Clearing out mom’s house

The writer and her brother in younger days.

In the attic, I open another box and find canceled checks going back to 1982. Did my parents ever throw anything out?

They lived in this house for 60 years—at least my mother did. My father died in 2009. Seven months ago, after a period of persuasion, Mom moved into a retirement home. Now that she has stopped calling her fellow residents “inmates” and is learning to paint at the weekly watercolor class, she seems to have no regrets about selling the house.

First my brother and I have to empty it out. We have been chipping away at the closets, the basement, our old bedrooms, the den — all of them crammed with stuff. My mother appears to have saved every letter everyone ever wrote to her. How embarrassing to read my own self-indulgent post cards sent from India in 1987!


Furthermore, Mom’s mother and grandmother also saved every letter anyone ever wrote to them. Don’t get me wrong — I’m supremely grateful to my great-grandmother for preserving her travel diary, love letters, priceless family photographs, which I have studied and written about. But somehow, when we discover a suitcase containing silk stockings, my grandmother’s first baby dress, and a cubic foot of letters, I feel nauseated — it’s just too much to process.

What are we going to do with this 50-pound box of my father’s army fatigues? What about the two long, rigid, locked plastic cases that I thought at first were for transporting hunting rifles? My mom says they’re for golf clubs, from when she and Dad took a trip to Bermuda. When I’m done, I’m going to throw out half of the stuff in my own house, so my daughter won’t have to go through this gargantuan task.

I could do without the rolls of extra carpeting saved every time my parents moved their insurance office to a new location — four moves in all. “In case we had to patch the carpet,” Mom explains. I know you were supposed to save the box your desktop computer came in, because you might have to return it or send it in for repair. But when you got a new computer, weren’t you meant to get rid of the old box? We’re up to five giant boxes filled with styrofoam forms — and we’re only a third of the way through the attic.

I am capable of seeing this job as a labor of love. It’s satisfying to have a mission, a way to do something for my mother. I’m making up for the suffering I inflicted on her when I was a wayward teenager. But I don’t enjoy spending time in the house, with its wall-to-wall carpeting and the memory of my parents’ horror when Mom stumbled across my pot and birth control pills. I’m not eager to relive my childhood, which I associate with secret depression and a plethora of repressed emotions — even if the reliving is therapeutic. I spent much of my youth with my nose in a book, bent on escape. I catch whiffs of that sense of suffocation when I find my battered copies of Heidi and Misty of Chincoteague.

A lifetime in boxes.

However, handling my parents’ possessions also reminds me how conscientious they were, running a business, supporting local politicians. I grew up to be a liberal, but when I was a kid, I blew up balloons at Republican picnics and addressed envelopes for campaign mailings. Dad ran an annual spaghetti dinner as a fundraiser for the town’s Republican club. The attic contains five boxes of empty wine bottles, dribbled with candle wax, plus two dozen glass parmesan cheese shakers, plastic pitchers, paper tablecloths, place mats printed with maps of Italy.

I’m relieved we’re getting rid of the house, and yet, as I sift through the decades, it dawns on me that I’m about to lose a symbol of security that’s been present in my consciousness since I moved here at the age of one and a half. Going away to college was liberating, but when I came home from India with hepatitis at 23, this house was my haven for a month. After my second trip to India, ten years later, I landed here with malaria. It’s always been my back-up plan, the last-ditch option that I avoided until I had no other choice. And I have to remember that though my father nearly disowned me when the pot and pills came to light, he decided to give me a second chance. We were not that close, but when he died, it felt like an invisible limb had been amputated. Selling the house is going to be something like that.

Heavy American Tourister suitcases, from back before anyone thought of equipping them with wheels. Grandma’s hand-painted bone china dessert dishes, with a note earmarking them for me. Five boxes of National Geographics. A replica of an old-fashioned candlestick phone, printed with stars and stripes, that my father bought for my dorm room.

Everyone has childhood traumas. My daughter’s were no doubt worse than mine, given my determination to be unlike my conservative, unimaginative parents. Now the solidity they provided is being dismantled and dispersed, passing through my hands in the form of objects.

It’s the cookbooks that finally get to me. One thing my mother and I have in common is our dislike of cooking. Nevertheless, she always made sure we had three nourishing, tasty meals a day. So what if the vegetables were frozen, and the soup came out of a can? The Cookie Cookbook is of little use to me, since I don’t bake. But I remember searching through it for recipes to make with my mom, and I am unable to throw it away. Standing over the box of cookbooks with tears flowing down my face, I find myself thinking my childhood could have been a lot worse.

Good-bye, house.

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