Guest article by my mom, Cindy Thomas
Freelance writers and digital nomads delight in working from just about anywhere. As long as there’s wi-fi or a reasonably good cell signal, they can make office cubicle workers insanely envious, casually dropping references to the relaxing mountain stream or the delightful nearby winery, whether or not it actually applies to the topic at hand.
This particular day, this article, not so much. Yes, it’s convenient to pull out a laptop when the idea is fresh. Today, though, that is happening in the critical care unit of North Arkansas Regional Medical Center. I made the difficult decision last night to request “comfort care only” for my 92-year-old dad, who went suddenly into sepsis due to pneumonia. Now I watch and wait, occasionally humming an old hymn or holding the battered hand that pushed me on my swing, taught me to hit a mean croquet ball, or—just a few times—gave me a spanking.
Which brings me to the point, sort of.
In 2013, my husband and I purchased a small acreage in southwest Missouri, convenient to his rural school teaching job but not much else. I made the best of my longer commute into Springfield, reminding myself that the peace and quiet, brilliant night skies, and menagerie of backyard birds made it worth living in the country.
And the shed. The 30- x 40-foot garage/workshop with plenty of room for thirty years’ worth of keepsakes, three kids’ toys, and goodness knows what else.
After a few remodeling projects and starting a garden, I told my husband, “This is the time. There won’t be a better one. We have room to spread things out and sort them. I’m going through every box, and I’m going to condense, digitize, and downsize.” And I actually started doing it.
But stuff happens.
Early in 2016, we started picking up on clues that all was not well with my elderly father-in-law and his second wife, whom he married shortly after my husband’s mom died twenty years ago. He finally told us they were separating to work on their issues but would probably divorce. He asked if he could bring a few things to store in our shed, and he began staying with us a lot.
My own dad was an hour and a half away in Harrison, Arkansas, living on his own since my stepmother, Zela, died in 2010. My only sister, older than me and retired, lived closer. Since she did her shopping in Harrison, she checked on him and kept me posted. I visited once or twice a month and called weekly. He had survived World War II and the death of two spouses, had a phone in his pocket, and was in fairly good health, so we didn’t worry.
Occasionally we would suggest that Dad’s house needed maintenance or ask him to let us sort and donate Zela’s clothes. It never went well. He got frustrated and told us to quit messing with stuff, so we didn’t push it.
In 2014, Dad’s doctors discovered an aortic aneurysm had grown much larger and he needed a stent. What was supposed to be a simple procedure turned into a nightmare when he acquired a serious infection. Thinking he wouldn’t make it, my sister and I dug into the 1943 government-issue footlocker where he kept important papers, searching for his house deed and burial insurance policy.
We found what we were looking for, but we also found much more: Dad’s original induction papers into the Marine Corps in 1943, and his discharge papers including a hand-signed thank you letter from President Truman. Pictures of the occupation of Japan, including one taken near Hiroshima a few days after the atomic bomb. His 1946 copy of Follow Me: The History of the Second Marine Division, full of pictures both horrifying and uplifting, marked with an X if he was in them. A few things were labeled; others we could only guess at. Intrigued, we poked around the house a little more, wishing we had been more insistent about cleaning and sorting so we could have asked questions.
Amazingly, Dad recovered. We talked about meeting at his house to go through things, but couldn’t convince him it was necessary. People working at the house made him nervous. He yelled at my husband for trimming some unsafe trees and pitched a fit when we replaced a tattered shower curtain. What did happen, though, was I began realizing I should go through my own stuff, which is why I was excited when we actually had a big work space to do it . . . .
My father-in-law moved in with us. He said he needed to bring a load of stuff to go through later. Naively, I thought this meant a load in our Ford Ranger, since he had already brought some things. One evening my husband looked up from yard work and remarked, “Hey, I didn’t know anyone in the neighborhood was moving.” A large U-Haul truck was coming slowly down the road, and to my horror, it turned into our driveway. By the time a crew of men finished unloading it, our garage was crammed tight. Our ping-pong table sagged under heavy boxes. Furniture crammed into my small potting room made garden tools inaccessible. Boxes I had started sorting were buried in a corner, behind large woodshop tools.
Discouraged, I abandoned my project. My husband began going through stuff with his dad, but his job and his dad’s age made progress slow. There were boxes of office supplies and hand tools and electrical gizmos from a construction business. Boxes of books that “we might be able to sell.” (Eighty-eight Reasons Jesus Is Coming in ’88, anyone?) Pictures of our family and my husband’s siblings’ families—some of them duplicates of pictures we already owned. All packed in so tightly there was little space to actually work.
My husband’s mom had saved every photo, every card, every keepsake going back two generations. To her credit, before her death she started sorting and even made an album specifically for each of her children. Unfortunately, the project died with her, and the boxes had been stored in my father-in-law’s workshop, of little interest to his second wife.
I was annoyed. I couldn’t get to my own stuff, and now I had everybody else’s. One day I decided something had to be done. Preferably when my husband was not there, because he wouldn’t throw out a single thing—even obvious stuff like out-of-date tool brochures—without going through it in detail. I put on work gloves, braced myself for show-downs with brown recluse spiders, and got started.
As I worked, annoyance changed to sadness. I wasn’t personally connected to these items except for photos taken since my marriage, but they represented memories. I began thinking how much more fun it would have been to do the project years ago and hear the stories from my husband’s mom and his grandmas. I realized people keep things because they can’t stand to part with tangible reminders of childhood or deceased beloved family. Without my mother-in-law to interpret, those reminders had sat for years in boxes. Some had gradually disintegrated into trash, a few reeking of mouse pee.
My newly sympathetic attitude kept me going for awhile, although the sheer amount was still discouraging. Then one horrible night in August of 2016, I had just dropped off to sleep when my phone rang. It was stormy out, and cell service was terrible, but I could tell my nephew was upset. I ran outside for better reception and stood in the rain to learn that my sister had just died.
My sister had also had an aneurysm, and it had not been problematic until a series of other health issues caused it to grow. She had surgery to fix it, but the stent had suddenly failed.
After the nightmare of telling Dad what had happened, stumbling through the visitation and funeral, helping my brother-in-law and nephews as best I could, it began to sink in that I was now alone in caring for my dad. I somehow began finding time to check on him once or twice a week, and I decided that if anyone was ever going to make headway at his house, it would have to be me.
I had to get downright sassy with him. Told him that if we didn’t get that house clean, my stepmom would ask Jesus for a day pass to come and do it. Told him it was a sin and a shame to let her nice clothes—that generation wore dresses or suits to church—rot in the closet when women in domestic violence shelters could use them. He finally agreed, and I started going through stuff.
This past summer, my dad suffered a fall. He was in and out of rehab and ended up in long-term care. I quit my job and started freelancing to have time to coordinate his affairs. Not sure what my options would be with his house, I got serious about cleaning, sorting, donating. Some stuff is obvious—people who grew up in the Depression didn’t throw away anything, but nobody needs a couple hundred butter tubs or a broken dish drainer tied up in a Walmart bag.
But there was other stuff. My grandparents’ photo album, pictures I had never seen, some even labeled—an ancestry.com lover’s dream. My stepmom’s scrapbook, full of funny WWII-era postcards and V-mail. I knew that my stepmother was my real mother’s youngest sister and had married my dad a couple of years after my mother died. What I didn’t know, though, was the reason she was still single at that time. When I found a series of cards from a particular soldier, and that same name with a velvet case containing a strand of pearls, carefully wrapped in a small silk scarf, it became clear: A significant other had not made it home from the war. My stepmom had been the girl waiting on the home front for someone who would not return. I never knew to ask how it felt.
Another stack of notebooks contained my dad’s prayer journals—I didn’t know he kept one—from my junior high and high school years. They chronicled his decision to study for a minister’s license, so he could do the jail ministry he felt was so needed. He wondered if his seventh-grade education was adequate to the coursework. (It was.) They told of his struggle with dystonia, which made nearly every activity painful. Why didn’t I sort those earlier, so I could more fully appreciate the spiritual strength hidden in the now-frail body lying in the hospital bed?
These musings lead to the conclusion that the time to sort and organize and condense is now. My college English-major essays will eventually end up in the trash—should it happen the day after my funeral, or now, when I can laugh with my writer daughter about making it sound like I actually understood the book? Pictures of my husband when the tennis team wore extremely short shorts and extremely long socks? Might as well laugh at them together and then toss them, because the kids are certainly not going to keep them after he passes on.
If you’re the elderly parent, let your middle-aged kids sort your stuff. Talk about it. If you’re the middle-aged parent, grab a box when your kids are home for the holidays and go through it instead of watching Elf for the twenty-fourth time. If you’re the young adult kid, suggest it. Laugh, cry, remember, and then throw away what’s worn out and condense the rest. Today’s technology offers so many options for making it easier. If my parents and in-laws had done that, if I had known to pester them until they did, I would be dealing with one household of stuff instead of three.
Procrastination creates stress. I have burst into tears trying to find something I actually need amidst the clutter. I have seethed inwardly while writing a check for rented storage, needed when we moved to a smaller place and the sorting/selling job wasn’t finished. I have lain awake nights wondering how to get more done. But I’m moving forward, slowly but surely, compelled by the things I’ve learned. I want memories to be meaningful, my mistakes to help my kids prevent theirs. I want conversations, not just piles of paper or moth-eaten souvenirs for them to throw into the trash bin.
Read a practical perspective on sorting family heirlooms in this other article by my mom: A Time to Keep, A Time to Cast Away