Death cleaning, letting go and the problem with ‘stuff’

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A lifetime of letters

Sarah Morgan Jones

Packing up a house after someone has died is like dismantling the components of the life, carefully and carelessly curated over decades.

Not just the life expired, but the peripheral lives, those which grew and flourished under the maternal wing, the satellite lives which orbited the mothership.

I have been helping my friend unravel her departed mother’s house over the last year, in sporadic spits and starts, as we live 200 miles apart, and her mother’s house is halfway between us.

It’s a house that has been her family home for over forty years, a place we’d hang out in at lunchtimes from school, through teenage bouts of love and heartbreak, of glandular fever, of swotting for O levels and A levels.

Whereas her mum stayed put all those years, my parents moved around a lot, downsizing, moving into houses connected with work, shifting cities as ambitions and opportunities arose. It meant we had no ‘family seat’, no consistent home that spanned through life events and generations. It meant that this house, my friend’s house, was the one constant throughout my life, as much as through hers.

In the summer that my parents decided to return to Wales but had not yet found a home, and while my adventurous friend went interrailing, I rented her room and helped her mother paint the newly plastered ceilings with a plaster-coloured paint, and I had my heart broken by a boy for the first time.

It’s a place we’ve returned to as we have grown and flown, with children and boyfriends and husbands and then as single mums, in a mess, in recovery, and then towards the end of her mum’s life as carers, and companions, advocates and witnesses to a dignified death.

Letters, in the hundreds

So here we are, a year on, the process has been slow and painful and funny and nostalgic. Both of us have been dealing with poor health over recent months, and the pandemic spanner has definitely been in the works, so reducing the house to its component parts and trundling back to our respective homes with car boots full of books and bits and memories has been challenging.

What remains in the house now are letters and photos. Letters and cards in their hundreds, even thousands. Photos from each of her many school holiday trips to far flung places, expeditions across Canada and the US, Australia, New Zealand.

We even found a signed photograph and letter from the office of Margaret Thatcher. It was sent to an address in Bonn, Germany, which can only mean that she would have been teaching English there at the time, and needed a teaching aid, because she was certainly no fan of the woman.

As a language teacher, prolific polyglot, and host to an abundance of language assistants over the years, her mother had a very full address book and, just as some people have many followers on social media, this woman made an art of her letter writing, and seems to have kept every scrap of correspondence.

When facing dismantling my own parents’ ‘stuff’, the things that loitered in huge numbers were recipes and slides and photographs and birth, death, and marriage certificates. My dad was a family historian and obsessive photographer, and photos from the early 50s on, as well as certificates going back to the 1800s take up many shelf inches. My mum, an avid cook, gathered books and recipes from far and wide, and I am now the caretaker of faded handwritten instructions for the perfect… handed down from her sisters and her mother before her.

What my friend and I now have is perhaps the basis of biographies, the source of many stories, the chance to glimpse into a past before, during and after our childhoods. We have more books than we can ever read (I rehoused the bulk of her mum’s collection, complete with proof reading notes, corrections and exclamations written in the margins), photos of places and people unknown to us, and in her case, letters in several languages which could shed whole new shafts of light onto her mother, if there was only enough time to sit and read them.

But what are we doing, hanging onto this stuff? By finding corners to wedge in the things that we cannot bear to part with, are we not just devolving an even bigger waste disposal problem to our children? The kids who have grown up screen-side, with their own digital legacy, a lifetime lived on social media, listening to music and reading books online. What use is our stuff to them?

Identity & belonging

While my parents’ lives were necessarily dismantled when still alive, as they moved from their home, to an accessible flat and then into care, my friend’s mum wanted more than anything to stay put. While we had endless conversations about what could stay and what could go – a process which weakened mum and dad’s sense of identity and belonging – my friend and her mum left everything in place, meaning even in the darkest days of dementia, she knew where she was. I wish we had been able to do the same.

Now we stand, my friend and I, lucky enough to have built our own lives long before our parents shuffled off but facing instead the burden of rehoming all the elements of their lives and our childhoods. We must decide where it all goes without advice from those who have now left it without a care.

We are looking at the chaos this brings into our lives, stuff piled ceiling high without its former context. We are looking at it all through the eyes of our children, thinking ahead of what they will have to wade through when our time comes around.

Both of us still have our parents’ ashes on our respective shelves, another matter of disposal to consider, when the time is right. I know I like them being there, and I do occasionally ask them things, or have a moan about all this crap, these unlabelled photos, these cookery books, these reams of certificates.

The more I consider what we are sifting through, and the more I consider the future from my middle-aged perch, muddied by these loitering health issues, the more I lean towards the concept of death cleaning, of dismantling my own stuff long before I need to.

I think of getting everything in order, so that the future becomes simple for me and for them. But as I wonder where to start, what to do without, I begin to see the attraction of leaving it all as it is and letting them deal with it, long after I have gone.

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