Contrary to what Sheryl Crow sings, the first cut is not the deepest. The last cut is.
Cleaning out my parents’ former home of almost 50 years involved a rough and ruthless week of letting go of a lifetime of home furnishings. What’s left is the pyramid of postponement, a pile far bigger than it should be of family photos, letters, military memorabilia and other artifacts of my parents’ long lives.
I pushed these items off into the old home’s garage, saying: “I’ll deal with you later.”
I now better understand how seemingly pulled-together people turn into “someday” people, who fill basements and garages, or worse, storage units, with their parents’ old things, close the door on it all and tell themselves “someday” they’ll deal with it.
Ambivalence is the root of all clutter.
Throughout the first cut of the clearing process, the words of declutter king and host of TLC’s Clean Sweep Peter Walsh, were my mantra: When everything is important, nothing is important.
Thus, I kept keepsakes to a minimum: I tucked a few pieces of mom’s jewelry into my carryon, and shipped three boxes to my home. In them were an oil painting of French hens, a mainstay in our old kitchen; three handkerchiefs monogrammed with my mom’s initial (one for each of my daughters and one for me), and the gold-edged stemware because it’s beautiful and I will use it. I already have the china and silver.
Now, I must face the pyramid. What would Peter do? I wonder.
I dial the crisis hotline, but it’s busy, so I call Walsh. “What’s wrong with me?”
And he told me. “This isn’t about the stuff,” he said. “This is about dealing with fundamental issues of families and growth and loss and love.”
“So it’s really a Hallmark movie!” I say. “I knew it!”
“Going through a parent’s belongings makes us confront our own mortality, the loss of parents and the fact that life is fleeting.”
“Geesh, no wonder I feel like I’m trying to bench press a seven-ton magnet.”
“It’s a rite of passage that is significant and traumatic,” said Walsh, who’s going through this with his 90-year-old mother. “I don’t think anyone is truly an adult until they lose both their parents.”
“I knew I had some growing up to do.”
“Before anyone sets foot into the room where they will begin this process, they need to get prepared for a shock. They’re going to dive into ice cold water and run out of air.”
“Letting go of anything we’ve seen or used, or experienced as a child is hard because the memory embedded in the object has such power. We fear if we let go of the object we’ll lose the memory.”
“Or disappoint our parents – again!”
“Do you think the person who brought you into this world, and loved you and nurtured you into adulthood would want you to despair over their possessions? No! From beyond the grave, parents look back and say, ‘Come on! Don’t agonizing over a china set!’ They would kick you up the backside, and tell you to get on with your life.”
Walsh’s next piece of advice is to make the process a treasure hunt: “Imagine that your parents have deliberately left you five treasures. Your job is to find the items that have the strongest, happiest memories for you. So look, not in sadness but in joy, for the few, best items to keep. Let the rest go.
I tell Walsh about my three boxes. “I can tell by the words you used --‘I love it. She loved it. I will use it.’—that you chose exactly right,” he said. “You found the treasures.”
I let out a sigh so huge I levitate. “At first, when I saw the chicken painting in my kitchen, it made me sad,” I admit. “But now I love seeing it every morning.”
“That’s the test,” said Walsh. “Welcome to adulthood.”
But I’m not done. I still have the tough stuff, I tell him. “We can get through this,” he said, then tackled each category in my pyramid:
• Say yes to the dress. Mom’s wedding dress was made by hand, by an Italian seamstress for $35. “A wedding dress like that is such a beautiful, wonderful, emblematic thing,” said Walsh, “Hold onto it.” Maybe one day it can be worn, or made into a christening garment for a grandchild, or used to wrap bouquets in a daughter’s wedding.
• Love letters. My dad is a sweetheart. We have letters to prove it. Pages he wrote to Mom over their courtship and marriage. “I’m going to get emotional telling you this,” said Walsh, “because I’ve done this. First, remember, they’re not really yours. They are part of a romance between your parents, and were never meant for you.” Walsh, who has six siblings, gathered with family members on his parents’ anniversary. They shared their letters, told stories about them, and at midnight burned the letters. “We ritualized them, and sent the love back into universe.”
• Family photos. My dad was a slide man. I have Kodak boxes containing carousels that if stacked would tower over me. “Photos have particular power and importance that make it feel like sacrilege if you throw them away,” said Walsh. Pull out the great ones. Send them to an online service like scanmyphotos.com or Snapfish and make albums. Let the rest go. “If you edit them well, your family can easily look back, and isn’t that the goal?”
• Military medals. My parents met during World War II on Okinawa. Dad was a marine fighter pilot and mom was an army nurse. Their medals are framed and with them in the assisted living center where they live. “As we speak, I’m standing next to my Dad’s framed medals,” said Walsh. “They remind me of his bravery, and how he built a family. That is the treasure my dad left me. That is all I need.”
I take that wisdom with me, as I prepare for my next icy plunge into the pyramid of postponement.
Join me next week as we makeover a beloved old home and get it ready for a brand new buyer.