Sunday, November 27, 2011

Making Sense of It All

I recently returned from 8 days away from my family, by far the longest time I have ever been away from either my Hombre or my girlies.  My Dad, one of my brothers and I drove to South Carolina to clear out my Mom and Dad's house, which has been sold.

Mom did not come with us. She was still in the midst of radiation treatments for her recurrent cancer and her health is too fragile for her to make such a trip. It was probably for the best anyway. This was and still is her dream house. The wallpaper she so carefully selected nearly 30 years ago had been stripped and the walls painted a neutral gray while she has been in Ohio these last eight months. The furniture was not all returned to its previously precise placement by the workers, nor were pictures and artwork re-hung. I can only imagine how disturbing it would have been for her to return to her home and find all not as she had left it. No, it was better that she did not come with us. Besides, we had a big job to do. There would be no time for her indecision and contemplation of the artifacts she had carefully folded, wrapped and tucked away; no time for her lengthy retelling of their origin and significance; no time for  her reliving the events memorialized by them.

Dad, ever the optimist, had originally planned on going alone. He thought he could do it himself in a matter of a few days. My siblings and I quickly vetoed this plan, having had many opportunities to observe the packed-to-the-gills state of the closets, drawers and shelves in the house.

We embarked six days after Dad's final chemotherapy treatment. He had blithely assumed he would sail through this one as he had the others, but he did not. This one hit him harder, with severe fatigue and nausea, dry mouth and lack of appetite. The stress of his worries - about Mom, about the closing on the house, about his health, about saying his good-byes - took their toll on him, too. He had trouble sleeping and an odd rash broke out on his face. He faintly offered to help drive during the two-day trip down and did not protest when we declined. My take-charge Dad was only too happy to relinquish the decision-making about what to give away and what to keep. He was relieved, in fact, to do so.

My parents survived the Great Depression, which provides all the explanation needed for the state of closets and cupboards. We tried so hard, my brother and I, to imagine which of her belongings Mom would most want to have around her in the limited space of their new apartment. Which mementos meant the most? Which would she even remember she had after all these years? We found elbow length evening and everyday gloves from the time when ladies wore gloves. We found her dissection kit from college biology classes. We found the dance card from her senior prom. We found her grade school autograph books, with all the silly little nothings that ten-year olds, even in the 1930's, said to each other. It was funny; it was agonizing.

We tried to set aside things that would be meaningful to our siblings. Hospital discharge papers of my younger sister, complete with newborn footprints; letters home from my older brother while on a long-ago camping trip through Canada; the note to my Mom from my six-year-old older sister upon the birth of her new little sister; cards celebrating the birth of another sister. And so on. It was an awesome responsibility, sorting the history of our family and trying to anticipate what everyone would want.

While a constant parade of visitors, old and dear friends and workers filed through, my brother and I sifted. We tossed the baskets full of strips of fabric clipped from pants that had been hemmed, the endless supply of  rubber bands from produce and inevitable recycled plastic containers. We laughed over the old pantyhose cut into strips to tie up plants and uncancelled stamps torn from envelopes and squirreled away for re-use. Box after box filled with hotel shampoo and lotion bottles, bars of soap, shower caps and shoe shine cloths were discarded. Drawer after drawer contained the ubiquitous free address labels sent by charities seeking donations, along with old shoelaces, twist ties and notepads. We couldn't just dump entire drawers, since there may well be (and often were) old photos tucked in there, or letters or cards or all three.

Mom had been an avid cook, crafter and sewer. We found pile after pile of recipe clippings and household hints, along with decades' worth of cooking and decor magazines. Craft supplies filled entire cupboards in her laundry/sewing room.

It was frustrating and exhausting. I couldn't understand why she saved all of this stuff, this junk. Somehow, after seeing it all there, in her home, it finally clicked. She had grown up in a time of such scarcity, such lack, that she simply had to be prepared for the next Great Depression. She would be ready. Her ingenuity would be her salvation and her family's salvation. As for the craft supplies, who among us can easily accept that they have done the last of something they once loved to do? The last round of golf, the last fishing trip, the last knitted sweater? Who can just give up, throw in the towel (or the embroidery hoop) and say, "I'm done"?

All week long, as my Dad said his goodbyes and sorted his own history, he would look at my brother and me and shake his head.

"You two drew the short straw this time, didn't you?"

Truthfully, I don't see it that way at all.


  1. You know, as much as I'm in there, mentally and emotionally with you, the kids, I have even deeper feelings for the losses your parents are experiencing and how we (I don't mean YOU; I mean "society") expect those who are ill or aging to capitulate to the diminishments of their increased years. That is, we so often see the work that goes into caregiving and showing up for the aged that we forget the agonizing process of becoming less than we once were. I know myself as a certain person. I drive. I work. I create things. I have active engagements with the world. But how will I be when the world demands that I no longer drive, work, create, engage? Will I be gracious about those losses? Or will I suddenly develop the empathy that can elude people still in the flush of life? Will I suddenly realize how awful it is to accept that my world is shrinking? Will I find a way to accept that, or will I just be crochety as hell?

    We don't need to answer that last. But I am trying to be empathetic now. I look at the things taken away from those whose lives are shrinking, and my heart breaks for the way they are asked--so flippantly--to redefine themselves, to let go of who they've always been.

    Again, this is not directed at you at all; it's just what I thought about as I was reading and what I've been thinking about as we've watched my husband's four grandparents close out their lives in recent years.

  2. And this is much of what I was thinking as I sorted...who they were; who they are; what they will be.

  3. I love the reverence you have for your parents as they go through this stage in their lives. You are a wonderful daughter Meg.

  4. I love your "take charge dad".
    I have one of those, too.