My House Runneth Over

There is so much stuff in this house. So. Much. Stuff. And it’s not because I’m a hoarder. I am not a hoarder. The five cutting boards currently residing on my kitchen counter are there for a reason.

See, one of them was my mother’s, and another one was . . . my mother’s. One was a wedding gift to us three decades ago, and another was a present from my husband when he thought maybe we could get rid of the wedding gift, which really is falling apart. And the little bendy plastic one that makes it easy to slide the diced onions into the frying pan is just so convenient, and it goes in the dishwasher, and anyway . . . it was my mother’s.

For the last five years I’ve been filling my house with things that came from my mother’s. We downsized her twice, first from her four-bedroom home to a two-bedroom apartment, and then from that apartment to a one-bedroom suite in assisted living. Every move involved decisions with my sister about what to sell, what to give away, what to put in storage, what to save for the grandchildren, and what to bring into our homes.

I haven’t always been good at letting things go. I learned the value of simplicity the hard way, by filling my house with things I loved and then not being able to find them. I hired a professional organizer to teach me the art of putting things in a box and taking them to Goodwill. I am still working on this. (To my credit, I’ve made measurable progress. I let go of a tremendous amount in both moves.)

Mother, by contrast, was brilliant at organizing the things she loved and passing along the rest. Even though her house was full of treasures, it never felt cluttered. Her home opened its arms wide and made space for you among the bookshelves and antiques.

I want my home to be like that. I want to learn from my mother’s excellent example. I like a certain amount of clutter as evidence that life is being lived enthusiastically here, but otherwise I’m in favor of clean lines and open spaces. So why am I holding onto all this stuff?

I don’t have a good answer, but here’s a serviceable one: my mother is still alive. I don’t yet know which of her things will mean the most to me when she dies. Will it be the big wooden board she used to knead her bread dough? Or the rocking chair she rocked me to sleep in when I was a baby? Do I need all these photo albums, or will a few portraits and candid snapshots bring her back to me when she’s gone? How much time do I want to spend right now sorting her things, when I could be hanging out with her, helping her live with dementia, storing up the hugs and laughter that no box in the attic will ever contain? And anyway, doesn’t every memento have a story to tell, a story I’ll want to remember later?

So the boxes pile up. Meanwhile, Mom’s favorite activity these days is shopping. With us. For us. My sister, my daughter, and I are the lucky recipients of every whimsical trinket or attractive sweater Mom can fit into a thrift-store shopping cart. She buys us gifts because it’s the one thing she can still do for us. Even with dementia, she knows what we are doing for her, and she feels a need to reciprocate. Who are we to deny that need?

So. Much. Stuff.

I am not a hoarder. But I do have five cutting boards. And quite a few sets of table linens. And a little carved wooden turtle from the Galapagos Islands. Oh, I never told you about Mom’s trip to the Galapagos Islands? See, I’m glad I kept this . . . .


8 thoughts on “My House Runneth Over

  1. Yes. I totally understand. I love that you are letting her buy you shopping carts full of more stuff at the thrift store. That must be so hard. I cleaned out my sister’s house and ended up giving massive amounts away and yet still having many many boxes of hers that are moving here soon. And I always thought of her as so uncluttered. We all have too much stuff these days. I wouldn’t throw out pictures yet.

    • Thanks for understanding. Yes — you give so much away, and still there are boxes! Yet what really counts is simply the loving relationship you had with that person. That’s what you carry in your heart.

  2. Carolyn — I was deeply touched by the Sunday article featuring you and June Sparks. I’m originally from Dalton and grew up at St. Mark’s. George officiated at my husband’s and my wedding 31 years ago yesterday — and I remember having lots of lively conversations with June over the years. Your work hit home with me. My father passed away from Alzheimer’s after a long struggle in 2010, so I just wanted to tell you how much I admire your using your writing to process your journey and maybe make June’s a little easier. All best wishes to her, to you and your family — Lisa Johnston

  3. Well written – and oh, so close to home. In my imagination I clear out stuff quickly and have room to breathe. In reality, behind the closed storage spaces, things lurk of which my family has no idea. My Emily has said, “I don’t want to have to clean it out!” I respect that. So let’s get to letting go!

    • YES! Rebekah, let’s do it. I am ready. I don’t want my daughter to have to go through this. The crazy part is that Mom had already cleared out a lot before we moved her!! So much stuff in the modern USA . . .

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