My siblings and I have to clean it out and clean it up. We have to sell the old place.
I went there early this morning. I pulled a chair into the kitchen, climbed on it, and started taking down all the potholders Mom had tacked on the walls. I didn’t count but my guess is she had twenty up there. She used them as decorations. They were embroidered with flowers and vegetables. They’d been hung along the top of the wall above the cabinets for so long that they were dusty and grimy. As I was piling them on the dining room table my sister Debi walked in. She grabbed a trash bag, shook it open, and slid the potholders off the table into the bag.
“You don’t want these, do you?” she asked.
“Nope,” I said.
My mother was a clutterer. Knick-knacks everywhere. Shelves, windowsills, end tables, any flat surface - covered. Not one wall in that house has more than a few inches of naked space. She loved to go to garage sales, flea markets, and craft fairs and bring home more stuff. To her it was cute or pretty or funny, and that’s all that mattered. The only problem was all that junk collected dust, and Mom did not like to spend much time cleaning. The house always looked neat, and it was always welcoming and homey, but if you looked closely, you could see the layers of dust growing denser as time passed.
After Mom died, my father developed a schedule for his cleaning. But by this point, the crust of dust on all the knick-knacks had become a thick shroud, and my father’s efforts weren’t enough to wipe it away.
Debi and I laughed at the ghostly imprints left behind by all the things we cleared away. A donut where a wreath of dried flowers had been. When we removed a narrow shelf from the dining room wall, there appeared the silhouette of an erect penis. Flower pots stuck to the windowsills and had to be pried off. We’d hold up each object, like a game of show and tell, and ask, “Do you want this?” Nine times out of ten the answer was, “No.”
I did want the crystals Mom had hung with lace ribbon in the dining room window. Debi said, “Fine, they’re yours.” I had bought them for my mother. Going through the dining room and living room I came across other knick-knacks that I’d given to her. A birdcage, made of wood, Victorian-looking, painted a pale blue, with pink rose decals along the wider bars. I remember loving it when I bought it for her. I must have been a teenager. I don’t think she liked it very much, though she wouldn’t have told me that.
Many of the gifts I gave my mother were, in her eyes, strange. Like the crystals. Things I liked. One Christmas I gave her a huge box wrapped in newspaper. She looked so excited, like a little kid, as she opened it. But then I knew. I saw her face: her disappointment. Well, maybe it was puzzlement. I had bought her a model of a tall colonial sailing ship. I had thought she would go crazy for it, but when I saw her looking at it, I realized I had no idea why I thought she’d want something like that. It became the perfect dust collector. Mom put it on the corner shelf in the dining room, a prominent position, and it sat there for years. When my nephew Billy was a toddler he’d cry to play with it, and so she would take it down for him. Soon the strings holding the sails together were broken, the sails themselves in tatters, and now she had a good excuse. “I’m so sorry, but I think I have to throw this out.”
Debi and I were working away when my cell phone rang. It was my boss. “What happened?” she asked. I told her I’d stopped by the house and got caught up in some reminiscing. She was fine with that and understood. I have a very nice boss.
“I’m going to stay for awhile,” Debi said. “If I think there’s anything you might want to keep I’ll put it aside.”
“I don’t want anything.”
As I was driving to work I thought about all the stuff Debi and I had tossed into the trash. Were we pretending that it was easy? Easy to empty a house of things, perhaps. But what about the memories? I think about how it will feel to shut the front door for the last time and walk away.
Then I remember the giant duck cookie jar - or maybe it’s a goose. And the paint-by-number “tapestry” of a red barn that my mother had done. She wrote the year on the back, 1966. The frame is broken, but I could fix it. Maybe I should take a second look.