vintage baby dress

Going back to my childhood home is like entering a portal to the past.

In the basement is my pink-painted dresser, with baby dresses inside.

In the kitchen is Danish modern ironstone crockery that my mother acquired sometime in the 1970s, perhaps a grocery store giveaway.  This exact pattern is now a hot item on etsy.  The sight of those plates whisks me right back to 7th grade.

In the closet of my old bedroom are figurines that I collected from age 7 to 14.

And in the attic is a trunk full of hundreds of tightly folded little notes that my friends and I used to send to each other, ranging from 5th to 12th grade.  Remember notes?  Before Facebook, texting, and cell phones, this was our favorite form of secret communication.  Unless the note fell into the wrong hands, which was part of the thrill.  You had to hope and trust the classroom note-passers would act ethically and not intercept or read your words. 

My dad has done an excellent job of clearing out the clutter accumulated by the six people who once lived in the house.  Although an architect we know once said ”if you have shelves, you will fill them,” my dad has done the opposite.  To his credit, he has many empty and half-empty shelves.

The most recent Sunday New York Times Magazine ran an essay by Rich Marin – an only child – who had to clean out his childhood home in a matter of days.   Echoing my headline (and ahem, I thought of it first), he referred to the process as dismantling a personal museum.  He begins with this perfect statement:  “People spend the first first half of their lives accumulating stuff and the last half getting rid of it.  That’s the story of eBay.”

Many of his lines resonated with me, such as “Next, the closets…I started in my mother’s bedroom and lost an hour flipping through a Simpsons department store Christmas catalog from 1974.  Every present I’d ever gotten was in here.  My G.I. Joes with the kung-fu grip and Village People beards….Ker Plunk!”

He keeps digging.  “Here was my groundbreaking Grade 5 project on whales, lifted largely from our Funk & Wagnalls encyclopedia.  My mother’s homework from the 40′s….At around 2 AM, I’d try to sleep, to quiet the Proustian rush of memory and emotion set off by every object I touched.”

I often hear people joke, “I have to get rid of stuff, or my children will hate me when I die.”  The words are meant to get a laugh, but there’s a serious undertone there.  A crisis of someone dying or moving to a nursing home is hard enough to handle without the added overlay of having to do an emergency tear-down of a lifetime of accumulation. 

When my mom’s parents went to a nursing home and the house needed to be sold, she and her female relatives were charged with dispersing decades of possessions within a matter of days.  In the heat of August.  In Kansas.  Without air conditioning.  Talk about battlefield conditions. 

By the end, my mom and aunts were so stressed out and overwhelmed, they were just chucking boxes full of stuff into the alley.  As Marin pointed out, the objects are not just objects.  They are memories and stories, full of meaning.  Under pressure, the constant decision making – keep or toss? – can become cripping. 

So I must thank my dad for methodically keeping the clutter out of his house – all the while telling my brothers and me to take almost anything we want.  Best of all, he has accomplished this while keeping his home cozy, and devoid of tumbleweeds.  Not an easy balance to strike.

Have you had to clean out the house of an older relative?  What decisions were the hardest?  Any advice to share with those facing the same chore?
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