Sunday, February 22, 2009

The past is a foreign country

For quite a few days this week I've been immersed in the past. My past, my family's past. It is a different place alright, from the real "now" I'm living in, where everything has changed.

Mum and Dad died within one year of each other, and the house has been sold. And it has fallen to me to clear out all the possessions that had remained after a lifetime.

It's not an easy job, and it's even harder if you're doing it on your own. But I chose to do it. I feel the need to pay respect to the past. I wonder if that sense of self-sacrificial duty is because I was the only daughter. The gender thing seems more than a coincidence...

So - faced with a new undertaking, and this being 2009, I Googled "clearing out the family home" and found that there were a lot of people who knew how I felt.

That it was not just a question of sorting things into:

(1) what to keep
(2) what to dump
(3) what to sell
(4) what to give away

It was also often enough the shocking struggle with the fact that family dynamics have changed and nothing will ever be the same.

And the process goes on - I must get around to their house again soon and pack one more load of stuff, for various destinations (blankets to the Red Cross, disability aids back to the Hospital, books to the Regent book sale, etc).

And choose what is rubbish.

It would be hard enough clearing out a house but of course the load of memory, nostalgia and grief makes this chore one of the hardest I think I've ever had to do so far. Am I'm not young.

But of course if you have happy memories - and thankfully I do - then there is also joy and the surprise of remembering long-forgotten but familiar things.

Probably the nicest surprise was finding the painting of my Dad done many years ago for a play he appeared in. Dad had stashed it away behind something in his garden shed and it's dusty and grubby and damp, and disintegrating around the edges. It was never a serious portrait anyway, and I don't even recall who painted it.

Inside the house, was a supposedly fine portrait if him that had been commissioned, that to those of us who knew him well, didn't look like him at all.

You know that strange feeling of looking at a portrait and seeing that it is a physical likeness in a technical sense, but it just doesn't LOOK like the person? The formal portrait of Dad is like that, and it is one of the problems I've had this week - what to do with it. None of us like it, and it doesn't look like Dad. But I can hardly dump it - or can I? (There's also a similarly 'wrong' painting of Mum that presents the same problem.)

The tongue-in-cheek painting of Dad as a Roman, roughly done and unfinished, on the other hand, is an extremely good likeness of the man he was, and it is something I'm going to treasure as long as it holds together.


artandmylife said...

I am a bit of a hoarder of family and other things. When I moved I had to get an "impartial" friend to come and help me get rid of stuff. She kept saying "you don't need to hold onto the physical object to hold onto the memory". She was right and it was so helpful. I ended up with the really important things (and a little more :-)

She also asked me to explain why I wanted to keep each thing and just in the telling I was often able to let go.

Take care.

sas said...

My heart goes out to you. Clearing out my Mum's possessions after she died was exactly as you have described. I cannot imagine having to do this for both parents.
What stuck me was the fact that we really do take nothing with us. It has put much into perspective for me since, but at the time I was like you, struggling with what to keep, sell, give away, chuck away.
If you have somewhere to store the things that you aren't sure of, then maybe just wrap and pack them. You don't have to make all the hard decisions in one go.

one billion daleks said...

Being a minimalist, I'm forever purging my life of bric-a-brac!

It could be a bit different if you have family stuff I guess, but for what it's worth, what I do is this:

(1) Separate into Essential / Junk / Can't Decide.
(2) Chuck out the Junk.
(3) Put the Can't Decide into a box or shed or whatever, the main thing is it's out of Mind.

After one year:
(4) Anything you haven't felt compelled to retrieve - well, just chuck the whole lot out without even looking at it.
(5) Then go through what you thought was Essential, and repeat the process.

This saves a lot of handwringing angst, and what's more, it's amazing how little turns out to be really Essential!

The Paradoxical Cat said...

I'm very grateful to you all for these thoughtful comments.

Fortunately I do have a very large shed for all the "don't knows" and even the must-keeps. I think that after a year or so even much of the must-keep material can be discarded, but it's just such a time-consuming process deciding.

I'm the absolute opposite of the "declutter your life" clan; I come from the tribe of "never throw anything away it might be useful"...

My parents were of that tribe too of course and even after many purges they were left with quite a lot of books and other stuff. It's too agonising to go through it all piece by piece now, so in some cases the boxes and suitcases have just moved from their spare room to my shed.

I think it is sometimes the little quirky things that carry the most weight of memory: a Rawleighs tin, one wooden pawn from a chess set (I guess it was the lost pawn once, but now it's the only piece of the set that is NOT lost!), a silk rose, an embroidered tray cloth, an old clothes brush. Other things just as poignant have been honoured in memory and then chucked out (as you say, AAML, just telling the story and then letting go), but some of those few odd representative things I did keep, for the meanwhile anyway.

As of tonight their house is now empty.

one billion daleks said...

Well, I hope you don't get too stressed out with all this upheaval. Here's a silly dalek saying to cheer you ...

Don't do today what you can put off till next year ... cos it probably won't matter then!

All The Best!