Spent a big chunk of yesterday at my mother-in-law's house, cleaning out drawers and filling up a couple of Dumpsters, getting the house ready to sell. She got sick quite suddenly last November and has not been home since; she spent most of the winter in and out of the hospital and in and out of nursing homes, and then moved in the spring to an apartment.
It's a better place for her--safer, more people around, a big common room on each floor where folks can gather and watch movies together, and a big dining room on the second floor where she can eat with others instead of always being alone. There's a bus that takes her to the grocery store and church, and nondenominational church services on the premises if she doesn't want to go out on Sunday morning.
Still, it was hard to leave her house, and hard to leave it so suddenly, the way she did--just walked out the door one day and never went back.
So cleaning it out is taking some time. The big stuff isn't that hard: move the furniture she needs, sell or donate the rest, toss the old books and the fondue pot and the enormous stacks of old towels into boxes for Goodwill. It's the small stuff that had me stymied. I was cleaning out the kitchen, and I have to tell you I only got it about half emptied. And then I got stuck.
What do you do with 27 ballpoint pens? Thirty matchbooks? A pie cutter, an old eggbeater, the extra salt and pepper shakers, five ashtrays (nobody in the family smokes anymore), the old but probably not antique cake plate, the unopened but probably year-old bottle of Karo Syrup, six extension cords, the wooden salad bowl with four small bowls and matching wooden fork and spoon?
And all those handmade potholders--there must have been twenty of 'em. What do you do with those? And the greasy old cookbooks from churches in Minot, North Dakota, and bridge club and ....
Dumpster, Doug says, wrestling with the big stuff.
No, wait, says his sister, who is, like me, more paralyzed by sentimentality.
OK, Goodwill, Doug says, muscling a couple rooms' worth of old carpeting out the door.
Well.... what if she still wants some of this?
When my father was recovering from his first brain surgery, he and my mother talked a lot about selling the house and moving to the Cities. My mother was all for the idea; my dad much less so. He loved that house, and he loved everything in it--the big old sepia photographs of his mother as a little girl, the colorful map of his home town, the Chinese artifacts his Hong Kong students had given him, the thousands of books he had taught over the years, the Paul Klee print, the set of dishes he bought for his mother years ago and then inherited after she died, the clock he and my mother bought in the Amana Colonies in Iowa, the old piano.
My mother neither loved nor hated that house; she wanted to be in a bigger city, and she wanted to be near us, and she did not want to spend a long cold winter isolated in Duluth alone with an ailing husband.
So that day, as my father lay recovering in bed, his head swathed in bandages, and my mother bustled about the room, and I sat there listening quietly, they talked about moving. My father agreed that it was the right thing to do (though he changed his mind on this repeatedly over the next few months) and my mother looked relieved.
They both spoke at the same moment:
Guv: "Every object holds a memory."
Trish: "We'll have to rent a big Dumpster!"
They both got their wish. Guv died in that house surrounded by all the objects and books and photographs that meant so much to him. And then Trish rented a big Dumpster, and after we'd had our pick, she threw it all away.