Cleaning House

Another box, full of seemingly mundane history. My mother saved her papers. All of them. If I forgot which birthday card I bought for her in 1998, I could relive the card-giving now.

The process of cleaning out my mother’s house went about as expected. I cleaned house once before when my father died. Both of my parents grew up during the depression where everything was saved…just in case. A broken handled cooking pot could be used as a…well…maybe it could become a flower planter. A shipping envelope could, I suppose, be made to ship again. Except that the cooking pot and the shipping envelope never were repurposed. They were just there for me to toss in the dumpster years later.

What did surprise me a bit is how much the house cleaning turned out to be a process of reconciling. To be sure, there are a lot of trips down memory lane when emptying a parent’s home. However, there a lot of new, old discoveries. In other words, finding letters from other relatives to my mother filled in a lot of blanks to stories I only partially knew. Those stories don’t matter much now but they are a part of my mother and, therefore, a part of me. I found myself piecing together stories, processing any emotions those stories prompted, all under the time pressure of completing the task at hand–throwing most of it away.

I also found an old photo of my then 17 year old father. His posture looked exactly like my 16 year old son, who never met his grandfather. I found a handwritten family history of my maternal grandmother. It traced our roots to the 16th century. I found a 1963 Minneapolis paper with the story of JFK’s assassination. All these items told fascinating stories about my parents and, vicariously, about me. Of course these items were buried among mountains of paper such as receipts from 2002 pharmacy bills, political junk mail from the 2000 election, phone books from other parts of the state when rotary phones were the norm, and so forth. The few treasures were also buried among the last few years of random, disorganized “everything she touched”, which painfully evidenced my mother’s slow decline into dementia.
The whole ordeal can get to be a bit frustrating because it seemed that I had to go through hundreds of things that I regard as useless to find a few things that seemed meaningful. The frustration can then lead to a certain grumpiness about why mom kept all this stuff. But then I realized how much “stuff” we all carry with us. “Stuff” doesn’t always take physical form. In fact, for most of us, the stuff we retain takes up no space in our homes but, instead, clutters our minds and bodies. We retain “stuff” when we consume the emotional bag of chips that we carry on our stomach. We retain “stuff” when we obsess over North Carolina’s bathroom laws as if we seriously think that we should post a police officer at every bathroom entrance to check the birth certificates that we would always be required to carry with us–if we ever travel to North Carolina.

Living light can be liberating. However, it’s not really a human thing to do. And amidst the clutter, there are always a few gems. We just need to toss a lot of stuff to find them.


Daniel Blake

Copyright 2016

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