They Left Us Everything: Is It Clutter or Memories?

It’s the ultimate spring cleaning, and I’m not talking spiderwebs and dust. I’m cleaning out the overflowing basement room that has been storing the ephemera of my parents lives for the nearly sixty years they lived here.

When my parents migrated across the country in 1946, after the war, they must have brought only what would fit in the boxy Chevy. Camping gear, a few clothes; maybe precious wedding gifts, some hand-me-down kitchen items, my mother’s typewriter. The rest was probably shipped in my uncle’s Army footlocker (which is still in the basement). After thirteen years and three children, when they built the house I am living in now, their collection had grown exponentially. Sixty years after that, well, nearly everything I need I can find in some cupboard, drawer, or box. As children of the Great Depression, and my mother’s family’s hardscrabble existence even before then, they were both keepers. Of everything.

I started in the back corner of the room during the dark days of the second Covid winter. I cremated and scattered the remains of one of my mother’s unrealized crafting dreams: dried flowers and leaves, boxes of them pressed between paper towels and the sheets of newspaper or pages of magazines. I created a memorial craft for my sisters for Christmas with batik trials and tiny beach collectibles, and emptied boxes of more beach stones, shells, and driftwood into the memorial garden I created years ago. I threw out dried up homemade fabric dyes, snapshots of people I didn’t know, old wrapping paper, boxes too small to save. I found homes for fabric and for crocheted doilies and granny square afghans my Granny made. I took ratty blankets—stored in barrels kept from the 1960 move—to the animal shelter. I recycled, donated, and did my part to populate the landfill.

I saved children’s artwork, letters my sisters and I wrote home from camp and college and first homes, old family photos, a box of remembered cookie cutters, our childhood play dress-up clothes, the doll collection, and war memorabilia to explore with my sisters. On task for one day, when the oldest sister came across the country for a visit, we didn’t nearly finish what I had saved for us to do together.

One day this house will be sold, and the prospect of waiting for that time to come and the burden of having to do it at a point in my life that I may not have the energy for it, has weighed physically on my shoulders. Headway has been made. And there is so much more. Stories have been written and photographs taken to store in the Cloud; someday I will make a family book.

My mother said she wanted to get the house cleaned out, but I’m not sure getting it gone was her goal. One can only speculate what going through it meant to her: did she want to put hands on it again and remember? Did she want to tell us stories? Did she want to make sure it was all labeled? Did she want to tell us or leave a note about whom she wanted to have things? What I know is, it was maddening to those of us who tried to do it with her, particularly when she could no longer see. We were impatient. She told few stories (or we never got to the things with stories and now they are lost), and nothing left the house. I wonder if wanting/needing to get it done is why she stayed alive so long. And if not being able to face it is why she stayed in the house, stuck here by stuff.

In hindsight, when she asked over the years if we wanted something, we should have said, “Yes! Thank you for saving it for me.” Then taken it from her hands—off her hands. It would have made her feel vital, one last piece of good parenting affirmed: she kept the treasures for us. We were then free to do with it what we wanted. Maybe she labeled so many things for one of us or the grandchildren because she knew we would say no if she asked if we wanted it. Labeling things and returning them to box, barrel, or shelf kept her heart from being broken.

What to say about this process? It’s both blessing and curse, burden and bonanza. It’s a reliving of days past, remembering a heart-full of people gone, physical proof of a mother who loved her children well—and who had a life before and beyond us.

After months of cleansing, I can almost imagine we can save the next generation from the task. The million dollar question: what will be the loss to them?

_____________________

You can read more words (in ten parts, so far) and view the photographic evidence on my blog at writingdownthestory.com. Search “Excavating a home.”

 

All the Time in the World, Part 1

December 2015

My mother wasn’t always old, I try to remember. She once had a straight spine and strong legs. Legs that rode a bicycle and climbed mountains. She met a man, fell in love, and survived the war years without him, writing and reading hundreds of letters that traveled for weeks to cross the ocean. She drove a box of a car with a manual transmission and cheap retread tires—rubber going to the war effort—to a paying job every day. She navigated a world of ration stamps and shopped store-to-store looking for scarce products like a Schick razor to send her love in England. She bought war bonds with money her new husband sent her along with a good portion of her own $2000-a-year income. For their future.

She once could see both what was right in front of her and the happiness well ahead. She had an independent streak that gave her the courage to rise above the poverty of love and economics of her childhood. Her mother modeled strength for her, though she didn’t realize it when she was younger, just as I haven’t recognized it in my mother until now.

As I stare into the past through my father’s letters, I struggle to reconcile that young woman I never knew with the middle-aged mother who raised me. She married the man her father could never be. Had that been enough? She let go of her fierce independence and took care of him, her children, and our home. She was housewife, mother, Girl Scout leader, and Sunday school teacher. Amen. At least that’s how I saw it.
At the beginning of a marriage during wartime that forced her to maintain her autonomy beyond the vows, I wonder if she sensed a coming conflict between making her own decisions and going along with her husband’s. A conflict I didn’t know dwelt in her until shortly before she died.

 

May 21, 1944
,  Sunday Evening

George, my dearest –

This has been a good weekend. Two letters from you on Saturday – enough to last until Monday. They bring you close to me. Especially when I realize you’re thinking about the things that are also going through my mind: the things we need to do – the things we’re going to do.

And the things you dream about for the future are just the things I’ve thought much of. And like you I don’t know which is most inviting: the West (northwest, or Colorado), the Tennessee Valley, or a place in the shadow of the Smokies (on the other side of the mountain). I’m pleased with all your ideas — they seem to be same as mine.

I never spend a lot of time thinking about where we’ll spend our time when you get back. But I dream a lot about just being with you forever. It won’t matter much where we are—we’ll be happy together!

I’ll love you always, Stellajoe

 

Life, love, hope. The world was their oyster.

Mug Brownie

The Story:

Sometimes you Just. Need. Chocolate. And you need it NOW. But you really don’t need a whole pan full. When I lived with my mother, my little suite in the basement didn’t have an oven or a stove, just a microwave. I used the kitchen of course, but sometimes I just wanted to stay in my own space. I tried lots of microwave mug brownie recipes, this is my favorite because it makes its own sauce . . . if you don’t overcook it. Be sure to use a really big mug, or you will have a microwave mess. More importantly, you won’t have a chocolate fix.

The Recipe:

Ingredients:
3 tablespoons flour
3 tablespoons sugar
1-1/2 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
3 tablespoons milk
2-1/2 tablespoons oil (or melted butter)
1/4 teaspoon vanilla. Or rum. Or Kahlua
1-1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
4 tablespoons hot water

Instructions:
In a small bowl add the flour, sugar, 1st measure of cocoa powder and baking powder and stir well.
Add to this the milk, oil and vanilla essence and and mix until fully combined.
Pour into a microwave proof oversized mug or dessert bowl (it will rise during baking).
Sprinkle over the brown sugar and second measure of cocoa powder.
Carefully pour over the hot water. (Do not stir.)
Cook in the microwave for 1 and a 1/2 minutes (or less), remove carefully, it’s hot!
Serve warm with whipped cream—or ice cream or chocolate sauce!