Two years ago, I was given the task of cleaning out my mother’s home in Florida. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease a couple of years before. Once we realized how serious her memory problems were, we gave her less than a week to say goodbye to her friends and her life before we whisked her out of Florida and into my sister’s home in New York. Except for a yearly visit to see her friends, the house stood empty.
Fortunately, I didn’t step into a nightmare of a home with decades of stuff squirreled away in closets and drawers. I walked into a show house, meticulously maintained and beautiful. It was heartbreaking to me. Could we have gotten her help? Could she have stayed for one more winter? You learn after the fact that letting a sick or dying loved one keep as much of their old life for as long as you can is a gift to them.
But even though my mom was a neatnik and a purger, there was still a lot of work to be done. When my parents bought the house 15 years before, it had been a builder’s model and was beautifully decorated and furnished. My dad died pretty soon after buying it, and my mom was forced to carve out a life for herself, alone and far from her five children. She did an amazing job and had a nice group of friends. She was in a book club, she traveled, she played golf and she visited her children’s families a couple of times a year. During this time, I was growing my own family and found visiting her difficult, especially at a house where every room opened onto her swimming pool deck. So I rarely went.
My siblings and I thought it would be best to sell her house furnished. I broke the project down into three components: stuff to donate, which filled the garage; stuff to throw out, which filled the driveway; and stuff to send my siblings and myself, which filled five big boxes. I spent three 16-hour days dividing and dragging her belongings into these piles.
It was a beautiful, painful and lonely process, and part of me liked the solitude of it. I could go through my parents’ stuff, look at the art they collected together and remember and mourn another chapter closed of a book I never thought would end. I enjoyed the framed photos my mom had placed around the house of her and my dad, me and my siblings, and our families.
I came across a scrapbook–like a baby brag book, but for adults. It contained information on all of our accomplishments: job announcements, legal cases won and art show invitations. If there was a write-up in the newspaper or some other accolade, she’d tape it in the book. I can imagine her showing it to her friends. Another part of me, the part that had a couple of glasses of wine after working on this job each night, wished my sister had been able to come with me. It would’ve been more fun and easier, and we could have laughed and cried together.
It broke my heart to see the evidence of what it must have been like for a woman literally losing her mind to try live in the house independently: the drawers full of books on memory loss, the workbooks of memory puzzles, the jars of vitamins to help promote brain health, the notes to herself. She never told anyone. Looking back, of course we should have known.
One of my brothers and I had sent my mom digital photo frames filled with images of our lives. They were missing—probably thrown out because she didn’t know how to work them. I noticed that as her world got smaller, she must have been streamlining her belongings, creating a minimalist environment where she could keep track of things more easily. In her kitchen was a big, framed whiteboard that she had asked me to make for her to write down her things to do. “Tissues” was still written on the whiteboard from two visits ago.
As the bags of trash and donation piles grew, I pulled things to put in the five boxes for us. These were items that I thought my siblings might want, things too sentimental and valuable to give away. I wondered what to do with the family pictures we all dutifully sent to my mom each year. Give them back to the givers?
Years ago, when my husband’s grandmother died, my mother-in-law became immersed in the same project in which I now found myself. She sent me a box with a Tiffany tulip vase that my husband and I had given to his grandma many years ago. While this was a gift that was more in her taste than mine, I’ve held onto it. Every time I look at it, I think of Grandma Groves and how kind she was to me.
I figured my mother-in-law was onto something, so I did this with the gifts that had been given to my mom. My mother was very artsy, so I always sent her something I made or bought in a shop or gallery. Sometimes she displayed them and sometimes I never saw them again. If she didn’t like something, she didn’t keep it.
I was pleased to discover, tucked away on a shelf, a lovely glass rainbow that I had given her soon after my dad died. I’d hoped that when she looked at it, she would think of him and it would make her smile. Perhaps it did, because it didn’t go the way of the picture frames or some of my other gifts. I was so thrilled to be able to bring her rainbow home that I put it safely in my carry-on bag, not entrusting it to the shippers to get home safely. Now, whenever I spot it tucked away on a shelf, I think of my mom and I smile.