Clearing Out the Stuff

If you’re of a certain age it’s inevitable that you’ll face the unpleasant task of cleaning out your parent’s stuff. My father-in-law passed away in 2010 and my mother-in-law has been in a nursing home for a few years now – visited daily (sometimes twice) by my husband and I. The home where my husband grew up in Mississippi, the home that was built by his grandparents back in the 30’s, has been vacant over 7 years now but is now being renovated by my sister whose daughter will be living there while she attends school. A house that’s been vacant for that many years suffers from being empty, holding nothing more than memories and deteriorating furniture. Cleaning out a home that held three generations of family, and the precious keepsakes collected throughout those years, can bring forth some surprising and heartrending mementos. You get a glimpse of moments frozen in time through newspaper clippings and letters and it gives you a completely new view of those you thought you knew well. It makes you realize how much you really don’t know about those you hold most dear. And it’s sad, in a way. It’s sad that you didn’t hear those stories or see those black and white photos when memory was still clear and words still coherent. It’s also gives you a kind of creepy feeling, a feeling of being a voyeur, that you’re invading their privacy even though it’s done with respect and love.

In my last post, I talked about my mother’s death. We haven’t gone through her things yet and I don’t know when we will but it’s something I dread, really. What do you do with your own mother’s personal items? The clothing that you remember her wearing, the shoes, the jewelry she loved so well. The makeup and toiletries she packed in the little bag she took with her to the hospital was finally, tearfully, dispersed by my sister weeks after her death. And just a week or so ago my dad found something very, very precious that she had kept hidden for years that none of us knew anything about. What does one do with such personal and sacred things? Almost all of us have things in our lives that we never share with anyone else – the very essence of our beings. Finding the sacred things of someone’s life after death is a feeling that can not even be put into words. Sifting through a life’s privacy is unsettling and emotional.

I haven’t spent a night at my mother’s house since her funeral. I’ve been home but I’ve stayed with my sister. Is that wrong? I don’t know. I only know it’s really, really hard to be in my parent’s house now with all the reminders of my mother everywhere around. I don’t want her things to disappear but I don’t want to see them, either. I want to touch her clothes, hold her hairbrush, breathe her perfume. But in another way I don’t want to.

I want to pretend she’s still up there in Mississippi and I can pick up the phone and call her whenever I want. But I can’t.

I apologize for being so obsessed but writing helps.


6 thoughts on “Clearing Out the Stuff

  1. Charlotte, I completely understand. I lost my Mom a year ago and other than a few personal things of hers(journals, perfume, robe, wedding dress) I took home with me the rest we put in storage. My brothers and I still can’t go through it yet and have said we will when we are ready. No time limit. It has helped me enormously having a few of her things here in my room, maybe some of your Mom’s things will help you as well.

    Sorry for the long comment, just want you to know I understand and care. It takes time my dear, be easy on yourself.

  2. It took my father and I 18 months before we were ready to tend to my mother’s belongings. Even then, as I sifted through her clothes, I could smell her while I folded and boxed her things. It was very difficult as old memories flooded my mind and sadness that I thought I had set aside weighed on my heart.

    It will happen when you are ready – might still be too raw right now. I completely understand your feelings and my heart embraces your grief.

  3. I recently started receiving NOLAFemmes posts and I am very impressed with the content. Charlotte’s “Clearing Out the Stuff” , is quite touching. And provides an insightful look into the journey that we all face, when our parents pass away and we are left with their personal items. Unless one has lived through this, there is no way to anticipate the feelings and thoughts that will be experienced. It is remarkable, and for as heart breaking as the process is, thankfully, with the passage of time , feelings of joy and comfort are realized in gazing upon and using their possessions.

  4. Oh Charlotte, I grieve with you. I couldn’t and still can’t throw out one thing of mom’s, and I also can’t look at them. I just keep them all in a closet, waiting for a day when my heart isn’t so heavy with loss and finality that I can look at them again. It’s been 18 months and still waiting…

  5. It’s been almost 4 years since my mom passed, and I still have some of her things. It doesn’t help that she had –four– closets full of clothing when she died. My mom was very slim and trim and loved a bargain. She would hunt through the discount racks at the finer department stores and get ridiculous bargains for 70, 80, even 90% off. It was her one indulgence, but because they were so discounted it never strained her budget. It was all quite overwhelming to me to get rid of though. But when those tornadoes struck in Alabama and wiped everything out, a local church did a clothing drive, and I sent six huge boxes up there. I know she would have approved, and I also knew I would never see anyone walking around in her clothes and upset me with a flood of memories. Take it as slow as you need to, and I would advise keeping a treasured item or two just for the memory. Put it away until the hurting lessens . . . and honey, it will fade, not completely, but with time it turns into more of a dull ache than a stabbing, wrenching pain. You may have a daughter or granddaughter who will one day treasure that small legacy. Hugs to you.

  6. Thanks to you all for sharing your own experiences with losing your moms. It means a lot that you took the time and I appreciate it.

    vcapi06, thanks to you for letting us know that what we’re doing here is meaningful to you. I think I’ve assembled some of the best writers in the city here and I’m very proud to be partners with them. It’s so great to hear from our readers because sometimes it feels like you’re writing into a void on the web. 🙂

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