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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.

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?

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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.”