “If there was anything that I’d wanted, I’d have asked for it before now. We don’t need any more s(tuff)”
    So I’m glad that sometime in the last few years I asked Mary for her Derby hats to remember our trips to The Beaumont Inn for Derby weekends. And the tiny sterling basket to recall picking strawberries together, which now lives on my charm bracelet. And the 4 distinctly different antique oak chairs that she caned when she took a caning class through the county extension office years before I knew her.
    As I run my fingers over the chairs this evening, I have to amend #10 to include my mother-in-law, as she was dearer than my mother to me.

    But what am I going to do with all MY s(tuff)?!!

    • You saved such lovely treasures. And so wonderful that you have such happy memories of your mother-in-law. Thanks so much for reading and responding to my post.

  11. I love this and can relate as can so many other people. Frankly, I like no. 8, but maybe it justifies my own hanging in to stuff.

    • I really believe parents deserve to control their physical environment in a way that makes them comfortable. One of my elderly readers said she saves things to remember happier times. Who would want to deprive their parents of that.

  12. It took me eight years to clear a small house. I donated most. I have a few regrets about somethings I tossed, and wonder about things that should have been there, but were not. If we would all move every 10 years or so, it would force us to go through things. We have, “Pretend we are moving,” cleaning out times. I can identify so much with this article. Well put.

    • Love the “pretend we are moving” strategy! If it took you eight years, you needed the eight years. It’s not just about getting rid of stuff, it’s about dealing with stuff. Thanks for reading and responding.

  13. My aunt passed away last week. She never married and lived in a small two bedroom ranch. Material items were of little interest to Aunt Mary, but she kept every receipt, bank/investment statement, and bill she ever paid. Lots of eye rolling on my part. However, we did find that she kept newspaper articles and other mementos marking marriages, babies, baptisms, and obituaries. And she put NAMES and DATES on the backs of photographs! This makes up for all of the boxes of papers we have hauled to the recycling center. My dad is considering a move to a retirement community. I dread dealing with 50+ years of household clutter. His memory is fading so hopefully I can go through his photographs with him and at least make sure we know who the people are.
    PS. Bookmarked Cowans Auctions and Bin There Dump That – thank you!

    • What a lovely surprise seeing your name in my comments. Those labeled pictures are a true gift, as well as the clippings. This cleaning out is a joy, a privilege, and a little bit of hell.

  14. Great post. I’m aware how much clutter I have myself and need to get through it.

    • I am constantly assessing my stuff to determine if it’s important junk or junk junk. We have downsized, which is a blessing because I can’t accumulate too much. I really don’t believe that parents should feel obligated to get rid of things they care about just to make it easier for their kids. Your physical environment is key to your comfort, especially, I think, when you’re elderly. Thanks so much for reading and responding to my post. Hope to “see” you again.

  15. Oh Sandy this is priceless. As promised in your bio, laced within the humor of your writing are those nuggets of golden wisdom like point one. We are downsizing my parents house and though I am no help since I live across the pond in Switzerland, I am offering ongoing moral support to my mom and sisters. As much as I wish I could be there, it is a blessing for them that I am not. I would want to keep everything too. Well, maybe not all the doilies. I am passing this post on to the family for their enjoyment. Glad to have discovered your blog through our connection on the boulevard. I will definitely be back for a second helping.

    • Switzerland! The land of chocolate, cheese, and high prices. What a beautiful place. Lucky you, and poor you, that you aren’t able to be there. It is a privilege to do this last thing for your parents, but it is a little bit of hell, too. Thanks so much for reading and responding.

  16. Such a lovely story. I can only imagine how difficult, but at the same time pleasant, task you have been faced with.
    My sister and I joke with our folks all the time about just putting a FOR SALE As IS sign on their house when we are faced with closing things out. And I often wonder what our kids will think when they got through our things, especially when I try to re-organize my notes etc.
    But I agree, touching your parents possessions and sorting them out are a wonderful way to reach closure.

    • It is a uniquely intimate experience handling all of your parents’ things. I tried very hard to be a good daughter and do it well. Thanks for reading and responding to my post.

  17. LOL! Cabbage patch doors? I thought I was the only one crazy enough to save our birth certificates. I need to start purging!

    • What cracked me up, Janet, is when I saw that my mother got my dad to sign the birth certificates! The dolls are long since gone and donated. I think we loved those Cabbage Patch dolls more than the kids.

  18. This piece had me chuckling while simultaneously trying to contain a lump in my throat. Thank you, as always.

    • Smiling and crying: that about sums up the experience. Thanks for reading and responding. Wish you’d come back to WW.

  19. I have trouble cleaning out some of my own stuff. Donating to Good Will and St. Vincent are great ideas, but also check with local community theaters to see if they can use period clothes or furniture (I belong to one, The Drama Workshop,)when they are doing plays set in the 1950, 60’s, 70’s etc. Consignment shops and vintage shops are always looking for new items. In going through my mom’s stuff I found tax returns from my father for 1937, before they were even married.
    If you are reluctant to toss papers away, scan them or take pictures, that way you still have a record of it.

    • Great suggestions! My daughter didn’t know what to do with her very expensive wedding dress from her first marriage. She tried to sell it, but was unsuccessful. Finally, after ten years, she found the perfect way to donate it. A middle schooler her size needed a beautiful ball gown for a play, so my daughter donated the wedding dress to her. It’s hard to say who was more thrilled, my daughter who got rid of it or the kid who received it. Thanks for reading and responding to my post, Elaine.

  20. Cleaning out my parents house was one of the hardest things I ever did. So many memories and I did feel guilty throwing away their prized possessions. I keep things that reminded me of them and got rid of the rest. It is hard…

    • I feel very guilty getting rid of the goose’s clothes, the thimble and salt and pepper collection, and her dolls. I have ten boxes of photo albums that I saved, although the pictures are faded and they are nearly all landscape pictures, not pictures with them in it. She worked so hard recreating and remembering her vacations in these albums and I know I will eventually have to discard them. Thanks for reading and responding to my post.

  21. Before we moved my mother-in-law to an assisted living apartment, we ask her if she wanted to help clean out the attic. She so politely said “No, you get to do that when I’m gone.” We waited for her to move, then my daughters and I attacked the house just like you did. We laughed and cried over things she kept. Most of all we just miss her now that she has died.

    • It isn’t an easy thing, but mostly I felt that it was an opportunity to know my parents more intimately.

  22. Sandy, I love your understanding and comments that we not push our parents to clean out and get rid of their “stuff” when they are older. So much sentiment and meaning can be tied up in the things we save. And as much work as it is for those cleaning out the homes, you remind us clearly of the emotional reward that is there–if we will accept it–as we work intimately with what was left behind.

    As you and several others mentioned, I do feel sorry for my own kids, when they face going through so much stuff that I’ve saved, both intentionally and “unintentionally.” (Read: The stuff I threw in a bag and stashed in the closet before company came, some of which never really gets “un-stashed!) What a good reminder to me, too.

    Thank you, Sandy!

    • Oh, the mystery hide-from-the-company bags! That’s the impulsive behavior that sabotages my organizational plan! Thanks for reading and responding.

  23. What a journey and what a gift to your kids that you already did your major clearing so they don’t have to.

    • Every day after cleaning out my parents’ house, I went home and cleaned out mine! Good seeing you the other day.

  24. My father and his 3rd wife called 2 years ago to say they had decided to move to a senior’s residence. My 3 siblings and I were summoned to help with the move. It took all 4 of us almost 2 months to work our way through their 4500 sq ft house (that didn’t include the barn). On the 1st day we took 35 boxes to the Salvation Army store. It wasn’t just my mother who kept every single item that passed through the portal of their home. My father had collections of things that dated farther back than the last century. It seems his 2nd and 3rd wives also had a need to surround themselves with their beloved keepsakes.

    I wonder if this penchant for collecting had more to do with creating a familiar environment, a way of recording their lives, a way of preserving what was, and protecting themselves from the uncertainties of a life disturbed by wars, technology, reliance on machines over relationships, and all the transitions and trials of a century’s worth of living.

    My father died last year at age 94, a little over a year from the time he made the his last transition from his home to the residence. He is survived by his 3rd wife who rents a storage unit to hold the overflow of the possessions she is unable to part with. Her request to us was to clear my father’s personal things out of the closets and chests of drawers to make room for more of her things. We found brand new shirts and ties, undergarments and socks, new slippers, sweaters, vests and trousers, that had never been worn – gifts we had given him over the last few years of his life. Untouched and stored out of sight. In full view were the thread-bare cardigans, the slippers worn through from years of shuffling, the old cane with a worn out rubber tip. The familiar.

    My husband and I would like to think we won’t leave so much “stuff” for our children to sort through when it’s time to go. We have decided to “bin” the things that have zero value or relevance to the children and leave instead some “treasures” for them to discover. Personal letters to each one of them letting them know how much they are loved and how proud we are of each one of them. Words filled with hope and blessing for their futures.

    We have impressed on them that we no longer need “things”, but a phone call, a visit, a family get together brings us far more joy than any ornament, or new “toy” ever could. And when they do visit, if there is a family heirloom they would like, it’s theirs for the keeping.

    Thank you for sharing Sandy. This was a fun trip down memory lane.

    • What a beautiful response! Thanks so much for reading and responding. Your words are treasures to me. I love the idea of writing personal letters for the kids to discover.

  25. I keep thinking I need to get rid of so many things–my own as well as the sentimental treasures I inherited when mom and dad died. The problem is my children don’t want any of it. Not even photos of themselves. Some of the things are family history and I don’t want to just donate or dump them–but they aren’t special to anyone but Holly and me. Your piece touched my heart. But I need to go to the basement and purge. My kids will not look upon this task as kindly and with the interest as you did.

  26. How did I miss this one? Just read it today and LOVE it, Sandy. I worry about mother’s beloved Lladros (did I spell that right? insipid pastel (overpriced) knick knacks from Spain). There’s NOTHING I want from her home, sad to say. As for all my crap, I hope my son just pulls up a dumpster when I go, but he’s a bit of a hoarder. His wife (please, God, may there be one soon) will have to wrestle him to the ground to keep him from moving the entire contents of my home into the basement of his own.

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Sandy Lingo

Life itself is the proper binge.  - Julia Child

A writing friend said that when she reads my writing, she always wants a second helping.

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