The burden of things and memories

Since my mother’s death in October, I’ve spent much of my time sipping through the 60-year collection of memories at the southeast Iowa farmhouse where she and Dad lived. Anyone who has ever cleaned out their parents’ house knows that it’s not as easy as it is made out to be by the outside world.

It’s cathartic and bizarrely rewarding, but not fun. Marie Kondo can tweet about throwing away everything that doesn’t bring you joy but cleaning up your childhood home while an adult rolls over even her loftiest theories. Everything from vintage Tupperware to family photos is filled with memories and emotions and an irrational desire to keep it all because they were things my parents cherished.

I’m an only child and I can’t decide if that status is a blessing or a curse when it comes to dealing with The House. On the one hand, it would be great to have a sibling to help me sort through and make decisions about how best to divide up nine rooms and a three-car garage. On the other hand, as a solo operator, I don’t have to deal with anyone questioning my decisions to throw away, donate, or burn.

In addition to the goodwill boxes, dumpsters, and keep-to-sell labels, there are additional categories that include “I don’t know what to do with this and need to think about it” and “I’m taking this home anyway.” I have no idea what I will ever use it for. The old wooden cutting board, which was an original feature of the late 19th century farmhouse kitchen and was salvaged in a remodel demolition 20 years ago, is one of those things. Its scarred, worn surface seems to represent the generations that came before me. They farmed horses, used an outhouse in January, survived the Great Depression and two world wars, and were undoubtedly made of sterner stuff than I will ever be.

I had to suppress the urge to carry home endless boxes of kitchen utensils, books, photos and knick-knacks. I don’t want my nieces and nephews (or whoever has the dubious privilege of cleaning my own house) to one day have to sort through things that should have been thrown away decades ago. No doubt I’ll have accumulated enough strange things myself without intentionally hauling home more boxes of stuff from another branch of the family tree.

It is reassuring to think that when you leave this world, loved ones will happily take possession of all your possessions. The reality is that the next generation probably doesn’t want your stuff, no matter what it meant to you when you were alive. True family heirlooms are few and far between. While chatting with a high school classmate, she confessed that her adult daughters had told her bluntly, “Mom, we don’t want your stuff. Please remove it now so we don’t have to worry about it later.” Ouch. But I understand.

I come home from work at The House and look around my own home. The facility was chosen because my husband and I like it. It’s unrealistic to expect anyone to walk over every object between these walls when we’re gone. Donate it, sell it or throw it away – I promise I won’t prosecute anyone for their choices.

Several friends have told me not to feel guilty about throwing things away. “These are your mother’s memories, not yours,” they said. TRUE. Mom saved things that reflected her life and made her happy. Although I was part of this life, this value did not automatically extend to me.

The alternative to this extensive sorting and lining up is to keep my childhood home as a shrine filled with my parents’ belongings, which is not an alternative at all. I wish someone had told me that adulthood would involve so many tough choices.