Cleaning an Attic
This weekend Ron and my brother and I–with help from my older cousins one day and my best friend from high school (and some of her kids) the next—cleaned out my mother’s apartment. People from the building stopped by to give us their condolences and we gave them plants and baskets and door decorations. Mom’s friends gave us a place to stay and made us dinner each night. All we felt was loss, and yet what we were (and are) dealing with is plenitude.
In an abstract way, we all know that “you can’t take it with you.” But in specific detail, it’s almost impossible to understand that everything you took such good care of will be left and you will be gone. In my mother’s case, powder and perfume, tissues and straight pins. Her wedding and engagement rings. About thirty carefully-taken-care of purses, each with a matching pair of leather gloves and a handkerchief inside. A bottle of wine. A bag of chocolates she never got to open.
We made piles—one for Goodwill. One for things my brother took home. One for things I took home. Another for my sister-in-law to take to a consignment shop. Lots for trash. One for dishes, to hand down to my kids as they set up households. One for food, opened bottles of liquor, wrapping paper and bows, for my best friend from high school who lives in town.
We made a special pile for things that the college theater might be able to use—my mother’s costume jewelry from the 60’s and 70’s, in her blue leather jewelry box. Keys to who-knows-what. Hats. Purses. Gloves. A red Burberry raincoat. My father’s wooden shoeshine kit. The suitcase my mother’s father painted her name on when she went off to college. The head of the theater department came by on Sunday to pick it all up and mourn with us for a few minutes.
It got to be a joke that we kept finding coins—change purses with dimes and nickels stuck in with decks of cards and pencils. Sandwich bags full of quarters. A twenty pence piece in a drawer with a Sacajawea dollar coin. That made the whole process feel a little like a treasure hunt.
Ron drove our U-Haul home on Sunday. I drove my mother’s car home on Monday. My brother stayed on Monday, long enough to show the remaining furniture to a used furniture dealer who will haul it away and give us a fraction of what it’s worth.
And that was it. I drove over the Mississippi River bridge like in every shot of someone leaving Cape Girardeau in the movie Gone Girl. I played the music from Hamilton much of the way home, the CD I’d given my mother in her car’s player, remembering my last few trips back and forth from Cape.
This morning I have her car in my driveway and I need to go out and carry in the boxes of my parents’ diplomas and the photos of my ancestors that they labeled with names on the back (the unlabeled ones went in the trash, as no one knows who those people are anymore). There’s a little photo book of my grandmother’s family on a trip to Hot Springs, Arkansas in the 1920’s. We found her flapper-style wedding dress packed away in the suitcase we gave to the theater, and re-packed it with tissue in a box. It went in my brother’s pile for now.
Now we have to start curating our own lives, as we have quickly curated our parents’, lest our own children someday be too overwhelmed to find the other half of things, or the dearness in what we’ve kept.
Cleaning an Attic
By Brent Pallas
The day had finally come
when everything there
seemed misplaced or out of place
as an ex’s box of things. The unused
beside the irreplaceable, the easy-
to-assemble uncomplicated now
by disuse. Some hand
of randomness leaving behind
its lampshades stained
like ancient maps, its ladders
still climbing upward, and enough
old tools to restart a world.
Every drawer filled
with the other half of things.
Everything care embraced,
and held once as new,
left too ragged for another winter
to wear. Its ring of keys
dangling by a nail
for rooms left long ago. And whatever
I said I’d never forget
found, just as it seemed
completely forgot—all its letters
beginning with Dear…