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.
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.