During the last few years of my mother’s life, I would casually glance through boxes she had stored in her basement, closet space over the stairwell, and in the closets of the guest rooms knowing that someday my sister and I would have to figure out what to do with all of those items. For a good number of years, after my grandparents had passed away in the early 1980s, there was a big box in the furnace room in the basement that contained dry cleaning bags my grandmother had saved as well as wrapping paper that had been ironed in order to re-use it time and time again. I would just shake my head. My sister had asked her once if she could do something with some of the stuff, but my mother grew anxious so nothing happened.
By the time we knew the end was near, my sister and I had already resigned ourselves to taking a good amount of time just to clean out the house. One wouldn’t think that there is that much room in a three bedroom townhome with a basement. One would be very wrong! Mom had lived in that home for 32 years. Between everything she had accumulated and kept throughout her life, she also had items from my grandparents’ estate as well as things that had belonged to me that I never could find or thought enough about to take. There were knick-knacks my grandparents had bought while they lived in Europe, items my mom had brought back from living in Japan, tons of photo albums (hers and my grandparents’), tons of record keeping paperwork, and genealogical treasures!
Since both my sister and I did not live in the same state as our mother, we were far from our homes at her side when she passed away. Neither of us had our husbands with us, except a brief period of time (memorial service), and even though we had cousins close by, that just wasn’t the same. Mom had a reverse mortgage so we knew that time wasn’t on our side. We had to get everything taken care of before the broker figured out that she had passed away and came to collect their money or forced a sale. Funds were low but we were lucky that it gave us not quite a month to get everything done.
Those few weeks after Mom died, it seemed there was blow after blow which compounded the grief and anxiety. There was no legal will which meant we had to find an attorney quickly. The clerks in the Probate office of the county courthouse were not very helpful. They wouldn’t even tell us which forms we needed but instead told us that they could not give legal advice.
Amongst planning the Memorial service, finding an attorney, and dealing with our grief, we managed to contact the correct agencies to remove the items that had pertained to Mom’s care: oxygen tanks, lifeline service, hospital bed, etc. We started with one room at a time. I have heard many stories about people who can’t bear to clean out a departed loved one’s closet to get rid of the clothing, but my sister and I didn’t have a choice. Through the removal of clothes out of the closets and drawers, we shared laughter and tears. Our focus was on emptying the house. This pile was for other family members to go through in case they wanted something. This pile was my sister’s. This pile was mine. Neither one of us could really wear any of her clothes as most of them were several sizes bigger than what we wore. That only brought home the realization of just how much weight she had lost in her final months. Each day we would take at least one or two carloads to the local Goodwill. We held a “look and see” day for our cousins and family to go through items before getting rid of them – an exercycle that Mom had once used religiously; tools – which we realized just weren’t up to snuff; Christmas ornaments and other decorations; dishware; linens; and other household items. My children and my sister’s kids had already told us what items they wanted. Those were in another pile.
We had jewelry to untangle and sort out. We had a file cabinet and other boxes of papers. Sitting in my mom’s walk-in closet going through items that had been in her “safe,” I found the marriage license and certificate of my second great-grandparents. I found divorce papers, birth certificates of my mom and her parents, and letters. I found my mom’s old medical records, all of her work history information, and her association memberships and information. There wasn’t time to enjoy the finds or do a “happy dance” because of the circumstances surrounding the finds. More often than not, items would end up in the trash – but they were unusable, broke, or not worth taking to Goodwill. Items we were taking with us were packed which meant we had to find boxes.
In between the attorney, Goodwill, and cleaning out the townhome, our cousins made sure that we were fed by having us over for meals or taking us out to dinner. When we ate at the house, we spent time coming up with meals out of all the canned goods and freezer items. Though my sister had to leave before I could, we had most of the house cleaned out. The furniture was over forty years old but we tried to contact people in the phone book who advertised that they bought and picked up old furniture. Apparently, it either wasn’t antique enough or vintage enough. By the time my husband came to pick me up to bring me home, the house was as stripped as it could be. The master bedroom suite was still left – it was such a shame as the dressers were still in beautiful shape. The appliances were left – washer/dryer, refrigerator, microwave, and range. The living room end tables, couch and chair. All of the consumables, clothing, linens, decorations, etc. were gone – either to family, Goodwill or trash. We knew what Mom’s wishes had been as to who got what (which would have been really nice had it all been spelled out in a legal will instead of one of those “do-it-yourself” booklets), so we were able to make sure items went to those people she had specified. At one point, the attorney was all upset because I was taking one of the televisions (I think he was afraid that it wouldn’t be there to sell in order to get more money for his fee) until he found out it was an old television that even Walmart wasn’t even selling anymore.
Now, five years later, I still haven’t had much time to do the genealogy “happy dance” about some of the items I found at that time. I am, however, enjoying quite a few items I brought back from Mom’s – dishes and utensils. I enjoy the knick-knacks that had belonged to both my grandparents and my mom. In many ways, I’m glad that we had such a short amount of time to do an estate clean out because it kept me focused on a goal instead of spending days in a grief-stricken fog. I had a plan and needed to follow through.
Preparing to write this blog post, I came across several other blogs from people who have had to deal with this same thing. Each one gave tips on how to make it easier such as trying to downsize prior to a loved one’s death. Sometimes this is inevitable if the person needs to be moved to an assisted living facility, nursing home, or a long term care center. Other posts advised to “let it go” and that is easier said than done. Parting with some items were much easier than others. I was aghast that no one wanted the wooden, carved desk plaque of my grandfather’s name. It had sat on his roll top desk for as long as I could remember. So I took it. I still have it. I don’t have a clue what I’m ever going to do with it. That was probably something I should have just “let go.” I have huge (and I mean huge) pictures – some sort of photographs – of my grandfather’s family when he was a child. I’m never going to have a place to hang them. Who would want to sleep in a room with huge photographs of these people staring at them all night? But I had never seen them and being the family historian that I am, I had to have them. The advice of “pace yourself” is laughable. That would be good advice if the house had been paid for (not on a reverse mortgage) or even in the same city, county, and state (it wasn’t). It’s hard to pace one’s self when time is not on your side. For me, it was about keeping some of the items “in the family” – didn’t matter if it was my sister or her kids, my cousins, my nephew, or me and my kids. My OCD was that I knew where it was. That was from years of hearing my mother say things like: “It better stay in the family” about certain things or her being upset when something had been given to someone and then they sold it/gave it away without asking. I know, that sounds rather selfish. “Here you can have this but don’t you dare do anything with it even though now it’s yours to do with what you want, unless you ask permission first” – that’s what it sounds like. So rather than incurring my mother’s wrath from beyond the grave, I became a little OCD that way. Don’t judge!
For others, the only bits of advice I will give are these: make sure your parents (and yourself) have a legal will so that way everything that they (or you) want to have happen to your belongings will be done; do it the best way you can – slow, fast, with other family members, alone, cry, laugh, and remember. For in the end, it’s the memories and time spent with the loved one that matters the most – not the stuff.
(Image of boxes courtesy of What’s Your Grief? – no copyright infringement intended.)