There is something about cleaning that goes beyond just pushing a vacuum around, deeper than getting rid of dust and debris; cleaning the physical space invites clearing on other levels. Tidy the basement, clear the subconscious. Ages ago I created a television pilot called “Shine-ola!” …a show that explored what else we are clearing when we clean. No network wanted it. The truth is, it didn’t go deep enough.
The first four months of this year, an entire business quarter, has been spent moving my Mother from her home to another, wading through the detritus of a lifetime. Her lifetime. Mine too. Cleaning and clearing and packing and sorting and throwing away more than 30 years of clutter and whatnots, separating treasures from trash.
If you haven’t had to tear apart the family nest yet, you will. And what you discover may amaze you. Disquiet you. It will certainly change you.
My family moved to a no big deal house in an affordable subdivision in the late 1970s. Trees that now tower over modest homes were once dwarfed by them. Back then we were miles from nowhere, with awkward bus service to distant schools. They bought this house as a foreclosure, a bargain, a bizarre adventure.
We spent the first summer finishing this “not quite complete” home, replacing burst pipes and stapling carpet to the floor. This was a home-made house built in the time when “do it yourself” was de rigeuer. For my father though, building codes, like speed limits, were merely a suggestion.
Fast-forward 36 years later, while the trees are bigger, the exterior and wiring are worse. My mother, always drawn to privation, is reluctantly crying “uncle”. She doesn’t want to vacuum, shovel, or navigate slippery tiled stairs to the laundry. She is not, in fact, certain she wants to be around much longer. “I’ve had a good life”, she opines from the huge Lazy Boy lounger purchased nearly two decades ago. These days it’s the Lazy Boy and The Price is Right, followed by a frozen pizza and bed. She’s never been WASPY tidy, never liked throwing things away (“You never know when that will come in handy”). Tin foil and Ziploc bags, ancient bankbooks, and cancelled cheques. Once domesticated envelopes and old bills, photographs and books and files and balls of string now roam feral. She can make a run for it, a smaller place, a lodge, a home with hot meals, or chose to call it a day. Call it a life.
The choice is hers.
We spend several uncertain days before she decides on one more adventure. Sophie’s Act Four.
It takes most of January to understand the “senior” system, researching residences, getting assessments, visiting appropriate homes, making a short list and touring the finalists. Too much time in the Lazy Boy has taken a toll; she is unable to walk more than a few feet before needing a wheelchair. She glowers as we glide through one bedroom and studio apartments, hallways with handrails, games rooms peppered with puzzles, gyms and well-lit dining rooms. Although the prices vary wildly, the basic offering is the same: eat, engage, sleep. The sales people are relentlessly cheerful, end of life cruise directors.
She books a comfortable and bright 440 square foot pied-a-terre., available immediately, which means we have 28 days to pack essentials from her crumbling 1600 square foot bungalow.
36 years in 28 days.
We begin with the books; she is adamant her “library” is coming with. It’s laughably unrealistic. She’s a collector with eclectic tastes: every hardcover Pierre Berton, every softcover Maeve Binchy. Man’s Search for Meaning (two copies), the Merck Manual, British and Canadian dictionaries. We gingerly agree on a simple process: Keep or Give Away, Sophie’s Choice. Seated in the massive Lazy Boy, the Dowager of Borden gestures, this box or that. After one day, 13 boxes are taped and labeled, a gift for the young woman with the used bookstore.
The work is physically hard (there’s a leather bound collection of the great classics). It’s also difficult emotionally, and spiritually. I don’t understand her need, this late in life, to one day “Speak Spanish Now! Or “Master Greek for Beginners!”
From books we tackle clothing. She sits on the bed as forgotten finery piles around her. 1970s pant suits, even older dresses and matching coats, heavy armloads on wooden hangers. She is dwarfed by vintage fur coats, a bag of splendid hats and gloves, purses and lipstick-stained tissues. Keep or Give Away. This pile or that. Sartorial secrets are revealed: Dance shoes, boas, bowling shirts, and balls. (My mother, champion bowler, ballroom dancer, card shark.). Medals and memorabilia. The decisions become harder; things move between piles and then back again. Winter coats and spring, shoes and boots, lingerie, socks, accessories. It takes four days and three trips to the Goodwill.
Spare bedroom and bathroom reveal boxes of unopened makeup, testament to a time she sold a Canadian version of Avon. Lipsticks and blush, foundation and eyeshadows, moisturizer, brushes, nail polish remover and 90 bottles of polish. They are pristine, preserved in plastic and packaging. Makeup. We quarrel. She suggests calling a Women’s Shelter. Boxes are loaded and delivered. They’re happy, we’re happy, or at least able to tackle another room.
Surprisingly, she takes almost nothing from her kitchen and packs it herself. Four glasses, a cup, a Coronation Street Tea Towel. The rest, her abandoned kingdom, will be dealt with later.
Movers are booked for February 29, Leap Year. The “Day of Grace” as she has always called it. It feels lucky somehow, a sign that all will be well.
Of course none of her large scale Eaton’s furniture will fit in the new studio, so my husband and daughter and I spend weekends searching for things that will: an elegant couch, bookcase, table and tasteful lift chair. The later will replace the aqua upholstered, and incredibly oversized Lazy Boy, a chair it turns out she has hated for years.
Another surprise, she’s never liked ANY of the furniture in the house, a mash up of catalogue and flea market finds dragged home by my father. The strange collections of chairs and tables, couches and dressers have no place in her heart. The house has no place in her heart. On moving day she literally leaves without looking back.
With the new furniture already delivered, there is little to do but unload. She sits, uncertainly in the new chair, surveying her downsized kingdom. My sister and husband and I work quickly, putting away books and photographs, hanging her edited wardrobe on slim line purple hangers.
New mauve curtains, bedding to match, two French inspired chairs (Winners!). The theme is Paris of the Prairies, after the big city of her youth, a modest Saskatchewan metropolis of bridges and light. Over the combination desk/dining table we hang certificates: one honouring her retirement, the second, her graduation from college several years later. She was and is a lifelong learner; maybe she will learn to speak Greek.
We leave her to settle into the new routine, and new furniture, and return to deal with the old. There are 13 days to completely clean out the house before tearing it apart to fix what needs fixing.
Thirteen days, a house empty of people but full of things. A task so enormous, so daunting, it seems beyond impossible. My sister stays to help clean the kitchen, and together we witness fear of not having enough made manifest: Expired nuts, cornmeal, baking soda, flour, rice, sugar, jam and ancient boxes of Jello. It’s all bagged and stacked like a wall in the alley. When it threatens to tumble, we lug bags into the garage. In a week there will be a dumpster and we’ll fill it.
We work diligently, albeit at different rhythms. I am all hard angles, angry and irritated. She is softer, more joyful. Her good humour irritates me. A gifted healer now living on the West Coast, my younger sister does not share my brewing rage and sense of injustice. Instead, she gently holds up long forgotten treasures. “Remember this?” she asks, marveling at vintage Corning Ware, ancient jam jars/ juice glasses, Pyrex mixing bowls (with lids!).
When we were young, the kitchen was a safe place in a house filled with uncertainty and danger. Despite working more than full time to keep us afloat, our Mother made time to cook cheap, comforting and sometimes bizarre food. A dinner of pig’s feet followed by Princess Pudding, stuffed cow’s heart and stewed rhubarb. Pasta on Monday re-imagined Wednesday with raisins and milk… spaghetti cake.
And we ate cake: Children’s birthdays of angel food and seven minute frosting, served on the magical pink depression era glass plate reserved for the occasion. For our father she crafted Devil’s Food. Ironic. On purpose.
When my sister departs, the heavier lifting begins: furniture that must be sold or auctioned, or hoisted into the newly arrived dumpster. The boxing up of the day-to-day kitchen takes from morning until well into the night. Small appliances and pans, baking sheets, cutlery, measuring cups, pots and dishes. A complete kitchen in 16 large boxes for Women in Need. Incredibly, they have had a cancellation and are able to pickup within a day of my call.
Every morning the same uniform: yoga pants, black turtleneck, black work boots and work gloves. The same breakfast, 13 Cheese and Eggers in as many days. Shelves are cleared, papers shredded or burned, photographs boxed and labeled. Layers reveal more layers. Rod, the good-natured handyman appears and is anxious to get going. He follows on my heels, ripping up carpets, getting a move on. One room after the next. There is little time for sentiment.
Treasures, things that we believe have value pile up in the dining room: grandmother’s china and silver, vintage glassware, silver trays and ceramic pitchers. Old cameras, a collection of Faberge inspired eggs, framed prints, and a musical teapot. My Mother’s stringless mandolin leans against my father’s old boxing gloves, tangible proof of their unlikely romance.
Some things are set aside: his old Navy uniform, two scrapbooks filled to bursting with cards and letters, Valentine’s and clippings, the archives of their first three years of marriage.
Everything else is shipped to auction, to be sold by a company that has been recommended.
We are left, on the last day, with the piano, a flowered couch and matching chair, queen-sized bed, 24 boxes of beautiful blue Italian ceramic tiles and the Lazy Boy Recliner.
Frantic Kijiji ads “Free to Good home” are posted and we wait for people who do not show up and then thankfully, those who do.
A family with three boys drives an hour to see the piano. (My mother was the only one who ever played, taking lessons after she retired). They like it, take it, pay for it! The mother of the boys sends me a photo, the immaculate Mason and Ritch revived in a new home, played often. My mother will be pleased.
A single woman in a pickup truck comes for the tiles. The boxes are heavy and old. Together we grunt and deadlift decaying 40-pound cardboard boxes. She’s re doing her home, making a fresh start.
A mother and daughter, new to Canada and in real need of furniture, scoop up the couch and chair. Then the bed. My husband helps load what he can into their mini van. It takes several trips. The minivan is something of a miracle, and takes everything but the sullen Lazy Boy.
It sits, accusingly, until a woman and her husband appear, expertly separate it into two pieces, and lug it away.
The things that remain: Cookbooks, a stack of treasures for my older sister, the two remaining boxes of leather bound classics embossed with our Mother’s initials, are loaded. I blow out the candle that’s been burning a fortnight.
Tomorrow Frenchy (his real name!) arrives to demolish the hand made, firetrap of a basement. Electrician, plumber and painter will follow. This house, this home made no-big-deal bungalow on the wrong side of the tracks, is our Mother’s nest egg, a timely sale is key. In an uncertain real estate market, the sooner we can remove the ghosts and leaking pipes, the better. (to be continued).