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. a shadow box containing Bengal tickets from the first season in the new stadium; a numbered print of a kids’ pick up football game.
Some 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.
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).
Then 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 on 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.
In 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Cleaning 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.
- 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.)
- 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 . . .
- . . . 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- You will never stop missing your parents. You will always be their child.
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!
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