CLEANING, CLEARANCE & CLOSURE
By BETH GOODNER
How does someone go about cleaning out their childhood home and the home of their parents? Where do you physically start? The task of preparing a home to be cleared completely and sold is immense.
I did this several years ago at the age of 36, and recently I found myself thinking about many of the memories that came to life during the process: memories of my childhood and my parents, and stories of their teenage years of dating. Just like life, some memories are very funny, some are sad, some even tragic.
Mary and Robert were my parents, and they married on September 1, 1950. She was 18 and he was 19. They lived most of their married life in one house, my childhood home. They had been married 48 years when my mother died in 1998. My dad died four years later. So, lots of life had been lived and many things had been accumulated in closets, bedrooms, and the attic. The house was large by 1950 standards, and it had a large attic. There was a full size couch in the attic; it sold with the house. I guess it is still there! There were several categories of things to be sorted out: valuables, antiques, junk, valuable junk and trash.
Some families are blessed (or cursed) to have multiple people weighing in on the decisions of how things are to be divided. Fortunately and unfortunately, I did this process mostly by myself. I had the benefit of having time during the day because I had just finished graduate school and was between fulltime employment. This became my day job. I took the children to school, gathered boxes and cleaning supplies and headed to the house on Oakdale Drive. Memories would come back as I made the familiar turns and parked in the same place where I did as a teenager.
This is the same driveway that the police drove into one night, to explain to my parents that I was going to be charged with a hit and run. I was guilty, but my dad was able to negotiate me out of that charge. My parents had to pay to fix the other car. That is the beauty of a small town; the police officer was very kind to me. It helped that I was much less of a menace than my older brother. The police did not know me as well as they knew him!
This was also the same driveway where my future husband and I spent many evenings telling each other good night. The same security light is still there, that my father would walk under to signal that I had better get in the house. We had told each other good night long enough! These are the memories that still make me laugh.
Other memories were overwhelming at times. It felt very strange to remember my family and go through their things but not have any of them there. My brother had died between my mother and father, so I was by myself. There were times I talked to myself while I was cleaning, and wondered how they went their way and left me to deal with all the mess – literally and emotionally.
I was fortunate that I was not on a specific timetable, and had the time to go through the house as my emotions would allow me. It helped immensely that my husband, the one I had kissed in the driveway, was very patient with me. His main concern was how many chairs I was keeping and where they were going to fit. He frequently asked, “Are we keeping that?” I realize many people have a very different experience and don’t have the time or supportive people in their life. I was blessed.
On some level I enjoyed going through all the things alone. I could have had help from various extended family members if I had asked, but I chose to do it alone. At times it was very lonely. Other times it was very serene, and the solitude gave me a chance to say goodbye and close out various chapters of my life. It was as if different rooms represented different family members. I would start in one corner of one room and work my way around. Often, I would become overwhelmed and go to a different corner.
After my dad’s death I left most things in the house untouched for several weeks. It took several days of going into the house for it to not feel completely strange. It still felt odd up until the auction, which I did not attend. My husband reminded me that one purpose of an auction is to sell things, and if I walked around crying or screaming at people it would not be beneficial to anyone. I finally decided he was right. He is right most of the time.
In his later years my father had been very depressed over various life issues and most importantly, my mother’s death. She had been his complete foundation. He was a very stoic man of very few words. We loved each other dearly, and I am thankful that we both knew that.
I am not sure which came first for my father: the depression or the alcoholism, but during parts of my childhood he struggled with alcoholism and fought with memories that he did not speak of often. I frequently say that I was lucky enough to grow up in the AA fellowship. Some families go to church; mine went to Alcoholics Anonymous. I use coping skills every day that I learned as a child and teenager just by being around my parents and others in that nurturing and healing environment.
The Serenity Prayer was an integral part of that program and I remember standing with my parents and repeating the prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I did not realize at the time how that prayer was being made a part of my soul and would give me guidance in so many situations with my work, family, children, and life. I don’t wish alcoholism on any family, but I often think if my father had not been involved in the AA program, I would not have had the opportunity to have that spiritual experience and perpetual guidance. You never know when God will step into your life.
I came to understand my father much better after I became an adult and learned about him, his childhood and his struggles as an adult. My mother was attracted to him as a strikingly handsome, tall, 18 year old with jet black hair, and he rode a motorcycle. He may have been considered one of the bad boys.
Momma would tell the story of how many of their dates began. Apparently she was not allowed to ride on his motorcycle. But as many teenagers will do, she did so anyway. He would pick her up in a car. She would be wearing a skirt, but with shorts underneath. They would drive to a certain point, ditch the skirt, and hop on the bike.
When I look at photos of my parents as young people before jobs and the struggles of life and children, it is apparent they enjoyed each other and had a deep love by the look in their eyes and the way they stood next to one another. This deep love has to be what kept them together for almost 50 years.
On the night of that hit and run accident that I was guilty of but not charged with, my father demonstrated how this sometimes very gruff man, with a sailor’s mouth, could show compassion and patience with a 16 year old girl. He taught me a lot about parenting in that one night.
After I hit the car, I drove straight home. I was on the phone with my future husband asking for guidance while I peered out the front window, waiting for doom to hit. As the police car drove in, I ran to the den to beat him to the door so I could tell my version of the story. Momma was doing needlework and Dad was watching TV. I ran into the room and blurted out, “I hit a car at the store and the police are here.” Dad said some choice words and the police knocked on the door. Then came a blur of activity which included going to the woman’s house to apologize and swap insurance information.
I learned a lot that night, such as you can’t get out of the back of a police car. We finally got home, and I decided the safest thing to do was to go to bed. My bedroom was at the end of a hallway with hardwood floors. I heard Dad walking down the hall, and I just knew that I really had it coming. He had every right to say many things. This man sat on the side of my bed, kissed me goodnight and said, “Sis, if you ever hit another car, just stay there and call me.” I said “yes sir” and that was the end of it.
My teenagers need to be grateful that I had this experience. I can’t say I have always been that calm with them. But I try.
I bet every child knows where the “important drawers” are, or the special places in the house where significant things are kept. For me that included the dining room, with three china cabinets and a hutch. Therefore I spent a lot of time there. There were the normal things: china from multiple families, some silver sets, antiques my mother had gathered along the way, and such as that. But the greatest thing I found was folded in the top of one of the china cabinets. It was a piece of cloth with needlework. So often I had seen my mother knitting or doing some type of cross stitch, but I had not bothered to really watch or ask what she was doing. I knew when I touched this piece of work that it was time to sit in a chair, take a break and discover what I had found.
I sat down and unfolded the cloth. It was the most beautiful piece with intricate needlework of the Serenity Prayer. I ran my fingers across the stitches and my tears flowed. This piece of cloth and what it said gave me a connection to this dear person in my life, a connection to what the prayer meant, and what it had meant to me growing up. Of all the things I touched, saved, and went through, this needlepoint is still the most significant.
You see, our family definitely had our struggles, and I am not sure what family doesn’t, but in the process of cleaning out my childhood home, many points in my history made a full circle. Even in their death, my parents gave me guidance in their own ways. I cleaned out my old house, but the process was very cleansing to my soul.