“Mom’s dead.” There were a lot of other things said before and after this sentence, but this is the only sentence I can recall. A phone call in the middle of the night in Germany from my brother in the USA. I took an immediate flight with my husband that morning to be with my family in my mom’s home. This wasn’t expected. It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. My mom was supposed to visit for Christmas, to answer my questions about what my childhood was like as I raise two daughters, to be here for me.
We knew it would take some time to organize, and we needed the therapy of getting projects done.
My family and I started working on cleaning up my mom’s home three days after that call. There was a lot in the house to go through for a person who lived alone. We knew it would take some time to organize, and we needed the therapy of getting projects done. My aunt took care of my mom’s room. My husband drove the truckloads of donation items to their locations. My sister-in-law, my brother, and I tackled the garage full of years of memories from multiple moves as a military family. Needless to say, we found four vacuums in the process of cleaning. I remember laughing and shaking my head, thinking “Mom, really?!?” I’ll be honest, though. I realized while writing this that I have three, so who am I to judge. My mom’s clutter and my reaction have a bigger story to tell.
Many of my family members have a history of hoarding, but of course as Southern women, we like to say we keep a lot of “things.” We don’t say “stuff” because as my grandmother, a retired 5th grade English teacher, reminds us regularly, “stuff is what you do to a turkey.” Growing up, I just thought it was normal to have a lot of things, especially for the older family members who had been around for a while. Memories were shared by choosing one of many items and telling the story behind it, and everything had a story or reason for being kept. Even the old newspapers and magazines. Now, I see what was really going on.
I got this bad habit of keeping things too. Growing up in a military family, we moved every two to three years. The longest I had ever lived in one place by the time I was 26 was the four years I spent at college. Memories were in the items I collected, created, received at each location. Friends were regularly changing, interests adapted to the new community and friend group I was in, and it was like keeping these items from my past helped me stay grounded in where I had been and who I was.
My father’s favorite story to tell all my boyfriends growing up was about him taking a day off from work to help me clean my room when I was in 6th grade. Admittedly, it was that bad. To cut to the end of his long (with what I believed was added drama to get my boyfriends to laugh) story, we barely put a dent in cleaning my room because I refused to let him throw anything away. Every magazine clipping, note from a friend, and craft I made had to stay. It served a purpose, and who would I be if it was thrown away? Of course that question is something I have a better understanding of now. My dad would be ready to throw away a note from a friend, and I would shout out, “No, you can’t throw that away. Sarah wrote me that.” “No, not that one either. I am still reading that.” I gave so many reasons in a row that I think my dad gave up asking. Hence my room never really getting cleaned during that day off.
My husband knows this story by heart, and at the beginning of our relationship, he lived it. I struggled to get rid of things. Fear sets in when I throw something away. It tells me I might need it again or that I will completely forget that memory attached to it. To be honest, I have a pretty terrible memory about some things so this isn’t a false assumption. Now I have learned to take a picture of the memory item and then get rid of it. I hope to teach my daughters this too because at least one of them is going to inherit this trait. There is no way to get around it.
Cleaning out my mother’s home was a big wake up call. We were all faced with struggling to let go of physical items while dealing with having to let go of my mom. It was through this process that we recognized the impact of our own struggles to let go of things that could one day burden our own children. It was such a challenging feeling to get rid of memory items that meant so much to my mom but that we didn’t want to keep anymore. Our memories can become others’ burdens if we are not careful, even if that isn’t our intention. Many items we kept in the family, like her old school yearbooks, basketball trophies, and her law school diploma—something she received in her late 30s while going through a divorce and raising a teen and pre-teen. These items even we were not willing to let go of. They will serve as stories for our kids to learn about their grandmother.
Decluttering is a wonderful tool for breaking free from chains that have held you down for years, even decades.
On the other hand, I threw away items that my mother could never face getting rid of, though she needed to. Her wedding cake topper after over 20 years of being divorced. Memories from my dad’s childhood that he forgot when he left. Pictures of a life as a family of four. It re-hashed the pain I experienced during my parents’ divorce, but was so liberating to finally free her and myself of many of those painful reminders. Decluttering is a wonderful tool for breaking free from chains that have held you down for years, even decades.
Everyone was surprised at how quickly we organized and cleaned up my mom’s home. I think some were afraid to say it but felt like we were escaping or being insensitive to the loss of our mom by preparing to sell the house so fast. I can understand why they would think that; however, my mother lived with a burden from that home for years, both financially and physically. It was time for us to be free from it, so that’s what we did. We each took a room or project, completed it, and then moved to the next. Little communication needed to happen because the end goal was clear.
No one needs four vacuums. No one needs to be chained to a home or place because they struggle to let go and get rid of the excess or of what is truly not needed. No one needs to be scared that they will lose who they are by throwing away old magazine clippings or letters from friends. I finally did throw away all of those things that October in mom’s garage. I made sure not to look at a single one so that little girl sitting on the bed wouldn’t stop me again.
No one needs to hold on to memories that only cause pain. No one needs four vacuums. Three maybe, but definitely not four.