I have, over the past few days, been cleaning out Mom’s house – she has resided there for nearly fifty years before moving to the town I live in in Massachusetts.
This task, emptying out the house, has laid out before me for several months now. Until Mom got her life alert necklace I didn’t yet dare leave overnight in case she had an accident. Mom has been in Florida since last Tuesday visiting my brother, which was timed to coincide with my cleaning out the house. When last we spoke of it, Mom asked me, once again, what I was going to do with everything there. I gave her my standard response of ‘I’ll have to figure that out when I decide what stays and what goes.’ It’s been my standard response as I just didn’t have the heart to tell her that as far as I could see, at least 90% of it was not really salvageable nor worth keeping.
Mom is a child of the Depression. She grew up, as she puts it, extremely poor. She has, many times, told me stories of how many of her meals were a choice of ‘potato and with it, or with it and potato’…meaning they had potatoes, and nothing else. I’ve also heard, from a relative a bit older than me, about some questionable things my grandmother did to put food on the table for her six children…she had an older child from her first marriage and two children that died shortly after birth, but six survived and were raised together with little to no means. They had, Mom says, nothing.
I have long been of the opinion that this has been the motivation for her to ‘hoard’ over the years. I didn’t reflect much upon it as a child, it was just a matter of ‘this is our house and these are the things in it’. Over time those things didn’t disappear, they simply were added to. Items no longer in use were not discarded of, they were put aside in storage spaces and the basement, and when more was added to that, they were just pushed further and further back into the dark recesses of the house.
In the past few days I’ve come across five old record players and pairs of speakers (all broken), eight phones (that may or may not still work), four typewriters, three computers (again that may or may not work), date books from 1992, grocery receipts from the 1980’s, financial records from my dad’s garage and parts store, and so many other items that have simply been shoved aside year upon year until the house would have burst if it had a loose seam anywhere.
The common areas of the house didn’t betray this ‘habit’ of Mom’s. Sure, there were some boxes in corners that she kept her mail (every last piece of it) in, and one of the downstairs bedrooms was growing more and more void of floor space, but other than that the living room, dining area, kitchen and bathroom all seemed relatively clear. This was just a facade. The closets were full. The storage areas were over-full. Part of the basement is a dark, sad pile of long out of use items that my sister moved back into the house during one of her relocations and never picked up again, as well as two very old very large very heavy desks that have sat moldering down there for decades now.
In the past three days I’ve been filling a dumpster out in the driveway, heaving up box after box after box of ‘stuff’ from the storage areas into it until it grew full. After those three days, when I went back to the house this morning, I looked around at what is still left after going through all boxes and stored items, and decided that I’d reached the point of diminishing returns and decided that I’d store what is to be kept in one room, closed off, and hire someone to come in and remove the rest of what remains. My back is aching. My legs are worn and jelly-like after so many trips up and down the stairs. My arms feel like blocks of cement resting at my sides. I can’t imagine any more hauling and lugging and pushing and grunting is in me at this point. I’ve done what I could. The rest of the effort will be someone else’s, and I’ll lift my arms again simply to write out and hand them a check for their services.
I don’t look forward to the conversation with Mom about this, after someone hauls out the rest of what remains. I know that she feels like the sale of the house leaves her with ‘nothing’ and I don’t wish to enhance that by revealing that the contents of the house were just not worth salvaging. For her it represents a lifetime of effort and struggle to have ‘more’ than her parents had and more than she had in her childhood. For her it represents some type of security, no matter if it was boxes of clothes she hasn’t worn in two decades or curtains and bedspreads long past their usefulness and caked over with dust and insulation from being in the storage areas under the eaves of the house.
For me all these things, and many more that I found in the past few days represent something else. It’s not something as comforting nor at all fulfilling as it is for her.
For me, these things represent death.
I have to admit that since I moved out of the house at age 18, I’ve never once set foot back in that house and felt any kind of peace about it. I felt something very contrary to that. I know people who return to their childhood homes and feel safe and warm and filled with serenity and euphoria. I don’t feel that. I wish I could. I wish I could have spent the past few days feeling anything like that in that house. There were, certainly, some things I came across that brought a smile to my face – old photographs, some VERY poor attempts at writing poetry on my part from the 1980’s…but while I moved from room to room and closet to closet and drawer to drawer, emptying out the contents of each, I was haunted by the presence of what I found.
In those spaces I found corpses.
There are things in that house that represent nothing but death to me. The death of a marriage, in the box of divorce paperwork and letters from lawyers that have been kept since 1977 until the divorce was finalized. The death of a family, as there were angrily scribbled notes about Dad’s refusal to pay child support because he felt like Mom was simply ‘enjoying herself’ on his money, and long untouched sheets of notebook paper where I was called ‘faggot’ and the notes were left for me to find, written by someone I’d worshipped as a child…someone who’d been my hero for the first several years of my life, but then saw fit to constantly belittle and demean me. The death of Dad’s dream to own his own business, evidenced by copies of a letter sent out to customers informing them that Dad’s businesses were closing. The death of any childhood security I ever had by reading through an essay I wrote in high school about, in part, how I felt as though Mom was always too busy with the troubles of my sister to ever see how her younger son, the ‘one she didn’t worry about’ who sat in corners reading, or built ‘sanctuaries’ in small, confined spaces to escape from everyone and everything, was slowly dying inside. The death of my few attempts to be ‘good’ at anything, whereas I had no ability for sports, and even photographs of my high school choir performances bring back memories of how when I got home, no matter how much I’d enjoyed myself and how much the audience might have enjoyed it, someone was always there to ridicule me and do everything they could to crush any enjoyment of it or pride I might take in it.
I don’t have good memories of that childhood and of that home where it was spent. And to pick through the corpses of those memories for the past three days has taken a huge emotional toll on me, even greater than the physical one. On the third day of this effort one of my Facebook acquaintances joked about ‘dropping a match on my way out’. That would have put an end to the physical effort, most certainly.
That day I stood in the hallway upstairs looking at what was left to be done, and the thought occurred to me for a brief moment about how much more ‘dropping a match’ would have done. Not only would it have eliminated the rest of the clean out effort….I could have killed the house itself. I could have decimated everything in that house that was stirring up my emotions like a volcano on the verge of erupting. I could have cremated those corpses and watched them reduced to nothing but ash on the ground.
I have to admit the thought was tempting. I have to admit I picked up a box of matches I found in the kitchen and considered it. I know that if the place were simply mine to do with as I wished, I know the impulse to burn it down would have felt even more tempting. As it is, were it mine to just get rid of, I would simply put the keys in the hands of a new owner, free of charge, and say ‘I have 46 years of bad memories of this place…now the place is yours…please make some good memories in it.’
Instead I carried many of these corpses out to the dumpster and tossed them in. I’ve saved some things…photographs and some of the remaining furniture and many books…but the rest of it, the rest that I carried out to the dumpster…is now ‘gone’. I, irrespective of what Mom will feel about it, have no regrets.
I have never, and never will, express to her what that house represents to me. I’ll never tell her that each and every time I’ve been there after moving out has felt like visiting a graveyard full of demons that still prowl around in my head and that no matter how much I like to believe I have ‘moved on’ in life will, I know, continue to haunt me for as long as I live.
For Mom’s sake, I hope that she has forgotten most of what was in that house as a natural byproduct of her dementia, which has, over the past few months, gotten a little worse. I hope that she doesn’t dwell upon the ‘things’ that have been disposed of. I hope that, despite the sadness associated with it, part of the fog invading her mind slips a cloak over those things she spent 50 years ‘stashing away just in case she needed it’. If there’s any ‘upside’ to dementia, she won’t miss what she doesn’t remember.
As for me, I still remember it. I probably will for many more years to come. I do wonder now, whereas both my parents have dementia, if I will experience it myself in years to come. I hope I can remember faces, and those I care about and love. But as far as the house I’ve cleaned out, and all the corpses I took out of it, I hope one day I forget them and instead of feeling what I feel now…pain, melancholy, regret, and anguish…I hope I forget them all and feel nothing.