Friday, November 2, 2018

clearing the lot

I'm in Ottawa, at Auntie Do's for the weekend. The first time I've come to Ottawa with no elderly relative to visit - my mother and aunt, both gone. Now I'm on the front lines, the next in line to go.

This is the fourth time I’ve cleared out the dwelling of a deceased relative, and I hope it will be the last. The first was the hardest – 1988, great-aunt Helen's squirrel’s nest in Queens NYC, her home for many decades. I had a weekend, alone, to sort out a lifetime’s accumulation, and arranged for far too much to be brought back to Toronto, including her little grand piano and her wheelchair. And then spent many years getting rid of them - including, right now, trying to find a home for stacks of old sheet music. But I do enjoy her gorgeous Fiestaware, big old desk, and baroque music cabinet featuring a carved naked nymphet.

Uncle Edgar, in 1997, his brownstone in New York, though I have to say that lots had been – shall we say, removed, by his household staff - by the time I got there. And I myself had stolen from him, which makes me cringe to this day: each time I visited through the years, I took home another of his hardcover E.B. White anthologies. He won't miss these, I thought as I put the books in my suitcase, wanting to be sure they ended up with me. One day when he was ill with the colon cancer that would kill him, he told me he'd wanted to read some E.B. White and couldn’t find any. I will never forgive myself.

In 2013 my mother the hoarder's three-bedroom apartment stuffed with stuff – especially difficult because as a writer, I want one day to tell her story, so took all that memorabilia - mountains of letters and photographs. Which now clutter my house in many, many boxes and drawers.

And now Auntie Do. Hard to understand a woman who had beautiful things tucked away in cupboards: dishes that belonged to her grandparents, silver cutlery, lovely tablecloths – when her table was covered with a ghastly plastic oilcloth, and she used ugly cheesy plates and cutlery. I just opened her dishwasher, which she never used, and found it's where she stored her mother’s silver tea set. Everything - everything - is carefully labeled and wrapped in many layers of paper. This woman took fantastic care of all her treasures and used none of them. Including - I just found - a box of different colours of shoe polish, meticulously wrapped.

What makes me sad are the many books on how to paint watercolours and an entire drawer full of blank watercolour paper - but no paints and never, never an attempt to actually put brush to paper. She just bought the books and the paper, and dreamed.

It’s a lonely job here, but at least I have a bottle of red and light and power – last time I was here, after the hurricane, I sat in the dark with a candle. Am listening to Paul Simon and Macca  on my computer while I open drawers and pile up the junk - more than 15 garbage bags of old and new clothes to go out, and more to come. Admiring my aunt's extensive collections as I prepare to toss: handbags, platters, ancient canned goods,  stamps, umbrellas, hats and scarves, greeting cards, twist ties, recipes, calendars dating back to the early 1990s, 25 packages of paper napkins.  

One day, who will have to do this for me?


  1. Very touching post, Beth. As an accumulator of stuff myself, your comments resonated. However, that won't stop be from going to the flea market in search of a Superman figure to go inside the mini British phone box I bought at the flea market a few weeks ago … you get the picture? I am also the "guardian" of the photos and letters that belonged to my parents, so I can relate to your dilemma. Having the music of the two brilliant Pauls as a soundtrack is inspired. I'm with you all the way here.

  2. Yes, touching -- and also familiar. When my mum died and I went with my brothers to clear out her apartment, I found so many things stored away, never used. Damask linen napkins, a wedding gift (my parents would have married 60 years the year she died) never opened. Silver. And so on. When my parents downsized from a house to an apartment, my son went to help the day they'd arranged for the Salvation Army truck to come and take away stuff they were willing to part with. The guy took one thing, my son said. (An old camping cooler with a Coca Cola logo on it.) Everything else? They rented two storage lockers at the apartment complex and simply shoved everything in there. Decades of tobacco tins of screws and bolts, yes, plastic bags, clothing too threadbare to do anything with, rusted cans of various scary chemicals (they were not organic gardeners). Like your aunt, they were thrifty and simply didn't know to stop being that way. Or when it would be time to use the lovely things they'd stored away. A family dinner wasn't that occasion. Nope. The old Melmac and plastic tablecloth would do for that. So now I use silver, linen, the Georgian fish service from J's mum, the beautiful old silver coffee pot from the late 1700s...

  3. I completely relate to you both - I'm also the family repository of memory, Alan, as are you, Theresa; as I go through this dusty mass, I'm looking for letters, bits of story, hints of who they were and why. The problem is - I have to put all that stuff somewhere until I do something with it - and, yes, I have to do something with it. I've resolved to get rid of lots of stuff when I get home - but then, I've resolved that before. We'll see.