My mother and her husband have moved to a nursing home. His failing health and her increasing dementia had made their home situation untenable. I can acknowledge that the last several years have been just short of hell. Now, they are content and are getting better care than was possible at home. Nonetheless, my sadness and guilt are definitely byproducts of witnessing and, indeed, arranging for their current circumstances. I was somewhat prepared for these emotions and they have been balanced by relief and an unburdening of the responsibility for maintaining them at home.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the emotional and physical burden of their stuff. For the last 2 months, my siblings and our spouses have been stripping their home of every one of the possessions contained within. I cannot emphasize how much was crammed into this house. His stuff, her stuff, my grandmother’s stuff, my grandfather’s stuff, the stuff of our childhoods, the stuff of our children’s childhoods. Big things, small things, mementos, junk, – all of it – had to be dispersed, donated or dumped.
My mother was a collector- I’ll refrain from labeling her a hoarder, because the house was still livable, though cluttered. She had many passions and talents. She loved it all – flowers, teapots, rooster Knick knacks, nutcrackers, dolls, anything “Victorian,”anything pretty, animal print fabric and prints of animals. Nude statues. Vases. Artificial flowers. Book-of-the-Month club books. We discovered collections that we didn’t even know about. Cake decorating. Greeting cards.
Was all this “collecting” an attempt to fill an emotional hole that was impossible to fill? Did their declining conditions lead them to forget what they already had, so they continued to buy more and more? In their house in the woods, were they keeping up with some invisible Joneses? You could view all these piles, the collections, this stuff as evidence of a life gone awry – a focus on material things and excess vs a life of meaning and contentment.
Or you could view the stuff in another way, as I began to do throughout the hours and days of sorting through it. Maybe these things, in particular these ingredients to make things, are evidence of a life lived with hope. Despite depression, addiction, the scars of childhood poverty and her increasing dementia, my mother never stopped believing that she would knit a hundred sweaters, would sew matching aprons for each of us, fashion another dozen patchwork pillows, make teddy bears for the new babies, send out cards for our long-forgotten birthdays, go cross-country skiing and beautify every room with floral arrangements.
I’d like to think that as we picked among the stuff, and shared much laughter and lots of tears, we found pieces of our mother that we lost long ago. Each purchase, each hand-crafted item, each “collection” revealed something about her. We already knew about her creativity and her passion for the 9 grandchildren. But we didn’t know about the journals she kept. Or about the wild hot tub parties and sailboat hijinks captured in photographs. Or the Christmas presents she had purchased one year but never delivered.
We each found mementos – treasures, really that have meaning for us and will hold for at least another generation. I found a lovely Japanese dish that I had never seen before. Letters and artifacts from my turbulent first year of college that were so jarring that I had to hide them away for a stronger day.
I rescued the Russian samovar, purchased while we lived in Tehran and thus beloved. Though in far from perfect condition, with a bottle of brass polish and a dab of metal glue, it has been restored to a thing of beauty and is displayed in a place of honor.
Something else has been restored as well. In the past weeks, I have been rubbing off the tarnish that accumulated during my years of dealing with the “situation.” A layer of resentment and anger had built up so slowly, that I didn’t notice how ugly my perspective had become. Clearing the stuff from the house has allowed me to clear some from my heart as well. I can, now again, see my mother as who she is and who she was, and like my new old samovar, she is far from perfect, but is indeed, a thing of beauty.