October 10, 2006


A couple of months ago, my mother-in-law moved into an assisted-living facility. The home she lived in for 47 years, the house that my husband lived in from the time he was born until after he graduated from college, needs to be sold. So a few weeks ago, my husband and his brother began cleaning the house out, keeping a few boxes of sentimental things such as photographs, but mostly packing everything else up to be donated or dumped.

They spent a weekend sorting through piles of papers, emptying out drawers and closets and cupboards. They came across old toys, school papers, Christmas ornaments made in elementary school, a wedding album. The old house is filled with memories – some happy, some painful, some sad – memories stretching back across my husband's lifetime.

My first visit to that house was in 1978, when my husband and I began dating. So I have memories from the last 28 years, especially the holidays when our children were little. On Christmas Eve, we used to go with my in-laws to Midnight Mass and then return to the quiet house to open presents. Many Sunday afternoons, we stopped to visit my husband's parents so they would have a chance to see their grandchildren. We'd sit around the kitchen table and my mother-in-law would pour cups of soda.

My father-in-law has been dead for nine years, but I well remember the time he and I were put in charge of taping a soap opera for my sister-in-law when she was at work. They didn't have a VCR – this was more than twenty years ago – so we were using a cassette tape. We decided that she was missing the visual element and took it upon ourselves to describe what we saw on the screen. "Oh, that was a SIGNIFICANT glance, don't you think?" Neither of us could resist mocking everything we saw. We amused ourselves so much with our witty descriptions that the tape was filled mostly with laughter. I recall that my sister-in-law was not particularly amused.

The house is quiet now. The marks on the ceiling where the Christmas tree always stood will be painted over. The bedroom my husband shared with his brother is empty. The dents on the living room carpet show where the furniture used to be -- the couch, the chair in the corner, and the television stand. The flower garden that my father-in-law tended so carefully has long since become a bed of weeds, and the backyard where the kids once played whiffle ball is now just a mown lawn of green.

The house is bare. The closets, the cupboards, even the entire basement.



Vila said...

Somehow I can relate to your post. One positive thing out of this emptiness is the happiness of a new family when they move in and start to create new happy memories.
I like your posts. They often make me smile, thanks

Ianqui said...

Having to do this at my parents' house some day is truly one of my greatest fears in life. Mostly for the ramifications of what it will mean about my parents, but also because I canNOT imagine having to sort through and deal with all that crap.

Sorry if this sounds insensitive--I know it is. But I can't help how I feel.

joanna said...

Ianqui, when the time comes, you just do it. It can be a lot to go through (both emotionally and materially), but it gets done. I don't knw if that's any consolation, but hopefully you won't have to deal with it for a good many years.
J--this piece hit many a familiar note with me. You've captured the sense of what taking over a parent's life is like. Thanks for writing this.

ccw said...

My grandparents are getting closer to this stage with each day. I cannot imagine how it will feel when the house is empty.

Yankee, Transferred said...

After my mother died in March, my younger sister did this to her house. It must have been grueling. All I can say is I hope the new family has as much fun in that house as we did. I believe that the joy we experience in a place stays in the walls when we leave.

Squirrely Jedi said...

A few years ago I participated in the same process with my great-grandmother's house when she moved into the local nursing home. I spent a lot of time there as a kid; actually, I practically grew up in that house. And the feeling of standing inside as the bits and pieces were taken away and broken down isn't one that can really be described.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

Houses are kind of like seashells and hermit crabs... when one family is done with them another family brings them back to life.

You have such a wonderful gift for writing, maybe you should leave the story of your husband's family for the next people to move in. Hubby and I will be buying a house in the next couple of years and I'd love to have something like that to tell me about the people who lived there before me.

landismom said...

I think that the Philosophy Factory makes a great suggestion. When my MIL moved out of the home she had occupied for 35+ years, my husband wrote a note on the wall in a dark corner of the basement--I always think of some kid finding that note and smiling, 30 years from now.

SingingOwl said...

I love that idea too.

Jo(e), I know how hard this is. We did it four years ago when my mom moved from Texas to Wisconsin because she was moving in with us. It is eerie. I don't know what other word describes it.

Changes keep coming, some welcome and some not. Praying for your husband and his mother, and you too.

BTW, I loved your photos. Thanks for stopping by my place.

Anonymous said...

Oh, that's so hard.

I read a story recently where the son of the protagonist was moving her into an assisted living apartment and he took tracing paper and copied all the marks from the doorjamb where she had measured him and his brother every year on their birthdays and he copied them onto a doorjamb in the new apartment.

kathy a said...

my grandmother broke her hip 6 months after my grandfather died, and i ended up taking apart her house and trying to pull a life together for her -- she had sold her house already, and was in the hospital after hip surgery, so she never went back after her fall. she had alzheimer's by then, and we ended up putting her in a nursing home near us, caring for her as she descended for the next 6.5 years.

the home i took apart was across the country, and i'd never been allowed to visit before -- even when i lived on that side of the country, my grandmother said she was "not up to entertaining," and that was that.

still -- there was so much stuff, and a lot of it was in my memories from childhood, when she lived closer. photos. furniture. special china passed down through generations. her collections, knickknacks, pink everything.

then there were 40 years of reader's digest. drawers full of partly-used candles. $10,000 in unpaid bills, and a number of bounced checks. a huge closet of pink sheets and pillows. decade-old grime on bakeware. a matching muu-muu and aloha shirt, 30 years old but vivid yellow and orange. tea-towels, hand embroidered with the most disgustingly racist images. meds and supplies from my grandfather's illness. old scrapbooks, with incredible photos from many decades past. smelly clothes. no underwear -- my grandmother didn't like underwear, it turned out.

when she decided to move across the country, i was in college. she didn't tell me they were going. i didn't get to say goodbye to the house i remembered, or to them. we all deal with what we are dealt, but it is nice to be able to say goodbye and savor the memories of a place.

Mieke said...

I love the soap opera story. I am deeply sentamental on the one hand but on the other hand, I have virtually no attachment to material things (a lesson I internalized from my concentration camp surviving father). I am all about people, moments, experiences, and transitions like this. It hits me hard when the boys stop nursing or start preschool but I don't think twice about giving away their clothes and cribs. I hate moving from one place to another because it feels like I am abandoning memories which are in every corner of the room. I always look around before I go and try to grab as many as I can and stuff them in my head so they will move with me. I loved your description of leaving the house. When new people move in there will be all that life and laughter echoing through the walls to greet them.

zelda1 said...

I can only imagine how hard it is to see the house where he was raised leave the family. Those are never easy moments. But, like some have already said, soon the house will be filled with a new family and hopefully many happy memories will be made. I bought an old house and when I first moved in, there were signs of the previous owner and some of those signs I kept, like on the wall of one of the bedrooms were little marks. I knew it was the growth chart of a child and so, I put my two next to that chart and added our growth lines. Surely the new family will do the same, use the marks left and add to them.

Beth said...

It's so sad to see an empty house, especially one that was once full of so much life.

Bitty said...

So eloquent, so sad.

My grandmother, who lived halfway across the country, died earlier this year. My uncles and aunts did the job you describe.

The evening of her funeral, we gathered in her tiny apartment, and part of what we did was to take pictures of us, the family, in the kitchen. When I look at the photos, I don't see the people. I see the tacky knicknacks that she cared enough about to hold on to for decades. I see an open cupboard door. I see a loaf of bread and dishes. I see the home that isn't a home any more.