Updated: Nov 19, 2021
Other than the daily trials of living with someone suffering from dementia, the most challenging part of moving two households was managing the stuff, as it meant double everything: crock pots, toaster ovens, dining room tables, snow shovels, the list goes on.
For the most part, my mother and I agreed on which things to keep based on age, quality, or even our attachment to them. My mom had a new vacuum, and mine was on its last legs. Touch my food processor, and I break your fingers. We respected each others' opinions and attachments, so while it was tedious, it didn't cause much conflict.
But I was not prepared for how much other stuff my parents had. Even though we had a garage sale at their house before moving, and even though the movers we hired had warned me that the move was far from over, I remained naïve, and the stuff just kept coming.
They filled the three bedrooms, kitchen, and living room on the first floor, the attached garage, the detached garage, and the basement. It wasn't until their exercise equipment showed up in my bedroom that I snapped out of it with a "oh, hell no," and it was moved elsewhere.
My mother, the keeper of the stuff, blamed the house for being too small instead of the psychological underpinnings of hoarding. I tried to be sympathetic, but when she asked me in frustration what she should do with all of it, I answered with the only idea that popped into my head: get a dumpster?
But no. This stuff isn't trash to her, so she took offense to that suggestion. This was her life, her memories, things that were meaningful and connecting to her a past life during a difficult and fast transition. It required sensitivity from me and time for her, as she sorted through her life and let it go.
Organization is not a skill I have, so I don't like stuff, because I don't know what to do with it. When it starts to take over, it makes me feel weighed down and anxious. When I was married, I would threaten my husband, "either we clean the house this weekend or I'm moving out." And to his credit, I didn't leave him for a room with no stuff in a hotel that kept a housekeeper on staff, even though I lusted in my heart like Jimmy Carter.
I used to go weeks without getting the mail because it would just be full of junk, bills, or important papers that most grownups would know what to do with but I haven't a clue. Eventually, a postal worker would get aggressive and make house entry impossible without taking in the mail, and I would have a new big stack of stuff to deal with. When my niece was a teenager and would clean my house for cash, she would throw away things without even asking me if stuff didn't look important. Yes, please. Stuff that magically disappears without my even acknowledging it is the best kind of stuff.
Friends taught me some good tricks to eliminate stuff. One friend taught me to keep a donation box next to my front door. Every time I came upon something I don't want or use, put it in the box. When the box was full, donate it.
Another friend taught me this: if you buy a new shirt, you give away a shirt. Same goes for everything else: new set of towels? Donate an old set.
And my dad's advice (which he had clearly abandoned where his wife was concerned - dementia or hypocrisy, we'll never know): if you haven't used something in six months, get rid of it. He did offer exceptions for seasonal items, as the snow boots you wore in February wouldn't do you much good in August. But if you don't wear them by next February, they need to go.
But wow. My parents didn't do any of those things. Yet amazingly, their house was always clean and tidy, a testament to my mother's superior organizing ability, a trait I did not inherit. Every item had a place in her house, an astounding accomplishment in retrospect. If I had their stuff, you wouldn't be able to find a chair. Or the door.
The stuff they have hung on to defies logic, unless you can think of a reason to have six decades of Motor Trend magazines. I'm pretty sure my mother could wear different clothes and shoes from today until the day she dies and still not wear everything she has. Some things they would obviously never use again, like a brand new pair of roller skates that my mother claimed had been used, yet those bright pink wheels were perfect and shiny, and I suspect otherwise. Other things had some sentimental attachment, like things that belonged to my maternal grandmother when she lived with my parents. My mother would say, "But it was my mother's!" and then would start into how I wouldn't understand because I hadn't lost my mother and when I did ... and then she would stop mid-sentence and be sad for a moment when she realized that her bad daughter would be dealing with her stuff.
One of my mother's friends has been helping my cause, patiently going through my mother's things with her and separating into keep, donate, trash piles. Bags and bags of things, like letters people wrote to her 50 years ago or papers from when she was teaching before she retired decades ago. She's kept every professional award or published document in a way that makes me wonder if my lack of sentimentality about my own life and accomplishments makes me some kind of sociopath. But then I look at the stuff again and think sociopaths might feel lighter, freer, less weighed down than hoarders, and I am at peace with my malady.
But not with the hoarding.
Unfortunately, my mother suffered an injury a few weeks ago and has been pretty much bedridden. At first I was worried for her, as it was clear her pain was severe and may even be something very serious. Then I was worried for my dad, who gets anxious when she's not okay.
And then one day while cooking in the kitchen, I saw her injury not as an unfortunate event but as the golden opportunity that it is. She hasn't been in the garage, the basement, or the kitchen in weeks. Weeks! I could quietly start boxing up things that haven't been needed since we moved in. I would never touch irreplaceable things like photos or heirlooms, but replaceable things were on their way out.
Off I went on a decluttering bender, starting with the garage. She knew I was up to something when she sent my dad in to see what I was doing and ask if I needed any help. Thankfully the boxes were already loaded in my car, so he couldn't report back. When she asked my son to help clean out the garage when he was home at Christmas, he said, "Sure, but it's pretty much cleaned out," and like a sociopath, I sat there quietly and didn't say a word.
Next came the kitchen, though I felt a little more guilty there, so I adopted her friend's advice and just started boxing things up that I didn't think she would miss. If she notices, I can still produce the missing items for now. If she notices six months from now, they will be gone, and like a sociopath, I will say, "hmm...I don't remember ever seeing that."
Next will be the basement, though that's a way bigger project. Yet when she showed me her collection of Christmas wreaths to choose from to put *one* on the front door, I knew that next year, she wouldn't be able to find the others in the collection. And I was kind of sad for her? Except that she'll have a lovely wreath to decorate the front door next year; the same one she picked for this year, so I know she likes it. Or maybe she'll get a new one for Christmas 2021 and give the old one away. But her days of wreath-collecting are coming to an end.
And one year from now, we may be living so simply that I won't need to dream of sparse hotel rooms with housekeepers.