Certain global movements say this is the time of a great shift in society. This is the time to shed the past, release what is holding us back and move boldly into a new world. Whether or not this is a macro, global truth, it is certainly true on the small stage of my life, and also apparently true for many of you. I know, because you’ve told me. Many of us are finding some sort of upheaval in our own lives: relationships are evolving, moves, health concerns, job changes, other events that force us to pause and look at the lives we have created. I’ve had a big one this year, the sale of my mother’s home, which was also the home I grew up in since I was two.
Dad died seven years ago and Mom has struggled valiantly to stay in the home of her dreams, created by her husband in 1956 and lived in happily ever since. As he was drawing up the blueprint, he asked his bride, “What do you want, honey? Your requests will go in the plans.” Mom gave Dad her priorities: lots of closet space, electric outlets everywhere, lower the counter height for her shorter stature, and a “bottomless kitchen trash can.” Dad happily complied with all her ideas, and, creative type that he was, cut a hole in a kitchen cupboard and suspended a 55 gallon trash can below in the basement.
With these personal touches, it’s easy to see why Mom was reluctant to leave. But a fall with a left leg broken in three places forced her into assisted living. I was the only one left behind to clean every room. Two bedrooms were piled high with shoes that swollen feet could no longer wear, and stacks of boxes, return packaging kept for clothing that was never sent back.
The Depression made packrats out of my parents, Mom in particular: stacks of saved materials, catering brochures for restaurants no longer in business, instruction booklets, even one for a toaster. Why do you need to save instructions for how to use a toaster? Yet Mom kept everything. You never know…just when you throw something out you need it again, I can hear her say.
Mom was the Material Girl long before Madonna sang a note. I don’t condemn her for it; she led a much different life than I. She was a classic Depression Baby. She spent her adolescence and most of her teen years in that painful era. For many of us the preteen and teen years can be the hardest of all, and bread and milk for dinner after your dad had fancy cars and gave you horseback riding lessons can be almost too much to take. When she married and she and Dad were able to make it on their own, Dad made sure she could get anything she wanted. I would never ask for a fur coat, but her ostentatiousness came honestly.
About every emotion conceivable can be felt if you ever are the one to clear out your childhood home. Sadness– that Dad couldn’t keep up with the home and now it is in such a sad, rundown state after so many shining years. Anger– as I look carefully at cracked walls and equipment without operational manuals, wondering why Dad didn’t clue me in about the condition of things since he knew I’d be the final caretaker. Sweet remembrances– as I recall playing games, rocking in the hammock, conversations at the kitchen table. They were loving parents, and so this house was a place of refuge for me.
So many items not seen in years brought a knot to the throat. The Green Stamp books nearly filled. The party place cards still in their wrapper. A clipped newspaper article instructing how to scent pine cones with cinnamon. I left the old mink in the cedar closet to wait for the estate sale. I hope someone else will enjoy it as much as Mom did. I remember the first time I ever cried for happiness when Dad gave Mom that coat for Christmas. I was only about nine, but old enough to know how much she wanted one, how much it meant to her.
Checking things over after the estate sale, I looked at this home in a special way, knowing I would see some of these things for the last time. The wedding toast goblets, carefully placed back in their windowed box in 1941 and probably never used again, only to have the daughter give them away 73 years later. I couldn’t even look at Mom’s bridal veil, left unpurchased and ready to be sent off to the second-hand store. Could I keep it? I had my own wedding dress and it was also time for my husband and I to part with some treasures as we, in turn, downsize, since our son left to create his own life. I already have too many of my own things…shall I create for my son at some future time the burdens I am feeling now?
Poignant memories hit me as I visited each room. Here is the milk chute in the kitchen, a relic from the fifties when glass milk bottles were delivered through a hole in the wall covered only by a levered door. I can’t recall how many times I shimmied my once-skinny butt through that square to let in a keyless parent.
There in Dad’s workshop was the work bench with attached vice grip, once kept constangly busy. Several Chase and Sanborn coffee cans were piled high with nuts, bolts and screws that awaited use for decade after decade. I tried to snuff out the emotions I felt when I realized my dad’s hands were the last to handle them, and I would be the last in the family to touch them before they were either sold for fractions of pennies or end up in a landfill. All those good useable woodworker’s tools he carefully saved. For the first time I truly understood what it was like to be my parents, not wanting to throw out a thing because its demise in a junk yard is such a waste.
I will miss the sounds peculiar only to this home, the way the gas meter whirs, a ping-y sound seated next to the metal sewer pipe tucked in a far corner of the basement. I will miss the sound particular doors have as they strike against their plates as they close. No other doors close quite the same as the doors you hear closing since you were very little; they are the sound of home.
Why are these memories painful? I had a happy childhood here; these memories should cause happiness, not pain. As I pondered this phenomenon, I realized somewhere deep down I was battling thoughts of acting like a traitor.
I am the traitor who is selling off all these happy memories, the house, the life-trinkets, to complete strangers who will never understand their value. Many of these items were very much loved in their use.
Then my practical mind takes over. Many of these items, the perfectly-ironed napkins and tablecloths have not been used in decades. Some of the vases and green class and flowered plates have been packed up in the basement for the same amount of time. Isn’t it a good thing to get them out in the light again, so that others can find them and give them new life and purpose? Maybe a new wedding couple can sip and interlock arms using the long-forgotten champagne glasses. I comfort myself with this thought and press on with my cleaning duties.
What positive can I make of giving away pieces of my life? It has been said by many spiritual traditions that holding on too dearly to the past can prevent you from becoming all you can be in the present, and therefore thwart aspects of your future.
After the closing, I came to drop off the keys, turned the lock for the last time, and stood at the curb sending thank you’s for all the kind, lovely days and blessings of hope that the new family would find as much love and happiness there as we did.
I’ll have to admit, there was a certain cleansing effect. I felt lighter, somewhere, tucked in the sadness. It was almost as if I didn’t want to admit that releasing the old was a good thing, that I was being disloyal to the good years and experiences at home. But it was time to release my sweet home to a younger family who had exciting plans to make it their own. I had to let it go. It was time. Sadness and relief. Sadness and relief. How these emotions can cohabitate the same moment baffles me, but it was true just the same. I breathed a heavy sigh, managed a smile, and drove away.
If this touches you at all, leave me a message and forward this link to a friend…and thanks!