Monday, April 11, 2022

"Death Cleaning" is as pleasant as it sounds

The April 9 New York Times op-ed section featured a piece with this heading: " 'Death Cleaning': A Reckoning With Clutter, Grief and Memories." There were letters from more than 500 responses from the paper's request for personal stories about getting rid of a lifetime of possessions or those of a relative.

Responses were interesting and heartbreaking. Chris and I, both retired, have decided to clean out the clutter of our own lives as we contemplate a move to a retirement community. Her approach is "everything must go" and mine is "almost everything." This reveals the difference in our backgrounds. She is adopted, an army brat with one sister (also adopted) who had to help her mother purge much stuff for many moves. I am the oldest of nine. During our childhood, we moved quite a few times and, in adulthood, we've moved more that Chris's sister and her Navy lifer husband. We've done some purging over the years. Yet, now, we still have an entire household of stuff. We've lived here for 16 years. I look around my writing room and see photos of my kids at various stages and family photos of relatives. Books and papers are piled on every surface. And this is the tip of the iceberg. I have bookshelves filled with books and boxes upon boxes of books in the basement. 

When Chris retired a year ago, she embarked on a cleaning binge monumental in scale. Everything must go! And much did. A local nonprofit removed most of the furniture from the basement. We donated three sets of china to Goodwill, sparing boxes of teacups and saucers that went to the local botanic gardens for its Mother's Day teas. We remodeled our upstairs bathroom and redid the kitchen floor. Chris called the junkman who came and removed old lawnmowers and tools from the storage shed, even had them remove an old storage shed that was home to items dating back to the previous owner. She ripped up all of the carpets and exposed our very nice wood floors. 

Since I am partially disabled, I was tasked with sorting through books. How I sorted. Our daughter hauled a dozen boxes out the door to the library sales room where she volunteers. Still, many books remain. 

I also have two large plastic bins with dozens of journals dating back to 1972. I was going to donate them to my kids, both dedicated readers who like to write, and hope they would find some lasting value in them. I lasted one day reading through my life, gave up, and put the bins back in the closet. It's quite sobering to contemplate a life. Most entries are mundane, even boring. Some are embarrassing. I decided that the journals have to go but not yet, as I have more reminiscing to do. How long will I procrastinate? Until I am unable? Not exactly what I had in mind for my kids. And not what they had in mind either. 

I did not have to sort through my parents' goods. I lived far away at the time and my siblings took care of it. My mother died at 59 of ovarian cancer and my grieving father called in my four sisters to go through her things and they did it cordially. I inherited a third of my accountant father's library and all of his clothes as we were the same size. I still wear his Aran Islands sweater. My father bought it in Ireland and rarely has occasion to wear it in Central Florida. I live in Wyoming so the sweater is my friend most times of the year. I wear his sport coats and they will undoubtably go to Goodwill when the time comes. 

The books and the journals -- those are the sticking points in our Death Cleaning saga.

1 comment:

Ann McCutchan said...

Oh, those books and journals. Mike, I shredded my journals chronicling ages 11-18 a few years ago. They were indeed mundane. The others are stored in cartons, and should go, but not yet. I got rid of hundreds of books when I left Texas in 2016 and moved to the Rockies, and was relieved of more courtesy of a cellar flood in Colorado. Yet I continue to accumulate new books, and am purchasing titles I lost in the flood or gave away. I want to reread and be surrounded by my old favorites. Thank you for your thoughtful column.