Downsizing and deciding, memory by memory
On a cold December morning, I collected Aunt Ruby and my cousin Susie as we arrived in Houston from our respective homes. Light-hearted chatter masked a serious mission, one that would consume a long week and change me in unexpected ways. We had come to clean out my parents’ home.
We had “known” for years what a tremendous job would confront “someone, someday,” but “someday” was now. My parents, outwardly tidy people, married in 1934 and held Depression-era mindsets: “This is too good to throw away.” “We might need it sometime.” “You’ll appreciate this someday, dear.”
The house, witness to happy gatherings for 28 years, waited silently. Recently, there had been sad times, such as my father’s death the previous summer. Merely three weeks earlier, the house had seen another departure when we moved Mother to her new home at the Wesleyan. She helped with that first step, but now half-truths protected her from this painful dismantling. A plethora of possessions lay inside as we resolutely faced a finite timeframe.
Now, resolve wavered against stuffed drawers, floor-to-ceiling cabinets, and big closets. Like mini-tapestries, scenes of my parents’ lives and mine were pulled from nooks and crannies. We found trash (47 bags) and treasure, although we couldn’t always agree which was which. We unearthed items that hadn’t seen daylight for a quarter century, a flag with 48 stars and a Davy Crockett lunchbox, for example. We found a lovely cut-work luncheon cloth, unused during my lifetime. We made endless stacks, loosely categorized as trash, Goodwill, garage sale, and gifts to family members. We talked with strange, interesting people, possibly straight from Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop. We were constantly reminded that we had six days . . . five . . . four . . .
We also found hats, 60 of them, carefully wrapped, nestling upstairs and down in boxes as valuable as the hats themselves. They were personal exclamation points, accenting Mother’s style from the 1920s through the 1960s. We modeled them, preening and exclaiming, then chose the three that best represented her. I sold the rest for $180 to a vintage clothing shop. The hats, a mute allegory for this clearing-out operation, made me feel alternately like a child and Attila the Hun.
Beyond the bittersweet experience of the hats, we found Monkey. An earthenware monstrosity wearing dangly earrings and a straw hat concealing a cork, she began life as a tequila bottle. I feared her as a child, but, with great fun, we convinced a nice man that his home needed just such a conversation piece.
Other moments of truth came from notes. Paper scraps revealed Mother’s preparation for club programs and prayers. Handwriting of family and friends, now gone, whispered from greeting cards. We stood awkwardly over several love letters written from the years after my parents’ marriage. Between despair and laughter, we found Daddy’s note; inside a heavy sack of collectible coins, a card simply said, “HAVE FUN.”
That week, we each had separate roles. I, the only child, played an addled, untrained general directing the mission. My 78-year-old aunt supplied memory when I had none. My cousin provided balance between keeping and casting away, hilarity and heartache.
We laughed and cried. We called repeatedly, “You won’t believe this!” “Good grief, why would anyone keep that?” “Oh, that’s beautiful!” “I remember that!” Old pictures were the best. Polyester clothes from the 1970s were startling in their ugliness, plastic containers overwhelming in quantity.
Finally, only the garage sale remained. Neighbors stood by, respectful but curious, as life’s surplus was displayed to await new owners. We were beyond tired, belatedly noticing an antique dealer who hurried away with Roseville pottery, gloating happily. Crystal-clear vignettes remain: Susie modeling a Guatemalan cape; a child caressing a sleek, ceramic panther; friends gently taking a lamp to restore.
That week, “home” ceased to be. Some items seemed necessary then, yet strike me as trivial today. Others, quickly sold, still haunt me. Did I do it right? Did we keep things my parents would have culled as most meaningful? Life may not offer roadmaps through significant stations. Ironically, we often pass some stations only once, and many will face a task similar to mine. My advice: Don’t quibble over belongings, and don’t do it alone. Recruit someone who shared the memories.
On Sunday, I was alone as I locked up. Furniture still remained, but the personal clutter of shared lives was gone, and we would return in February before new owners took possession. I felt empty. Yet I understood more deeply about love, commitment, and continuity. I had felt my father’s amused presence, summoned by memory and music; I had seen new dimensions in my mother. Focused energy prevailed over fatigue, but family prevailed in new lessons of the heart. A cycle was complete.
Nine Tips for Cleaning Out Your Parents’ Home:
Divide the physical labor.
Be thorough, even when you’re exhausted.
Locate all key financial documents.
Hire an estate appraiser.
Remember that family comes first.
Preserve sentimental photos and memorabilia.
Be strategic about clothing. Consider donating most clothing rather than trying to sell it, because second-hand clothing tends to be priced low.
Bring in a liquidator.
Consider the cleaning out a labor of love.
These websites and books offer help for the task of clearing out:
Julie Hall’s The Boomer Burden: Dealing with Your Parents’ Accumulation of Stuff and How to Clean Out Your Parents’ Estate in 30 Days or Less