I used to think that thoroughly tiding up my house once a year was a pain. Well, I recently discovered that there is one clean-up task that is significantly less palatable. I am talking about the tearing down of an established household following a loved one’s death. That physical systematic deconstruction of a life that happens once a person is no longer there.
Several days after my mother-in-law passed away this summer, my husband and his sister had to embark upon this unpleasant undertaking. As they began demolishing the household in which they grew up, our kids and I came to their aid.
My in-laws’ house has three floors and a basement. They lived there for almost fifty years, during which they accumulated a respectable amount of stuff. They stocked it with everything they needed to make their family’s life pleasant and comfortable, and then a little more. My in-laws filled it with a mixture of heirloom items, passed on from past generations, and things they acquired during their own lifetime. It was a beautiful, well maintained, and well functioning household.
Unlike occasionally tidying up my own house, which is annoying while it happens yet feels good afterwards, annihilating my in-law’s household was not only painful. It was thoroughly heartbreaking on many levels:
There was no hope in it, only despair.
This wasn’t a cleanup that would make someone’s life less cluttered, more focused, brighter. This was a cleanup that marked the end.
It brought up memories and added to the pain.
Every single item reminded us of my parents-in-law, their lives, and our shared experiences. The orphaned objects stressed my in-laws’ absence, and enhanced the still-fresh pain of loosing them.
It felt like an invasion of privacy.
Drawing the curtain over a life requires going over someone’s possessions one room at a time. It means getting into every shelf, closet and drawer. It required opening every box and looking through every letter.There is something very intimate about it. Going over someone’s stuff without their permission, even if they are no longer there to give it, felt intrusive.
It broke the unseen barrier that lies between guest and host.
This wasn’t my house. I visited it many times, but always as a guest. Even my husband, who grew up there, always returned as a guest after he left. There are certain unwritten rules dictating the behavior of a guest in someone’s house. Going into every nook and cranny felt like a gross violation of that unseen contract. It felt wrong.
It put an end to the childhoods of my husband and his sister.
As long as you have a living parent, and it doesn’t really matter how old you are, you are still a child. Your parents’ house is your safe haven. It is the one constant thing throughout the great upheaval that is growing up. You always have a permanent address, even after you moved away, migrated overseas, or even had children of your own. There is someone to keep your childhood memories safe. There is a secure place to store your childhood treasures, the ones you didn’t want to take with you when you left, yet couldn’t quite bare to do away with: the artwork you made in preschool; your first-grade notebooks; the shells you collected on a family trip; your train set; your books. Once your last parent is gone, that safe haven shatters and your childhood scatters with it.
It was excruciatingly sad to empty out spaces.
We live in a consuming culture. We like buying, stocking, filling. Emptying closets, cabinets and bookcases went against our habits, against our instincts. Their emptiness screamed despair.
It brought up the dilemma of what to do with old pictures.
Old pictures are objects, like any other object in a house, yet they are not. They entrap past generations, past lives, past experiences. Pictures capture the images of loved ones, of your own past self, of people you don’t even know. They immortalize happy moments as well as sad ones. We know that pictures don’t hold people’s spirits, of course, and yet… So what do you do when you find old pictures in every room, in envelopes and drawers and boxes and albums? More pictures than you could ever transfer, or ship, or store, or even scan?
The worst part: It became clear that, once you die, everything you own turns into garbage.
The worst part of tearing down a loved one’s household, by far, was the sinking realization that no one really wanted any of it. Despite my in-law’s house being a beautiful, magical space filled with heirlooms, antiques and exquisite objects, no one had any interest in taking its content. Not even us.
Both my sister-in-law and us already have full houses. More than full, even, as you might have realized if you read my posts about our Big Cleanup or my struggles to keep my sewing room tidy. Furthermore, we bought houses built in a different style, and furnished them differently. We like lighter, more modern things, and prefer to have less of them. Heavy pieces of old Swiss furniture just don’t fit in either of our houses. Nor do big clocks, or someone’s paintings, or an entire collection of copper pots. We can’t even read the old French books, passed over from a distant relative. We don’t have the time it takes to polish sets of silver cutlery, nor do we like their taste. And we already equipped our kitchens with all the gadgets we need.
In our case, we live an ocean away, and shipping things costs more than they are worth. But even my sister-in-law, who lives in Switzerland, couldn’t fit any of this into her house, even if she wanted to.
Furthermore, nobody else wanted much of it, either. Friends and neighbors have full houses, too. One person took the copper-pot collection, but the painter friend didn’t want his paintings back. We couldn’t find a taker even for the houseplants.
eBay and similar online sale sites are already flooded with old sofas and cabinets. The items currently featured there have been listed for months and do not seem to sell. Auction-house representatives walked through the house quickly. Nothing popped out at them. They said they had all the clocks they needed, and that even the ones they already have aren’t selling.
Heirloom pieces that cost my father-in-law thousands of francs to restore are basically worth nothing. It is really mind boggling, but it’s just the way it is. In the end, my husband and his sister will probably have to pay someone to come and haul it all away.
We desperately wanted to take something, anything, just to remember my in-laws by. It wasn’t easy to find such things. We ended up taking a rug or two, even though they were very worn and we don’t have a place to put them. The kids wound up with little mementos: engraved Swiss Army knives and old watches. As for me, I came home with a suitcase-full of rags:
These are some of the fabrics I found in my mother-in-law’s house. I would not have picked them out had they been offered anywhere else, but with things being what they were I felt like I just had to rescue them. For now, I’m thinking of them as my Memory Project. I don’t know how I will use them yet, but I will try to do them justice, out of respect to bygone generations and people gone.