For several years, my four siblings and I had been trying to convince my 89-year-old mom that it was no longer safe for her to continue living in the house she’s lived in for the past 59 years – and, once we had grown up and gotten our own houses and after she and my dad divorced, where my mom has been living alone.
Marge’s children’s collective concern about her unwillingness to move into a more manageable, safer place intensified last year in the aftermath of mom’s suffering a third mild stroke.
Mom was understandably resistant to moving. When she and her husband bought their then-new house in the Atlanta suburb of East Point in the late 1950s, their move was a huge accomplishment for a young married couple with (then) four kids. Both Marge and Roy had come of age in Arkansas during the Great Depression, and had previously lived in rented houses. Mom continued to live in the house after she and Roy raised their kids (eventually five of them) and they had each eventually moved into their own houses. After paying off the twenty-five-year mortgage on the house and eventually divorcing her husband, it was from the house on Cloverhurst Drive that my stay-at-home mom bravely entered the workforce (she worked for years at the phone company) so she maintain her financial independence.
Decades laer, after heroically managing, alone, the upkeep of a large house with a big yard located in an increasingly crime-plagued neighborhood, mom finally agreed, earlier this summer, that it was time for a change.
Last month, mom moved in with my youngest sister Lori, who lives in north Georgia, and we put mom’s house on Cloverhurst Drive up for sale. Because of the heartbreakingly low market value of houses in mom’s neighborhood, the realtor – the stepdaughter of one of mom’s many church friends – received three offers on mom’s house with 48 hours. We took the third offer and closed on the house a month later.
We began cleaning out mom’s house before my recent two-week trip to Ireland. We being my three sisters – Gayle, Jan, and Lori – my nieces (Lori’s grown children) Shauna and Jessie, Jan’s partner Wyatt, and Shauna’s and Jessie’s respective boyfriends Jason and Michael, and me.
After I returned from my trip and after Lori had brought mom back to the house for a final sweep for things she would need at Lori’s house, we switched into house-emptying high gear. Fortunately, the guy who bought the house – and had been amazed at how well mom had maintained her house all these decades since the house was built – allowed us ten days after he’d become to new owner to finish cleaning out mom’s things.
Which, this past weekend, we finally finished doing!
Aside from emptying six rooms full of furniture – much of it, as well as the nearly-new washer and dryer, mercifully hauled away by my mom’s pastor or by the operator of the furniture bank where my mom worked as a volunteer for several years – we unearthed all manner of stuff while clearing out mom’s house:
- Multiple closets stuffed with no-longer-fitting clothes, no-longer-worn shoes (including a pair of bowling shoes that mom probably hadn’t used for over thirty years), shelves full of frayed towels and no-longer-needed bed linens, an antique (and still working!) vacuum cleaner with a crumbling box full of clunky plastic attachments, and of course tons of empty wire and plastic clothes-hangers and umpteen zillion plastic bags (each bag carefully folded into a tiny little square!).
- Dresser drawers full of no-longer-used scarves and multiple containers full of costume jewelry.
- Miscellaneous detritus like a collection of scratched-up LPs from multiple music eras (everything from mom’s collections of Mario Lanza to Lori’s The Best of Bread).
- Bins and boxes of hundreds of loose photos spanning three generations of Goughs and Gaddys.
- Bookcases crammed with everything from old books (in mom’s case, an impressive array of tomes by Billy Graham and others of his religious persuasion), to back issues of Graphology Magazine (that my mom had for some reason decided to keep for the past thirty years after helping clear the house in Arkansas that her mom had lived in for many decades), to boxes of old checks, at least a half-dozen decks of playing cards, a dozen eyeglass cases, a bag of embroidery thread and cross-stitch patterns.
- Dozens of framed original oil paintings (my maternal grandmother, my paternal grandmother, and one of my great-aunts were self-taught painters), multiple macramé wall hangings, and vase after vase of plastic flower arrangements.
- A kitchen full of Corell dishware, untold numbers of dented aluminum pots and pans, and a refrigerator and cabinet full of food that had to be disposed of.
- An attic chock-full of decaying strings of ancient Christmas tree lights, tree ornaments, and a half-dozen manger scenes; dozens of empty cardboard boxes and gift-wrapping supplies; two huge bags of plastic hair curlers; disintegrating boxes full of all manner of paraphernalia that had at some point figured in our family’s history: birth certificates, five kids’ worth of report cards from grade school, high school trophies and yearbooks, kiddie art projects long since removed from the refrigerator door, sixty years’ worth of saved-up letters and Mother’s Day cards.
- A basement harboring (among other things) an old cast-iron bedstead that one of her children (moi) had stored there since the late 1970s, a lifetime’s worth of of no-longer-needed gardening tools, my grandmother’s gigantic oak office desk we’d moved from Arkansas (and that I’d painted purple during the years I’d used it in my own houses), etc.
- Six rooms and sixty years worth of knickknacks.
(You get the picture.)
(Not that my own, much smaller house isn’t crammed full of even more Stuff than was in my mom’s house – and I can’t justify my own Accumulations with scarcity-based habits spawned by being raised during the Great Depression. One of the upshots of this recent house-emptying experience is that one of my New Year’s Resolutions is going to be removing at least one item from my own attic every week for the rest of my life. I’ve done the math: If I live to be the age my mom is now, my attic will be empty!)
At any rate, in addition to the challenge of coordinating multiple siblings’ schedules to assemble enough manpower to accomplish our task, we had to summon the resolve and energy to wade through, sort, and dispose of All Mom’s Stuff.
There were five major sorts:
- Things mom might need or, for sentimental reasons, might want to keep with her at Lori’s house.
- Things mom either no longer wanted, no longer needed, or that there is no room to store at Lori’s, but that one of her adult kids could use: household tools, a never-used roasting pan, the car mother can no longer safely drive, etc.
- Things we could donate – either to specific individuals or to a thrift store.
- Things that could be, should be, or must be taken to a dumpster.
For most people, including my mom, the process of moving from the place she’s lived for almost six decades – despite whatever benefits might result from such a move – is inevitably experienced as a diminishment. (I don’t do so well with change myself, and certainly wouldn’t want to move, especially if I were 89 years old, out of my own house – which I’ve lived in it for less than half of how long my mom has lived in hers.) Much to her children’s surprise, mom seems to be coping pretty well with this major and much-dreaded upheaval in her living circumstances.
For those doing the house-emptying – especially when those people are the offspring of the house’s owner – the process was not only time- and labor-intensive but strewn with nostalgic flashbacks and wince-inducing discoveries. Certain objects suddenly morphed into psychological land-mines, and some of our excavations rekindled long-forgotten memories. To pick only one among dozens of examples, until I ran across of a clutch of letters my dad wrote to my mom from Chicago, I’d forgotten he had, long before their divorce, temporarily moved there to work for a while.
If, like me, you are a former librarian and an archive-minded sentimentalist, emptying the house where one’s mother has lived for almost six decades included several satisfying rescues of ancient artefacts, like rediscovering in an old shoebox the letters I wrote home during my college years, and the letters my mom had written to her mother when my grandmother was still alive.
The emptying of the house on Cloverhurst Drive was particularly fraught for my youngest sister, Lori, as it was the only house she’d ever lived in as a child and as a teenager; the rest of us have memories of living in other houses before we moved to the one in East Point.
For me, the most difficult thing to leave behind was not anything inside mother’s house but saying goodbye to her yard. The house sits on a corner lot with a big side yard – the site of countless softball, dodge-ball, badminton, and volleyall games. The side yard also contains several trees climbed by each of Marge Gough’s children and grandchildren. As for the front and back yards: some of the two-dozen pine trees surrounding mom’s house were once small enough for us kids to jump over the tops of; they are now towering over the house on Cloverhurst Drive. Underneath those pine trees (whose roots had eventually wrecked my mom’s asphalt driveway), my mother had planted scores of azaleas (including a half-dozen native varieties) that she had nurtured over the decades into huge plants.
When we had finally packed up the last box – every one of our vehicles stuffed to the gills with bags and boxes destined for “the Goodwill” or for the dumpster – we stood on mom’s carport and drank a toast to all the pleasant (and all the not-so-pleasant) memories of Cloverhurst Drive. I had no problem then ritually removing the American flag that mom had long displayed in honor of her relatives (including two brothers and several uncles) who had served in the military, but I couldn’t bring myself to dismantle the bird-feeder in mom’s yard. I just wanted to leave behind something that visibly marked my mom’s long residence on that street.
Our periodic gatherings during the past fifty years at the house on Cloverhurst Drive for birthdays and holidays – including gatherings that at various points included the respective spouses or former spouses or partners of mom’s grown kids – became less frequent after Mike and his wife Inice and their recently married daughter Erin moved to Oregon over twenty years ago, and after Gayle and Lori eventually moved out of the Atlanta area into different towns in north Georgia. Since then, we’ve been celebrating fewer birthdays together on Cloverhurst Drive and for several years now the holiday family gatherings (with or without Mike and Inice and Erin) have been happening at Gayle’s (for Thanksgiving) and at Lori’s (for Christmas).
Of the group photos of all five of Marge’s kids that I have on hand, most of them were taken at the house – or, more often, in the yard – on Cloverhurst Drive.
During an early phase of the house-emptying process, Lori took a few photos of Mom’s final visit to her house on Cloverhurst:
And here’s mom at her new abode, making friends with Lexie, Lori’s dog and Marge’s companion during the day while Lori is working:
We’re all hoping Marge is feeling less stressed out in her new living quarters, that she will come to enjoy some of the benefits of no longer being responsible for the upkeep of a large and maintenance-intensive property, will eventually meet some new friends at a church close to where she now lives in north Georgia, and will get to see her grown children and growing grandchildren more often than when Marge lived in East Point. Meanwhile, Marge’s kids are definitely feeling relieved that their elderly mother is now situated in a safer, if less familiar, environment.