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.”
As I read this, I stepped out into my garage and stared blankly at the boxes and bins filled with “stuff”. I think I’ve mentioned that for me it can be rather paralyzing to think about letting go of parts of my past. Often, the only connection I have to a memory is a photo or trinket, a book or a box.
As my memory begins to fade even now, how can I let go of all of the people I used to be? The high school journalist, the teen-aged poet, the desperate young adult. Each part still lives inside me and without touchstones I fear I will forget and those parts will be lost forever. Therein lies the trap.
I love that your Mom made notes and attached them to things that meant something to her. I’m trying to find my way forward somehow, because without children to dig through it all later, I need to be the one to identify those things that hold too much of me to let go of. If nothing else, I will leave them to someone else to toss because I cannot do it on my own. Letting go is not my best thing. The things and people I love, I love forever.
Bonnie Rae: So there are things you aren’t ready to let go of right now. There’s nothing says you have to. If they are touchstones, they are important to you, give you joy, help you remember. Keep them! You will let them go when you are ready, or leave them behind. I have a trunk full of my own memories. Every time I go through (i.e. when I move), I winnow it down, letting go of things that no longer have meaning, and keep the rest for another day. I’ve opened that trunk twice in the ten years since my last move. Someday I will go through it again. But not today.
Such a beautiful reminder and reflection! Makes me remember my mother’s comments about how much more stuff my generation held than her own, “closets half the size, a shoebox of favorite things”. Now we face an attic and, dare I say, a storage unit, full of items that commemorate the houses and experiences along the journey. I keep Marie Kondo’s “…Tidying Up” book nearby and refer to it with some regularity, although it’s not made the tasks much easier. It’s the task of taking stock and letting go that calls me to pause and release. Many emotions between those two steps – feeling, sometimes, like I’m wrestling a big fish on a line. Letting go is so necessary in the process of looking forward. I like your focus on being astonished by the moments we’re in, Gretchen. Remembering where the trilliums are along the path is seeing them from within; love that important view.
Ah, dear Dori. There is nothing easy about the task. Even throwing out dried leaves was hard for me. My mother is gone, and they help me see her. I insisted my tiny sister take my tiny mother’s peignoir, purchased for her wedding night (at least in my imagination) because I couldn’t bear to discard it. And do I really need to keep my red tin lunch box that for years lived under the seat of my parent’s car with first aid stuff in it? Probably not, but I still have it. Here’s to spring in your North Carolina, and being astonished every day.
What a mountain of work. It’s interesting to me what is of value to some is junk to others. But I’m glad you are finding sustenance from the memories, and a better understanding of your mother – and yourself along the way. I suppose that’s what it’s all about really. Seeing who you are by looking at what was.
A Rainier sized mountain, Nancy! Just seeing what she kept, how she packaged and labeled it, her hand-writing, is interesting, mystifying, and heart-tugging.
My goodness, the writing. Thank you.
Thank you, Karen!