GAYS MILLS - Change the locks, forward the mail, and turn off the phone...The utilitarian tasks that go along with someone’s house that lived alone and is no longer living just happen. You pick up your phone and make the calls and they’re done. And then, you’re left with the more intimate task of picking up every belonging and looking it over and remembering the last time you saw it bring joy to that person you loved.
I’m really bad at the job of cleaning out a house of someone I love.
When my own mother died, packing up stuff took an exceptionally long time–months in fact. All of these small artifacts of a lifetime that brought joy to some one else, what do you do with them? Still now, my dad’s new home is speckled with them. Her clothes hang in the closet and her items sit on the shelves because giving up someone else’s most loved possessions, even though they have little use to you, is perhaps the most difficult part of ‘closure.’
I was part of a crew of family that took part in the ritual clearing of possessions for my Aunt Barb recently. It was one of the more unique experiences with death that I’ve had this year. Which is saying a lot considering I’ve had five deaths since last November (if you count poor old Monkey Dog who passed quietly and recently).
I thought it would be a easy house to pack up, because following Barb’s divorce and relocation from a few towns over, she had taken up a philosophy to only own things that brought her joy. She was so organized, and didn’t seem to keep a lot of worthless items to clog up her Feng Shui.
The first time I heard her say this was on a shopping trip to LaCrosse. We were in an enormous thrift store (thrift warehouse?) in Westby and she picked up this very expensive, but beautiful, P.T. Barnum Circus advertisement from the Roaring 20s. Without even looking at the price tag, she said “When I pick this up, it gives me great joy, so I have to have it.”
Aunt Barb did however (successfully) proceed to haggle with the shop owner on the price, because, even though it brings you joy the other rule is, you never pay full price.
It was so many memories and attachments to someone else’s possessions for me that made this experience so unique and painful.
I found myself not really being much of help packing, because I was compelled by the urge to pick everything up and explain where it came from and why she had it.
“She drug me all around LaCrosse when I was pregnant with Thatcher looking for the perfect beveled mirror,” I explained to no one in particular. “My feet were so swollen after six hours of looking for the damn thing, and wouldn’t you guess she came back and bought the first one she saw.
“That Kaffee Hag can was her favorite can,” I exclaimed over and over. “She would tell me just that when she lived in Grove and would sit in the kitchen smoking Dorel Light 100s. I’d sit with her while she waved the cig around and pointed at it right in the middle of all of the other coffee cans and tell me how much she loved it.”
At one point after telling these stories, regarding the things that got stuck in my pile of items to claim, her son laughed at me and said, “You only want things you had to suffer for.” But thinking back, I really only wanted things that I could remember the story about.
The more I looked around and talked with my family members, I realized that that is really how Barb had decided to live. The only items she owned (aside from the utilitarian types of things like clothes and bath towels) were things that had history, love or meaning. A dress that belonged to Agnes Moorehead, a broken statute that was her mother’s, a tiny porcelain plate her Great-Great Grandma Boyle brought over when she immigrated from Ireland, a small green Fire King bowl that reminded her of my deceased mother.
There wasn’t one thing that we found that didn’t have use, or a story. So much so, that when I took one last walk through her completely empty home, it was far more difficult to see the walls bare and without her special style than it was to watch everyone wrap it in newspaper and tell stories about what memories they had attached to the items.
I got home with my small pile of things that had belonged to Barb that brought me joy. I looked around my own home and thought about all of the things I own. Then, I decided that I need to take a day to go through everything. I need pick each thing up and see if I feel that sense of joy or memory that her items brought her. It will give me an opportunity to simplify my life and surround myself only with things of meaning and joy.