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Death Cleaning

Like many of you, I read Marie Kondo’s book when it came out and did the “does it spark joy” test with my belongings. (After moving several times and, ultimately, living alone, my belongings were spare anyway, which made the task easier.) I was enjoying my “only what you need or love” home. Then I moved.

I whittled again because I was paying by the pound for what would cross the country. I was “temporarily” moving into my mother’s home and would pay storage for what I didn’t need or have room for in the near term. If you’ve read Mother Lode, you know “temporary” was not what happened. (The lies we tell ourselves for courage to change the course.) I emptied the storage unit eighteen months after the move, purging again.

My mother has been gone nearly six years, and I’m still in her house with her lifetime of belongings. This would be the ongoing “load” part, the part that didn’t evaporate with her death. She, vaguely, didn’t want to leave it to her children to do, but—despite my delusion that I would get the house cleaned out with her in it in one year—she did leave it all behind. I can see why.

My father was busy keeping up the property. (I wonder, now, if there were even conversations about needing to clean out. I wish I’d asked my mother if there was a plan, and I know it would have burdened her to be reminded that she was leaving a burden.) She was nearly eighty when he died and left her everything. How could she even consider leaving this house? It was overwhelming; and at that point, she also had to take care of the house, the finances, the everything.

Since Mama’s death, I have disposed of, given away, sold, and donated boxes upon boxes of stuff. And there is so much more. I’ve taken a break the past two years to promote my book, but it’s time to return to the task. I don’t want to leave it to my own old age, nor to my children, nor until the last minute. Am I resentful that I have it to do when I’ve done so well with my own treasures? Yes, a little. It is what it is. And now, having been in this house for twelve years—longer than I’ve been in any house in my life—I need to death clean out my own stuff again.

I read The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, by Margareta Magnusson, a few months ago, and it strengthened my resolve. I’ve been trying to figure out how to leave this house, but I can’t until it’s cleansed of the past. I recently shifted my thinking to trying to figure out how to stay, rather than how to leave, while—unlike my mother—being ready to leave. All maps, regardless of the destination, follow the road of death cleaning.

And so I am back at it.

You can read on my blog about my inaugural foray into the squillions of slides my parents took. Leave your own story of death cleaning (your parents’ home or your own) in the blog post comments or on the comments page on this website. I would love to hear your story.

What We Leave Behind

What do we do with the stuff our parents left behind? And what about our own stuff? A year ago I wrote a post on this website about cleaning out my parents’ house of more than fifty years (a condensed digest of an ongoing series on my other blog). I’m still at it. Because I’m living in the house, there’s no sense of urgency. And yet, as I consider options for what’s next for me, I’m held back by all the minutia that isn’t mine, from an overstock of paper clips to an antique organ, from nuts and nails to my father’s enormous desk.

A friend wrote about cleaning out her mother’s house after she died—that generation of savers, oh my—and of the saved bits and pieces of her own life.I often write the word “excavations” on my “things to do” list, or a I use this phrase “I am a miner” to inspire my efforts. I couldn’t help be fascinated (and somewhat repelled) by all the little boxes, jars and containers full of doodads, screws, & miscellaneous parts that your family saved. I went through the same thing too at my mom’s. She had saved dozens of snus (snuff) cans from her father, filled with every screw, nail, bolt, curtain hanger, drape hook, and carpet tack of his, as well as my dad’s stuff in baby food jars, cat food cans (the last cat died in 1966) and cigar boxes (his father smoked cigars, and he always brought home empty ones from “The Club”). But, I think maybe I had it somewhat easier going through some of those things compared to what you are faced with now, because my mom moved to a different house twenty years ago, and she was an obsessive organizer and labeler (probably the librarian thing).

Now I’m making myself face the harder stuff, things with family memories. I whittled four boxes of antique piano music from my grandmother down to one. Some of it was so old and shabby, I had to throw it out, but I took two boxes of it to local antique/collectible shops. But I can’t keep it all and I tell myself “four minus three equals one—at least I’m trying.” [Then I set to working] on a list of books (about theater and the New York stage) to offer my local theater company. I have saved six books for myself and I hope that they will accept about sixteen. My mom loved the theater.

On the horizon, waiting for me, are boxes and boxes of 78 rpm records. That may be a challenge. The thrift stores won’t take those. I might put them off for later. I actually remember some of those old records from when I was really little.

One of the hardest things about all of this is that I am recognizing my own hoarding instinct. I’ve saved many of the same things. It scares me to think that I might pass all of this stuff (or my own treasures) on to my daughter. But I know to a certain extent that I will. She tells me not to worry about it.

LV