Clearing Out My Mother’s House

An old, brown, decaying hat box. This gets turfed in the pile to go to charity.

Then, several days after it has irretrievably gone, I find a little wooden box in my mother’s bedside table. Inside the box is a small key with a tag written in my mother’s elegant hand: “Aunty Ede’s hatbox”. I feel something with the weight of a stone hit the floor of my abdomen.

The hatbox was a family heirloom but its too late, I’d ditched it without a second thought. Instead of having a cute hatbox with its own key, a last memento from my frugal, missionary, maiden aunt that my mother had treasured all these years, all I’d be left with was a dose of bitter regret.

In the aftermath of my mother’s untimely death in 2012, I jumped on a plane, and took a 36 hour journey from New York City to Sydney, Australia, to deal with her funeral, memorial and her property. My mother had not been dead a week, but here I was, maniacally cleaning out her house.

My mother was a beautiful, joyful, nurturing and exuberant woman who lived a singular life. She developed dementia, but only in her last years of life. Before her downhill slide (not a spiral, but a sharp, fast, unforgiving angle) she had a full life, and a life full of accumulation.

Now, I am faced with dealing with her stuff. Her things. Her mementos. Her objects. Her souvenirs. Her keepsakes. Her ornaments. Her memorabilia. Her shoes. Her shoe-trees. Her cardigans. Her handbags.

There is a wild intoxication associated with this sorting, decluttering, discarding. Intoxication fueled by grief. I have to return to New York City, to my job and my family. I have come all this way to Australia alone, and I have to make so many decisions. I have some help and support, but as an only child all of the final choices rest with me. I must step up. I have to get the personal stuff out of this place and get some tenants in. There is nobody else to do this. Nobody willing or able.

But in my way stand so many obstacles.

Things like a very good quality fake Christmas tree. In parts, in cardboard boxes, taking up a huge amount of space. I remember my mother, a hater of all things fake, explaining to me, and perhaps justifying to herself, why she’d bought it — it was too difficult, she said, living out on the peninsula where she did, to dispose of a real Christmas tree once Christmas was over. Nobody would collect them, it couldn’t go in the mulch, it needed a special trip to the tip, it wouldn’t even become garden waste. So, after much debate, she’d invested in a very realistic plastic tree.

When clearing out her place, that October, the Salvation Army brought a truck, but turned down the tree — it was too long until Christmas, they said. So it went to landfill. Along with two truckloads of stuff. Why didn’t I just leave the tree there, as part of the resources of the house? This is the question I ask, years later, when looking back at that two week period of manic trashing and purging. I am not someone who throws things away lightly. At least I wasn’t, until my mother died.

Objects return to my consciousness to haunt me. To ask me “why? Why us? What did we do to you, that you dispense with us so unthinkingly, so brutally?”

My mother had come from frugal, Protestant New Zealand stock. When I was young she would save pieces of string for re-use, she would wash plastic bags and hang them on the clothes line to dry, to use again. If she couldn’t reuse or recycle something, she’d find a novel way to squeeze another life from it. Her shopping lists were always on the back of bill envelopes with plastic windows because she was worried about whether the 1980s recycling technology could cope with the small piece of cellophane.

After she died I turfed vast piles of paper, scraps, lists, newspaper articles, gardening magazines, wine magazines, food magazines. Not all of it could be recycled.

As well as the minutiae, there were obstacles such as enormous, heavy, defunct analog TVs throughout the house. Australian television had switched to digital, and everyone had gradually upgraded to flat screens. Everyone except my mother. There was nowhere for these televisions to go. Other than away; out; to landfill.

Out went boxes of photos of flowers and plants from garden tours nobody living can recall. Out went ugly platters, vases and serving trays from the 1980s. To charity. Boxes of sea shells, collected who-knows-when-and-who-knows-where. I took these shoeboxes along to the rocks at one end of the nearby beach, and when none of the weekend fishermen were looking, I dumped their contents in the sea. Owl and mouse ornaments — from cheap and nasty kitsch to expensive tchotchkes. Mum had collected owls, I’d collected mice when I was a child. But she still had them all, she’d kept them all for both of us. These I flung into the bamboo that grows, barely under control, along one side of the house.

Shelves and shelves of airport novels — historical romances, my mother’s preferred genre. These remained, housed in an expensive antique bookshelf. I couldn’t face them, their upwardly mobile gold-embossed lettering, their well-worn spines, the escapism they represented, back when she could read for hours on end, and be happy with nothing more than a book and an afternoon off.

“A day for the Queen!” she’d declare. This was any day when my father was away, and she and I decided to do nothing except what we wanted to do. “A day for the Queen,” was something her own mother had declared, too. An heirloom I could put to use right now.

Another thing she loved to do was watch British costume drama series. But now I have to deal with the dozens of VCR video tapes of Pride and Prejudice, Poldark and their friends. These go to a retirement village nearby.

But wait! What about the multiple card tables with felted tops? Perhaps five or six of them? Like it is still the 1970s and people are holding Mah Jong nights? Off to the Salvation Army.

Each object demanded a decision, and so many left me flummoxed.

I’ve seen and heard how different people react to a loss of this magnitude in different ways.

For me, it was to enter a state of personal hyperdrive. I could not sleep, for many many days on end. This was only made worse by the jetlag — all day I was operating in Australian time, getting the cremation, memorial and estate arrangements done. And clearing the house. All night I was operating in New York time, which was when my body was awake. During the night I Skyped my husband and son, I worked on the eulogy, compiled the photographs for the slideshow at the church. I read messages of support from far flung friends.

During the day I met with the priest, the funeral director, the accountant, the caterer and the venue for the wake. The house needed a valuation, for the purposes of the estate and the will. I met with people, like the valuer, a tall, strapping man in an expensive suit, who knew how to be deferential and polite and understated even as he counted windows and assessed light fittings. Someone who knew how to deal with people like me. I barely realized that I was grief stricken, I simply found myself on a mission and in autopilot.

The valuer, may the universe bless him eternally, helped by carrying the enormous, obsolete, analog television down the outside steps to the dumpster.

After he’d gone, I did what my mother would have done. I made a cup of tea, and sat staring silently out to sea.

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