The bustle in a house
The morning after death
Is solemnest of industries
Enacted upon earth, —
The sweeping up the heart,
And putting love away
We shall not want to use again
Emily Dickinson was referring to the morning after the death of a loved one, but such hustle could also refer to what happens weeks or months after a loved one dies, and the bereaved are required to sift through that loved one’s possessions.
There is no shortage of articles on how to tackle this bittersweet task. Sara Davidson in a piece in The New York Times asks, “What to do with Mother’s stuff?” which in her case too involved dispatching with a car, furnishings, and memorabilia. Following Joan Didion’s rule, she tried to follow the principle of touching an object only once, making a decision and moving on.
The most emotional aspect of cleaning out a house is sorting the belongings, says Elizabeth Weintraub in an article “Cleaning Out the House After a Death.” She suggests sorting items into three piles or tagging them with color-coded stickers: Items to keep, items to donate or sell, items to throw away. Wendy Schuman outlines “9 Tips for Cleaning Out Your Late Parent’s Home.” She remarks, “Consider the cleaning-out job a labor of love. As hard as it was, clearing out my mother’s home was the last important service I could render her . . . .”
Recently, my sisters and I said our goodbyes again and again as we sorted, reminisced, cried, but forged ahead, emptying drawers, closets, and eventually rooms.
Some discoveries are hidden. Out of sight. Others are hidden in plain view. Last week we uncovered my dad’s first grade report card from 1921-22 in a box on the upper shelf of the closet. It’s a document, really, a fancy booklet with flowing cursive penmanship. The opening page announces the teacher’s name and school, Frank R. Mauss at Washington School, like many schools of the era on the same grounds as the church, in this case Bossler’s Mennonite Church.
There are no vague S’s or U’s for satisfactory or unsatisfactory. Not even an A, B, or C. No, the grades are recorded precisely as percentages: 86% average for the first reporting period. And a 90% for behavior, not quite the teacher’s pet!
* * *
And, yes, other discoveries are hidden in plain view, like Mother’s Dodge Spirit. With 98,000 miles it’s been around the block more than once, but certainly not worthy of an antique license tag. What to do with it? After some deliberation, our sister Jean suggested we offer it to our friend Edda, a member of Bosslers’ Mennonite Church. A first-generation immigrant from Colombia, Edda is getting a foot-hold on a new life in the USA while enabling her son to get a college education. She is tickled pink with our recycled gift. A bonus for us: We get to see Mom’s car parked at church when we visit on Sundays.
Cards and cars – both have a second life, one an artifact to hold – the other, providing a pathway to the next step in adventure for a brave woman.
Valuing the past and the present, both solemn acts, both borne of love. As Wendy Schuman concludes, “As I sorted through her things, I felt surrounded by her presence. In a way, it helped me say my final goodbye.”
Have you had to say goodbye to someone or something you have cherished?
How have you learned to say “Goodbye”?
Coming next: Mom’s Accessories: Bonnets, Hankies, Pins, and More