Cleaning Out a Parent’s Home

After months of my two sisters and I photographing every item in my mother’s house of 38 years and doing round robins to divide up all the things, we are finally down to moving everything distributed out.

Along the way there were so many questions I wish I had asked my mom: what something meant, how she got it, and what was its attachment to her.

What remains are things nobody wants in a “take it or leave it” room and boxes of slides, photographs, my mother’s art work rolled up in bins, and boxes of unsorted file drawers of papers, letters, and printed out emails, and repair receipts.

One nephew has been hired to scan all the photo albums and loose photos. I agreed to do the slides and sort through the papers.

There is still enough stuff for a good garage sale, but first we are having a potluck and letting my mom’s friends come and take what they want.

I have flown from Madison, Wisconsin to Phoenix, Arizona for 5 days every month for 7 months. So has my older sister who is the trustee. My little sister, the only one of us three who is not retired, has only come a few times to identify what she wants. And we are almost done. The house is about to go on the market.

Unlike my sisters, I have lived in this house since 2015 three to five months at a time caring for both my parents before they passed away. It is now 2024. Several of my friends from Phoenix, as well as the wonderful friends I inherited from my mother, came and hung out with me each time I visited.

It is great to get this job almost done and I’m starting to do it in my own house for my kids. Not just to downsize, but to enjoy our beautiful memories one more time.

It feels bittersweet. I learned a lot about my mom going through all her stuff.

Tip: Go slowly. Don’t let a sibling just dump it in a dumpster. Make a “no disposal” agreement: no taking anything distributed to you out of the house until it is all done.

Lynet U.

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.