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Cleaning an Attic

March 9, 2016

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

22 Comments leave one →
  1. March 9, 2016 9:04 am

    I loved this post, Jeanne. It really captured the poignant, tragicomic feel of that final cleaning day. I also thought of Emily Dickinson’s poem ” Bustle in the House.”

    Your “treasure hunt” reminded me of when we cleaned out my grandmother’s house, last occupied by a beloved uncle who 1. was a hoarder and 2. mistrusted banks. We had to go through every bit of paper and trash to find the wads of cash, and my sister rang a cowbell for every find.

    • March 9, 2016 9:19 am

      Oh yes. Dickinson’s poem is more immediate, so leans a little harder on the tragedy side, whereas I did find the project tragicomic and glad to hear you think I captured that. Here it is, (Bustle in the House)
      A cowbell! That was a good idea.

  2. lemming permalink
    March 9, 2016 9:35 am

    Great poem to go with the post.

    • March 9, 2016 10:23 am

      Glad you thought so. I was seized by some of the lines, especially the one about everything seeming misplaced or out of place. As one of my friends said on FB, the first few times I went into her dresser drawers (when she was in the hospital and then the rehab place) to get something it felt like an intrusion. By the time I cleaned everything out, it just felt like I’d gotten everything so out of place it was time to give up trying.

  3. Gwen Bailey permalink
    March 9, 2016 10:10 am

    I was told that cleaning out my father’s house would be cathartic, that it would bring closure on the whole “loss thing.” My father did not have much, preferring to make money than collect things. What he did have, fell to me to clear. He had his wedding ring, a crucifix with Holy Water in it for extreme unction, 25 years of tax returns. And checkbooks full of duplicate checks. It was those check duplicates that did me in. That handwriting was never going to exist again. He wasn’t going to be able to eat the Girl Scout cookies he paid for. I wish I could say cleaning out his things was cathartic; my brother, perhaps, found it so. I am very, very sorry for your loss.

    • March 9, 2016 10:27 am

      The day’s drive home alone was more cathartic for me than the cleaning out. The good thing about the weekend was that there were other people there who were also “sweeping up the heart/and putting love away” and we were comforted by being around people who felt the loss as much as we did. Do.

  4. March 9, 2016 12:24 pm

    This is such a bittersweet thing, going through the belongings of a loved one, the forgotten treasures re-discovered, laughter over why such a thing would be kept (my husband’s grandmother had several shoeboxes full of Sweet n Lo in her bedroom closet) and always, always missing the person to whom it all belonged. Lovely post.

    • March 9, 2016 1:38 pm

      You said it. I think it’s missing the person that made us take home as much as we did. I have no use for some of it, but couldn’t bear to see it thrown away.

  5. March 9, 2016 5:34 pm

    Beautiful post, Jeanne. I love the way you end thinking of your own children having to deal with your things someday. I’m glad you had so much support from friends, family, and neighbors.

    • March 10, 2016 8:10 am

      Five years ago my parents moved to an apartment in a retirement community, whereas I’ve lived in the same house for 23 years now. Clothes and papers are the worst, but at least I won’t have as many prints of photographs.

  6. Rita Dailey permalink
    March 10, 2016 3:21 pm

    I loved this post, Jeanne! We have been through this experience twice, first when my parents passed, and again when Fred’s parents passed. The dispersal of my parents belongings was fairly simple. They had some lovely heirlooms, furniture, etc., but they were minimalists and were extremely organized. The first thing my brother Jim said to me was, “I want you to have anything you want,” which is indicative of our relationship. When we entered the attic, there were just a few plastic containers that were labeled “Rita,” “Jim,” “Christmas,” etc. My father had a new truck and a new car. My brother took the truck and I took the car. My mother was adamant about not having a sale. She did not want people “riffling” through her possessions. We each took what we wanted, sold their beautiful home to a cousin, and gave the rest to charity. It was painful, but actually pretty simple.

    Fred’s parents’ estate was considerably more complicated. First of all, there were four siblings. Secondly, his parents were collectors and, let’s face it, hoarders. The basement attic, garage, enclosed patio, barn and every out-building were filled to capacity with some valuables, but mostly junk. We filled five large dumpsters with trash and metal (over 200 junk bicycles). We then held two auctions, one of which had two rings (barn and house) running at the same time. Because most of their possessions were acquired from yard sales, auctions, etc., very little held any sentimental value to their children. We also found money stashed here and there. At one point, Fred’s brother found a 40 lb. bag of silver dimes! They owned three rental properties in addition to the farm where they resided, so those had to be divided up also. Fred was the executor, and he worked very had to make sure that everything was fair and balanced. In the end everyone seemed happy. but what a hassle!!

    Sorry to rattle on so, but I just wanted you to know that those of us who have been through this experience can certainly empathize. I’m also happy that you are left with happy memories of your wonderful mother. Thanks for sharing this with us!

    • March 12, 2016 8:36 am

      It could have been so much worse, I know. My brother and I ended up being a little more encouraging to the other one to take things with sentimental value. We finally had to leave the kitchen table and chairs. His wife kind of wanted it, but it was hard to move and heavy, made of wrought iron with a glass top.

  7. March 11, 2016 8:43 pm

    >>All we felt was loss, and yet what we were (and are) dealing with is plenitude.

    This is such a good way of describing this experience, Jeanne. You always write such lovely, eloquent posts. You and your family continue to be in my thoughts. Sending many hugs.

  8. March 12, 2016 7:47 am

    I am still very sorry for your loss, but this post really captures the essence of the experience. Hopefully the writing of it can be cathartic to you.

    I helped my sister-in-law clean out my mother-in-laws things and the items she chose to collect were kind of fascinating. The guy took home his mother’s rolling pin because to him, that was a childhood memory. I got the bookcases. There were years and years of receipts, duplicate checks, and an alarming number of lids to liquid dish soap. And years of photographs.

    • March 12, 2016 8:39 am

      I always find that writing about what is happening helps me move past it.
      The years of photographs are hard to leave–I ended up with boxes of them.

  9. March 12, 2016 11:49 am

    This is a lovely post, Jeanne. We can’t take anything with us, but in this case the theatre group will surely get a lot of use from the items and for a long time to come and you’ve all got the things that are special.

    I like to think others may have copies of the photos we have or other photos of the people and know who they are; if we’ve notes of family members’ friends, others will have the same for our relatives and they won’t be completely forgotten.

    • March 13, 2016 5:18 pm

      Thinking others might have copies of the photos or other poses of those same people is a pleasant thought. It would have to be something you work towards in life, by widening your circle, and by telling more people the stories associated with your pictures and memories. We feel like we did as much of this as we could with my mother, but she was the longest-lived of a big family, and what we wrote down and wrote on the back of the pictures is all that we’re going to get.

  10. March 13, 2016 5:04 pm

    I’m so glad I am not the only one who feels that same. This reminds me of when we cleaned out my Grandmother’s house. There were tears, to be sure, but also laughter, as my mom and her siblings told stories and talked about old times and the family healed together. I miss my Grandmother terribly, but I remember her when I were her earrings, or eat of her every day dishes, or see those three little buddhas staring at me from the shelf. And yes, it reminds me that you can’t take it with you, so be careful, and don’t pick things over people. ~ L

    • March 13, 2016 5:20 pm

      The challenge here is not to be overwhelmed with how many of my mother’s things are here in my house–I want it to still feel like my house, where I can be my clumsy, ungainly self, and not her house, where I had to be careful of all the graceful, pretty things. And, of course, to enjoy enough of the pretty things without being afraid I’ll knock them over. There’s a balance to it all.

  11. March 13, 2016 6:32 pm

    What a melancholy time for you. I hurts to get rid of things a loved one treasured but you can’t keep it all.

    • March 13, 2016 8:05 pm

      Exactly. And it’s making us get rid of some things because we don’t want our children to have to deal with them sometime in the future. For example, we moved my mother’s nicer couch into our living room, but instead of taking our old sleeper sofa down the stairs, we’re getting rid of it. A sleeper sofa is a pain to get out of a basement.

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