Losing a loved one and looking after the treasures of their lifetime is difficult and stirs memories both wonderful and sad. Ronny shares her story with us and reminds us that we should be tidying up our affairs as we go. Recently I read an article by a woman who had given up her books, ornaments, music and DVD collections. She even rented clothes for special occasions and was considering becoming part of a car pool so that she would not be obliged to have ownership. This struck me as losing too many possessions; the joy of remembering who had given this or that gift; becoming bereft of memories from the glorious art works, music recitals and the books that deserve reading once again. Without these I would feel ungrounded and somewhat lost for purpose and it reminded me of the song ‘Freedom’s Just Another Word For Nothing Left To Lose’. However, I do agree that once every so often it is necessary to declutter, pass on unused items to thrift shops and even sell or swap goods no longer used and I salute those who can do that.
I had been sorting through some boxes of crockery one evening, trying to decide what to keep and what to give away, when the phone rang. It was my daughter in tears: ’I’ve been trying on Grandma’s clothes and they still smell of her’ she said, ‘I miss her so much’. My mum had died in January, just before her 88th birthday. I told her how pleased her grandmother would have been to know that her clothes were being recycled and re-loved. One of my mother’s favourite sayings was ‘Waste not, want not’. Five months after my mum’s death her house is now rented out. My brother is keeping it in the family and is glad of the income, but I know it’s also his way of hanging on to her memory. Mum had lived in the house for 48 years, 17 of them on her own after my father died. She was the oldest resident in the street and the longest. Clearing out her home has been physically as well as emotionally challenging. Mum had been a hoarder – not as extreme as on some of the television programmes, where people can’t move in their homes for the clutter, but a hoarder all the same. In the garden shed there were the sticks from all the ice lollies she had ever eaten. She had kept them to use as labels for seed trays. In a box in the hall were the inside wrappings of all the cereal packets she had used, neatly pressed and folded – for what? The Council regularly recycled paper and card but somehow these things didn’t make it out the door. There were boxes of Christmas decorations long past their sell by dates; stacks of old wrapping paper; and bags of rags. Mum had resisted being helped to clear her clutter believing that everything might be useful one day. My husband and I set to clearing out the house. My brother couldn’t make decisions and advised us to ‘put everything you don’t want in my garage’, which wasn’t a solution at all. Over several trips to the house over a three month period we sorted, bagged, visited the recycling centre and donated to charity shops. My husband was wonderful. He had less history embedded in the house, so was less distracted. We cleared out everything that had no sentimental or monetary value; then identified items we would like to keep ourselves– like my daughter with the clothes- or give to family and friends. There was memorabilia from our childhoods. The house was full of ornaments that had always been there. Brass animals from our life in Sri Lanka in the 1950s; a set of miniature liqueur bottles that my brother had drunk the contents of as a teenager and then refilled with water; and there was a hoard of unused crockery from the 1960s. Little had financial value but Mum always said today’s items could be the antiques of the future – maybe we should keep them for now? In her bedroom wardrobe I found bags of unwanted and barely opened Christmas presents, some of them from us. Mum wasn’t materialistic and always maintained she had enough of everything so didn’t need to be bought presents. It’s a good thing I tended to buy her things I would like to own myself… In the airing cupboard were hand-embroidered cotton tablecloths and chair covers. Buried in a bookcase was a pattern book with tissue paper designs for the embroidery. These were dated from before her marriage and from her early marriage years. We never knew she had done these. We finally cleared what we could and brought home carloads of memories that I am still working through. I have sent and delivered packages to aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. Crockery, costume jewellery, religious items, Mum’s dance medals and prizes won in dance competitions have found good homes. The photograph albums will take longer to sort. The use of digital photography makes storage of these kinds of memories easier, but I plan to send packages of photographs to many of the people appearing in the albums- those who are still alive. My husband and I have vowed to declutter our homes as we go along, and I will try and bury my clutter gene. The designer and artist William Morris said ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’ We can but try.