One of my friends recently told me, “My father finally died when he could no longer fit one more thing into the drawers of his house.”
I get it. Just like the fat guy who ate “just one more mint” in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life, I truly believe that if my mother had brought home just one more CVS receipt, it might have caused the house to explode. I don’t think my mother wanted to live to see that, so perhaps it was the right time for her to die.
As my mother’s only daughter, and the only sibling with flexible working hours, cleaning out the house that my mother lived in for 50 years has fallen mostly on my shoulders. It is, by far, the most monumental and emotional task that I have ever taken on.
Every room of the house- the drawers, cabinets, walls, cases, are stuffed full of things– chargers to electronics that no one has owned in decades, batteries, tweezers, little scissors, broken watches, ugly figurines, broken kitchen appliances, clothing from size 0 to size 16, afghans, batteries…so much stuff. And the papers, of course…she was drowning in papers.
When I found a drawer in the kitchen devoted to candle remnants of burnt out candles, I began to think my mother might have been a little weird. Who saves half burnt candles?
It wasn’t as if she hadn’t planned on dying.
About five years ago, my mom, dad and I met with an estate planning attorney at their home. Jon, a family friend, felt no hesitation about speaking his mind. When he asked for a paper clip, and my mom tried to unsuccessfully to open one of the drawers in the kitchen because it was filled with too much crap, Jon saw an opportunity:
“You know, Marlene, if you don’t clean out your house before you go, here is what Ronna is going to be saying…”
With exaggerated gestures, Jon pretended he was me, taking a pile of papers and pretending to angrily flip through them, one paper at a time while saying, “F**k my mother, F**k my mother, F**k my mother,” as he pretended to flip each paper.
Jon looked at my mom, and said pointedly, “Do you want Ronna to be saying ‘F**k my mother’ after you die? Clean out your house, Marlene.”
My mom didn’t answer. But I know what she was thinking, “what do I care if Ronna says ‘F**k my mother’ after I die. I’ll be dead.”
If my mom could have done even a little cleaning out in the last years of her life, she surely would have. She was all about not burdening her kids. But as the years went on, my father required more and more care as his Parkinson’s got worse, my mother’s health declined, and with the energy she had, she focused on her priorities: taking care of her own 98 year old mother, making family dinners and being a phenomenal grandmother.
Every so often I would say to my mom, “Remember what Jon said?” And I repeated the gesture, as he had years earlier, cursing as he had as I pretended to flip over papers. “Do you want me to be saying, ‘F**k my mother?’ when you are gone?”
“It’s ok if you say that. I just can’t do it. After I die, just bring in a huge dumpster and throw everything away. No one wants my old stuff.”
The fact is, you simply can’t put everything in a dumpster. It wouldn’t fit.
And while there may be no hidden diamonds or wads of cash, it doesn’t mean there are no gems: Love letters from my father, old boyfriend letters preserved in a beautiful wooden box, a never used Yves St. Laurent handbag, an old leather coat with a fur hood (that happens to fit me perfectly,) my bat mitzvah invitation, a cousin’s baby picture, a school newspaper clipping about my brother’s high school “Billy Jean King challenge” tennis match, a report card showing that I got a “C” In English.
Really, a “C” in English…can you imagine that?
The cleaning out of my mom’s house has made me think about my own. While I am not angry and have not felt the need to curse her out, the whole process makes me want to purge. It makes me not want to buy another thing ever (though I have a feeling that won’t last longer than the next “Friends & Family” sale at Bloomies.)
But I have come to realize that throwing out your old stuff before you don’t have the energy to do it, is truly the best gift you can give to your adult children.
If you don’t want them to think you are weird, or you don’t want them cursing you out after you die, seize the day. Now.
This past weekend, I tackled my own bathroom drawers, throwing away dozens of little samples of stuff, birth control from the 80’s, half full boxes of tampons, old makeup. With my husband, we started attacking a closet in the basement (it’s mostly so that I have room for my mother’s china—but don’t tell him that.) We clear out much of the same kinds of things I made fun of my mother for saving.
And then I opened a drawer in my dining room. It was filled with half burnt candles.
Who saves half burnt candles? Apparently, I do.
I quickly gather all the burnt out candles and throw them in the garbage. Happy Hanukkah, kids.