The Things We Carry

As some of you know, my ninety year old mother has had some pretty serious health problems lately and, as her only living relative, the responsibility for her care falls on me, as does the responsibility for cleaning out her condo.

Few things in life are as daunting and emotionally exhausting as cleaning out an elderly parent’s home.  My mother’s condo, which is a lovely bright and airy space with a pretty, sparkling living room and kitchen, nonetheless hid a nasty little hoarding secret.  I feel rather guilty that when I visited her I didn’t insist on looking more closely into the private spaces — drawers and closets, bathrooms and her bedroom.  Perhaps if I had I would have realized sooner something was terribly wrong.

Tim O’Brien wrote a magnificent story called THE THINGS THEY CARRIED (from a collection of the same name). Set during the Vietnam war, the story catalogs the variety of things O’Brien’s fellow soldiers in the Alpha Company brought on their missions — mosquito repellent and marijuana, pocket knives and chewing gum. What they carry tell us who they are, what’s important to them and what they need — because the machine gunner Henry Dobbins is exceptionally large, for example, he carries extra rations; because he is superstitious, he carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck. Nervous Ted Lavender carries marijuana and tranquilizers to calm himself down, and the religious Kiowa carries an illustrated New Testament, a gift from his father.

I couldn’t help but think of this story when My Best Beloved and I began to go through my mother’s things, which were clearly a symbolic representation of her obsessions and neuroses:  hundreds of rolls of toilet paper, hundreds of dollars of colon-cleanse products, innumerable clippings from newspapers and magazines having to do with health issues of various sorts (rheumatism, colon cancer, stroke, heart attack, diabetes, pancreatic cancer, headaches, backaches, constipation, post-nasal drip, dementia, stomach cancer, vascular disease; warning signs, preventive herbs, “What to do if’s”, bottles and bottles of perfume my father (who’s been dead since 1993) and I gave her that she never opened, jars and jars of face creams, old medicines, veterinary liniment  (?!?) in a bottle on which is drawn an articulated pair of horses legs and salves of various sorts, all of enormous antiquity.  Twenty-seven pairs of pinking shears.  Sewing supplies so numerous and disorganized I wanted to bring in a bulldozer or a can of kerosene.  A toothache remedy dating, I suspect, from the 1920s, containing cloves and laudanum.  Eighty-four African violet plants.  Over three hundred pairs of nylon ‘sockies’ . . .   I won’t go into what we found in the kitchen.

It gets you thinking, it does.

So, when we returned home I found myself looking around my own house.  Good lord.  Time to clean out some things.  First the pantry — did I really buy that much bulgar five years ago?  That much quinoa? What was I saving it for?  Do I really need three jars of chili paste? Cranberry juice that expired in 2009? I’m sorry, what IS that in the plastic bag in the freezer?  Shudder.

"The Simple Home" a design book I love.

It took me a full day to clear out the pantry.  Then I moved up to my own closet.  Let’s just say the result was eight bags for Goodwill.  And now, oh yes, I have to do it, my office.  Stacks of old lecture notes, books I shall NEVER read again, what about those old journals (so many with only the first ten or so pages written upon, the rest blank)?  Should I, God forbid, be hit by a car, do I really want people pawing through my old collection of complaints and disappointments?  I think not.  Out they go.  The ones in which I wrote observations about travels in Morocco or Spain or Ireland can stay.  A rather alarming (and depressing) number of diet cookbooks.  (I recommend getting a dog to walk three times a day to get rid of that last ten pounds, not obsessing over your calories.)

And then there’s my own bathroom — at least forty lipsticks can go (in this I apparently have the same tendency as my mother), old face creams, unflattering blushers, sparkly hair barrettes, spider vein cream (note to readers — they do NOT work; if worried about spider veins, wear leggings, or better yet, say to hell with it and ignore ’em; life’s too short).

My husband is now tackling the Sisyphean task of cleaning out his office (he has a penchant for stockpiling plastic bags, boxes and restaurant menus).  Being of a far more draconian bent (Oh, God, just throw it OUT!), I am not allowed to help.

What do they say about us, the things we choose to keep?  I have decided to try and keep only those things which are symbolic of the sort of life I aim to live, not of the old ideas I cling to, reflecting a fear of not having enough, or not being good enough, or of any general mental chaos.

Serenity.  Simplicity.  Warmth.  Clarity.  Uncluttered home.  Uncluttered mind.




  1. Linda C. Wisniewski on July 19, 2011 at 9:40 am

    I’m reading this with boxes of books half-packed for our move to a townhouse next month. Starting in early spring, we went through the exercise of de-cluttering closets and tschotchkes. I see that now I have to face the kitchen! Yesterday, I faced the same issue you describe with my old journals. When i was starting to write, every word was wrung from deep within, and each page had to be kept. Now I know there is more where they came from, so out they go. (Mostly – heh heh!)
    P.S. My mom threw everything away – she was an anti-hoarder – cleaning out her house was bleak. Interesting how much you can tell about a person’s life from their digs.

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 19, 2011 at 10:04 am

      Linda — there was a time when we moved to a new house every year (13 moves in 11 years) — a wonderful forced anti-clutter mechanism. Now that we’ve been in the same house for seven years, every day I see encroaching muddle. And yes, you’re right about how easy it becomes, after decades of writing, to let go of the old scribbles. We don’t fear there’s a limited supply any longer, and so we can release our grip on the less-than-terrific!

  2. Louise Freeman on July 19, 2011 at 1:34 pm

    I just listened to a program on NPR about the affect on a child
    of growing up in a hoarding household–having to be secretive,
    never inviting people home, not learning how to clean or
    organize. Really sad. I lived with a hoarder for 4 years, but
    it was in an environment and culture where there is a fine
    line between sick and practical hoarding. In the Alaska Bush
    you really do need months (and it can be argued) years worth
    of food, and, with the closest store hundreds of miles away,
    you really might need that spare snowmobile
    part in the yard. But in a 2-room cabin, there is little room,
    and the hoarding was a constant source of tension. Myself, I
    only hoard sentimental things from my past, going back to
    baby clothes, favorite clothes from high school, letters from the
    70s-90s, my children’s artwork. Those are the things I have trouble
    parting with, which is symptomatic of my hanging onto the past
    way too much. I know, because I have a storage unit back in
    Washington filled with this stuff, which I’ve been paying for
    for years. And yet my sister regularly purges her 6,000 sq. ft.
    house of all things old or sentimental, when space is not an issue.
    Her house is barren and her past abandoned. Which is unhealthier?

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 19, 2011 at 1:53 pm

      Louise — it’s always interesting to take a look at the things we’re willing to get rid of, and the things we feel we have to keep. I remember, about 15 years ago, when I finally let go of some letters from an old boyfriend. Painful, but what liberation. For me, it wasn’t about abandoning the past, but about setting myself free from the chains. What I choose to keep – especially in my heart — are only the things that fill me with gratitude, not regret. And as for clothes from high school? Yikes, thank God I got rid of those! Although one of my sources of pride is that I never wore hot pants!!

  3. Joan Robb on July 23, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    I actually cleaned out on Wednesday for a colleague who was collecting for charity. I, too, have held onto old clothes that have not fit me for years. I was looking through numerous t-shirts and thought “I can’t offer that to someone”, but was about to put it back in the cupboard when I thought to myself “if it’s not good enough to give to someone, why keep and wear it yourself?”. This was a real eye-opening moment for me and I threw out all the old and comfy clothes as I think I am worth dressing well, even if I am sitting around the house, or walking the dog! Life is Good!

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 23, 2011 at 12:27 pm

      Excellent, Joan!!! I love the bit about if something isn’t good enough to give away, why is good enough to keep! Make room for new and wonderful things. You are worth dressing well. Truly!

  4. Mary Kay Krause on July 25, 2011 at 12:34 am

    It is amazing how reading your blog inspires me.
    I so admire your honesty about your life.
    I took a look at my studio apartment tonight and
    realized why I feel so crowded in. Tomorrow I
    shall begin ridding myself of so much extra stuff.
    I’m keeping your books and will add a new one in
    September! I know what I treasure!

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 25, 2011 at 6:08 am

      Oh, thank you Mary Kay! Having now cleared out my office, it’s astonishing how much calmer and less chaotic my thinking is. After you declutter, let me know how the changed space alters your thinking, won’t you?

  5. Lise Mayne on July 25, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    Hello there Lauren. I just read your last posting, and then caught up on the rest, and I have to say …you actually scare me. Maybe you are my doppelganger! How is it possible for two people to have the exact same experience, in different places, at different times? Five years ago, I cleaned out my parents’ farm home, and found the same things in my mother’s house! We knew she hoarded food, but thought that was because of living through the Depression. I found suitcases full of white tennis socks, thirty pairs of jogging pants, all in different colors, barrels full of clothes, most with the labels still on, and of course, mountains of toilet paper. The whole process was devastating. Even worse for me, my mother was there, arguing with me about everything that needed to be thrown away or packed up for charity. She wanted to keep it all! Much later, I saw the programs on hoarders and learned how I should have dealt with it, but of course, it was too late. I was angry and none too patient with her. I also went home immediately and cleaned my entire (tiny) house. It took months! Now, I constantly give things away and resist buying anything unless I really need it. It has taken the joy out of collecting some of the things I loved, like glass birds for instance, but so be it. I admire them, and walk away. I do not want my only child to have to deal with all my junk someday!
    I also have to tell you that your conversation with your mother brought tears to my eyes. My mother has never been diagnosed, but I am sure she would fall into the same category, except perhaps not borderline ☺. She was and continues to be, cruel to me, and blamed my alcoholic father for everything that was wrong in her life, as did yours. She also was and is tiny, but had no trouble beating me black and blue, physically and emotionally, until I left home at sixteen. Like you, I have determined to make a better life for myself and my family, and have always striven to be positive and happy. When I found an apartment for my mother, my husband and I decorated it, brought in everything that we could think of that would please her, and kept raving about the beautiful view of the Rocky Mountains she could see from her balcony window every day, so different from the isolated farm. Plus she had the freedom of no longer have to deal with my alcoholic and mentally demented father, who had finally been hospitalized in a geriatric mental institution. No. Everything was horrible about the whole place, and it was my fault that she was stuck there. The food was inedible, the people were old and boring, the room was too big and too expensive. Long story somewhat shortened, my sister moved her to another facility in a different city, where she has a room with a bed and a dresser. She is still not happy, but at least she is not complaining to me about it anymore. She never phones me, and when I get the courage to phone her, we talk about the weather. We have only recently started speaking again, as when she left, I wrote her a letter describing everything that she did to me and asking the same questions you did. She was furious, denied it, and completely wrote me off.
    Anyway Lauren, I just had to tell you that you have a sister spirit here, who relates completely to your experience. My mother also refuses to read my writing, even though I told her she comes off quite well in my book – I managed to find some sympathy for her somehow. I do understand that it was hard to have three kids by the age of twenty-three. She believed that without us, and my father of course, her life would be perfect. Now she is alone, and she is still miserable. Goes to prove that “Wherever you go, there you are.”
    I love reading your blog, Lauren, as it gives me strength. I will try the prayer meditation and the writing technique. I also never change the first line of anything I write. I just love Isabel Allende as well! Funny, I try to live by The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz, and I just learned that he added a fifth: learn to listen. So true.
    As always, Namaste, Lauren.

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 25, 2011 at 4:23 pm

      Hello Lise — thank you SO much for your thoughtful comment. It sounds like it’s been really rough on you and I’m so sorry for that. There’s a book by HIllman, called “The Soul’s Code” that I found incredibly helpful in getting some of this stuff out of my head. He talks about how we aren’t who we are because of the childhood’s we’ve had, but rather we have the childhood’s we have in order that we might become who we were intended to be. I don’t know whether that’s true or not, but I choose to believe it, since it allows me to both forgive my parents (and others) and honor the pain they went through (in small part) because of me. I know my mother’s own childhood was anything but idyllic, as her mother was an alcoholic as well. We all live with these terrible shadows, in one way or another, don’t we. Knowing we’re not alone helps so much – and for that I thank you. Namaste.

  6. Lise Mayne on July 25, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Thanks for that, Lauren. Buddhist teaching, which I started reading very young, says the same. Hard to understand, but so is life. We just have to do our best, and be grateful for the life which is given to us.

    Have a great summer! Lise

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 25, 2011 at 7:30 pm

      Absolutely, Lise. You have a wonderful summer, too. (Hope it’s cooler where you are!)

  7. Shannon Allain on July 31, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Hi, Lauren: As always, I appreciate your eloquent, generous sharing of your experiences. I too had to clean out my father’s home and it was daunting and emotional but so revealing of his character through the relics he chose to keep. Fortunately for me, beyond the yellowy haze of cigarette smoke and mounds of cat hair he was fairly organized and it was easy to see what we should condemn to the dumpster and what to keep and pass on. But one box confused me: his pig collection. Odd, I know but he collected pig figurines for years and had hundreds. I always thought it was part of his eccentricity but something wouldn’t let me hock them on ebay or (guiltily) throw them away. Then a few weeks ago in the Isabella Catalog I saw an item entitled ‘Sleeping Pig=Happiness’. The explation under the figurine for sale described the history and meaning behind it. Apparently, in ancient China if a household included a domesticated pig it was a symbol of a common man’s propserity and good fortune. I guess if you were wealthy enough to not have to eat the pig, life was prosperous and you were in pretty good shape. The Chinese symbol for “home” is actually a combination of the symbol for “pig” with the symbol for “roof” over it. Then I remembered that Dad went to China for work around the same time he started this odd collection. It made sense because he grew up so poor, had worked so hard to acheive a comfortable life and always derived a huge sense of pride in being able to support himself and his family. No wonder the pigs appealed to him! So now I know what to do with Dad’s pigs. We are all going to choose our favorite to keep and the rest will go to ebay and hopefully some collectors who will appreciate them. I hope you were able to find some gems among your mom’s things that spoke to you in a positive way and thank you for another enlightening article. Best, Shannon

    • Lauren B. Davis on July 31, 2011 at 10:12 am

      Thanks so much, Shannon. That’s fascinating stuff! I have a couple of wee flying pigs — wonder what the Chinese would say about that?

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