When my parents are gone so will be our family home. In February, I started the maddening process of applying to a state-run program that will keep my mother, who was recently diagnosed with dementia, out of a facility. Last week, we received word she’d finally been accepted. She’s now eligible to receive in-home care, 24/7 if she needs it, for the rest of her life.
The only thing is, we had to sign away the house. When my parents are gone, the government gets the place where my brother and I grew up, where my family fought and cried and laughed and loved. I live with my parents now, so it means I’ll in effect become homeless when the government takes possession of the property. I won’t be out on the streets—I’m sure I’ll find an apartment somewhere—but I don’t know if it will ever feel like home.
And it sure won’t have enough room for both my property, most of which is now in storage, and the jumbles of largely junk that, until recently, filled my parent’s basement.
Both world travelers, my mom and dad have always had a fascinating assortment of items they accumulated from around the globe. I love the collections of exotic masks grinning or gloomy from Africa to the Amazon that line the wall of our family room—they remind me of how I probably came by my own love of travel. I’ve been talking to my father about placing a small sticker on the inside of each, detailing where it came from and what year it was procured, so I’ll have that knowledge always.
My mother’s finger turned these same pages, back when she still had the ability to understand what the words printed there meant.
I’ll never get rid of them, or the odds and ends that, when added together, make up a life, a family. Like the photograph of my dad and Jimmy Carter, signed by the former president, taken when my father was directing him in a public service commercial about a local Pennsylvania creek where Carter loved to fly fish. Or my mom’s jewelry, given to her over more than five decades by my dad. And the paintings on the walls bought from a friend, a well-regarded artist, in later years.
I’ll even keep the books that line shelves around the house, at least the ones that aren’t paperback pulp fiction. The ones I’ll eventually read, thinking of how my mother’s finger had turned these same pages, back when she still had the ability to understand what the words printed there meant.
Books and jewelry, art and artifacts – photos, too, of course—I’ll keep it all, always. They aren’t just objects, they have meaning to me, resonance. The crystal and china, however, and the silver, I’ll probably sell, though it’ll pain me to do so. There won’t be a place for them in my smaller space of the future. As much as I’d like to save everything, or most of it, I can’t. Which is why the basement and its ever-growing mess caused me so much anxiety.
As much as I’d like to save everything, or most of it, I can’t. Which is why the basement and its ever-growing mess caused me so much anxiety.
Like most older people, my parents tend toward packrat-dom and nowhere has that proclivity manifested itself more than in the basement. Dim and dirty, with piles of empty laundry detergent jugs, mildewed boxes of decades-old tax forms, and paperwork from my mom’s travel agency, which shuttered in the ’80s, this was a chamber that filled me with despair every time I had to enter it.
It’s tough enough to imagine myself, the last of my family, without my mom and dad; thinking of trying to dispose of a basement’s worth of detritus alone—much of it charged with memories—made me want to crawl into bed and pull the covers over my head. The time had come to do something about it. I hired a handyman to haul away the junk we wanted to toss, begging my dad to allow me to sort through the stuff crammed into the house’s underbelly.
“Please, Dad,” I told him, “someday, hopefully in the far distant future, you and mom will be gone and I’ll be here by myself, trying to pack up the house. Can we make that job a little easier for me now?”
That plea brought him around, and one evening after dinner we began. Some of it was easy going —the boxes of paperwork went, the jugs, broken tools, and old carpeting heaped in a pile. So did the artificial Christmas tree we never could find the heart to put up after my brother died a few years back, and the snarls of lights we once carefully unknotted each year. We kept most of the ornaments, though, and a couple of tabletop evergreens. To not save at least some decorations seemed too grim.
I perused the boxes with the kind of joy usually reserved for birthday presents sent from far-off friends.
And then we happened upon a treasure trove of goodies, things I unpacked from dusty boxes and perused with the kind of joy usually reserved for birthday presents sent from far-off friends. There was a tin of buttons that my dad told me belonged to my great-grandmother, which probably predated the turn of the last century, and a tiny box filled with two pairs of my even tinier baby shoes.
There was my mother’s mother’s bowling ball bag (ball still inside), an old Peggy Lee album (my parents met her once backstage after a New York show), and what my father explained was my grandfather’s rubber squirrel decoy. It still squeaked when I squeezed it. And albums containing photos from my parents’ wanderings: images of them young and stunningly beautiful. As we poured over the pictures my dad regaled me with stories about the places they’d been, including Brazil, where my mom had been bitten by fire ants, and a Tahitian island where they were among the very first tourists ever to visit.
I stashed it all away on the sturdy metal shelves I’d cleared off an hour before.
The toughest moments came when we happened upon a few cartons packed with some of late my brother’s belongings: his old high-school football jacket and collection of quirky shirts, some books, and, best of all, an old, red, metal fishing tackle box my dad recognized as the one his father had given to my brother, filled with lures and line probably four decades old. We carefully put everything aside, and soon after my father headed up to bed, the heart gone out of him for our project.
I continued on, methodically piling what I deemed garbage on several enormous mounds spread through the basement. Our handyman would be picking them up in the morning. Eventually, though, I stopped to consider what I didn’t want to think about—that someday all that would remain of my parents and brother beside my memories would be these few items: some silly, some poignant.
As glad as I would be to have the belongings from the floors above me—the art and jewelry and the like—I was desperately grateful for the chance pick out with my dad what I now realized would matter most, the little things that, through his tales, would now always carry the soul of my family within them.
This beautiful story was written by: Jill Gleeson