The Zen of Death Cleaning | Part 2

The Zen of Death Cleaning | Part 2

By Elizabeth Harper

I just spent over a week in a house, significantly larger than my one bedroom apartment, immersed in the detritus of my family’s past, sorting through things, trying to decide what is treasure and what is trash, my sentimental nostalgic collector hoarder tendencies at war with my awareness of limited time and space and energy and an aversion to bringing trash into my home and creating never-ending projects for myself.

And I’m not done. There is more to do. I tried to get through all the books, but didn’t even get that far. There are more piles of 100-year-old letters mixed with newspaper clippings about family, annoying Ann Landers columns, conservative, religious, toxic garbage, barely legible hand-written recipes that I will never make, expired coupons. There are drawers of sweaters that need to be gone through because there might be things hidden in sleeves. Every purse, every pouch needs to be opened, unzipped, linings checked. Every box needs to be opened. Every magazine looked through. Every book opened to check the inscriptions and the notes and clippings tucked inside.

I know eventually I won’t be able to recover from my decision fatigue and will have to resign myself to letting some things go.

And every time I discover something I never knew about — an old letter, newspaper article about a family member, medical record — I’m stopped in my tracks, flooded by memories and connections causing time travel whiplash: 1975; 1910; 1892; 1964; 1954; 1966; 1982; 1936; 1942 and on and on.

From Grandpa Charlie’s 1920 high school yearbook. He was in The Junto debate club.

From Grandpa Charlie’s 1920 high school yearbook. He was in The Junto debate club.

It seems unhealthy in a way. But in a necessary way. Like chemotherapy. Seek out and destroy what’s killing you, keep it from spreading into the rest of your life, keep what you can of what’s good and healthy, but there’s the risk of side effects, that the process will make you feel sick, that some healthy cells will be destroyed.

I stayed in the house by myself. I don’t mind being by myself for long periods of time. I didn’t wear makeup or a bra, since no one would see me. I could have walked outside, but there’s nowhere to walk to, no Walgreens or Starbucks or friendly neighborhood bar with local bands playing or an open mic night. I’m eating through the frozen food in the freezer, Stouffer’s, Trader Joe’s, etc. and drinking the booze, and thank goodness there’s some good booze.

I know I shouldn’t complain, and I’m not. I don’t want to be insensitive. I know these are the problems of people who still have homes and things, and that many do not. Many have already had to say goodbye to their homes for various reasons including foreclosure or natural disaster or political torture, had to let go of family treasures because there was no room, no way to keep on carrying them to the next uncertain destination.

Losses are part of my family’s story, too: stories of Indian removal, immigration, war, poverty, economic depressions, illnesses, childrens’ deaths, bankruptcies… The family tendency to try to keep things, remnants of the past, I believe is the result of economic trauma, and perhaps other trauma as well, of illness, death, and war.

Some things that I remember are already long gone — the farm, my grandmother’s grand pipe organ I remember sitting at and playing. After my grandfather died and she came to live with us in the city because of her increasing senility, the farm was sold, and no doubt the organ was too large and impractical to move. I think the organ was donated to a church, which is probably for the best, so more people could enjoy it. Also gone are things I’m too young to know about or remember.

The bibles. OMG, the bibles. So many bibles. Bibles falling apart. Bibles that look like they’ve been through multiple natural disasters, fires and floods. One’s in German. Bibles with underlining, with family dates written inside. Tiny, pocket-sized bibles. Beautiful antique bibles with carved wood covers. My mother had carefully wrapped my grandmother’s bible in paper and labeled it “Mother’s Bible,” but it’s falling apart, and I don’t think I will keep it. My father’s bible, with his name written inside in his careful, elegant script is in much better condition, though his also was frequently used, read through multiple times.

I’m not religious at all. Actually, I’m unapologetically anti-religion. But I grew up going to Sunday school. I actually looked forward to going to Sunday school when I was little. My family would hold hands and say grace even in public when we were at restaurants. So I’m different from my ancestors, and yet I feel sympathy for these people who sought comfort in Bible verses.

Amish romance novels aka “bonnet rippers.”

Amish romance novels aka “bonnet rippers.”

But there are many books besides bibles. My mother had a romance novel subscription. Hundreds of romance novels crammed the shelves. In my mind, these are heterosexual propaganda designed to serve the patriarchy and toxic masculinity, so those are going, especially anything described as spiritual or inspirational. Also, Amish romance novels are a thing. I had no idea. My sister reminded me not to kink shame, and yes, I am thoroughly against all kink shaming. I would never kink shame anyone. No one should ever kink shame anyone else. But man, it goes to show you how different some kinks can be.

There are books on business, economics, history, biographies and autobiographies of past presidents and politicians such as Nixon and Eisenhower, some signed by the author and made out to my father or grandfather. There are very old books from the late 1800s in which my grandfather, Charlie Smith, had typewritten a note taped inside the cover stating who gave him the book and the story behind the gift and very clearly and emphatically stating, “Do not destroy this book.” My grandfather is dead. All these people are dead. And yet I feel some kind of responsibility to respect their wishes, so even though those books are old, falling apart, I’m not ready to let them go, and if I do, I’ll want them to go to a place where they won’t be destroyed.

I was going to let the books on the Navy and ships in World War II go, but then I realized from reading the inscriptions that some of them were gifts to my father from the men who were under his command on the U.S.S. MacDonough. That war had an effect on an entire generation and the post-war culture and economics of the United States. Indeed, it had a devastating effect all over the world, and yes, I’m aware that’s an understatement. Most of the people who served in that war are dead or soon will be. So maybe I feel a responsibility to remember the mindset of that time, as we anticipate world catastrophes of uncertain resolution.

This is from the inside of the 1944 Thanksgiving Day menu on the U.S.S. MacDonough:

THANKSGIVING DAY

Thursday

November 23, 1944

It is easy on this Thanksgiving Day to offer our gratitude to God for the generous blessings we have enjoyed - - ease, plenty, health, prosperity. But we will do well to glory in our tribulations also, for it often happens that they contribute more to our lives than our more comfortable blessings. The sorrow that makes us sympathetic, the pain that leaves its deposit of patience in our lives, the perplexing problem that has driven us to think, the criticism that compels us to check up on ourselves, the disappointments that keep us humble, the fears that engender righteousness, the difficulties that keep us dependent upon God, the false friends who convince us of the value of true friends, the hard labor that invests our wages with meaning - - all these and a thousand other things are real benedictions and are worth more to us than many easy victories which produce no growth of soul.

Inside of menu on U.S.S. MacDonough.

Inside of menu on U.S.S. MacDonough.

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