Last week, my sister Becky and I started the seemingly-gargantuan task of finally cleaning out all the stuff in my mom's house so that she can sell it. It seems insurmountable because she's lived in that house since 1976. Almost forty years of accumulated stuff, and it doesn't help that she's a keeper. I mostly understand this impulse to keep things (see my recent struggles with cleaning out our toy room). It's mixed in with the fear of forgetting, because if I don't have every single everything that anyone in my family ever loved still in a box somewhere in the basement, then I wouldn't have the chance to come across it one day and be flooded with that memory.
It's hard to disconnect the memory from the thing. It's hard to believe that the memory really will stay around, even if you don't have the thing. Especially considering all we mourned while we watched my dad suffer with Alzheimer's.
But when you want to go from a home that once held six people to one that's comfortable for a widow to manage, you have to get rid of some of the things.
On the first day of the project, Becky and I started on the sewing room. One wall is lined with cupboards, where my mom kept the fabric for all the projects she was working on. Some of the cupboards stored food instead of fabric. As my mom was one of those domestic-goddess types who bottle green beans, beets, salsa, tomatoes, apple-pie filling, and various other stuff (one year she canned pinto beans for quick—and seriously delicious—refried beans; another year she did pickled cauliflower and carrots which I don't think were quite so good), the shelves were filled with old food. Like: really. old. food. Do you know what beets cut into strips look like thirty years later? Little piles of mummified cat poop in the bottom of a jar. And we'll skip the details of the mixture of macaroni, mouse droppings, dead mice, spilled Italian seasoning, and dust that coated the bottom shelves. Other shelves held cans and cans of a mix of old-ish and still-good products, soups and mushrooms and tomato sauce.
As we worked in the sewing room, I thought about how my mom used to call my dad "ol' gonna-do." Meaning, he was always making plans for things he was gonna do. (Lose fifty pounds, eat healthier, paint more, start his own business, fix the brake lights on my Torino...) That sewing room was full of gonna-do's. In the cupboards of food, which my mom fully intended to do something with, make dinners, feed her family. In the cupboards of fabric, most of it decades old, which she was going to make into dresses or quilts or pants or pajamas.
I so understand the lure of the "gonna do."
I fight it every time I find myself in a scrapbook store. Surrounded by patterned papers and embellishments and alphabets, I start thinking about what I could do with this or that product. How I would use it on a layout. Then I bring it home and I realize, oh, yeah, I could've done the same thing with any of the other 20 million supplies I already have. (Really. Say I died tomorrow. Someone would have to go through all the supplies I own and I'm pretty sure my ghost would be hovering, scarlet with blushing because of the excess.) It's a thought process that sometimes leads me to question what I'm doing with scrapbooking anyway. Does it have any value, really? Or is it like the petrified beets, important at the time but pointless in a few decades?
The second day of operation let's-get-Suellen-out-of-her-house found Kendell fixing Mom's lawn mower while she and I worked on the room opposite the sewing room. Which we've always called the junk room. It's the only room in Mom's house that isn't finished—cement floor, no sheetrock, a naked lightbulb. It's where we've put, over the years, quite a bit of the things we didn't have a use for but didn't want to give away, either. (Like our very own Room of Requirement.) In the framed-in closet was a clothing rack, which held a whole row of ancient clothes. Once we'd worked our way through the junk (bags of flour and sugar as old as Kaleb, boxes of fabric and yarn and old patterns) to the closet, we started going through the clothes.
I wish I'd snapped a picture before we started.
Nearly every piece of clothing had a story to go along with it. The black and white floral dress was the one she'd bought at a store in Salt Lake to wear to a dance she went to during her years at BYU; she'd been sure she'd be the only one wearing it but when she walked in she immediately saw another girl in the same dress. The pink fitted dress and jacket was the going-away dress she made for the day she married my dad. There was the going-away dress she wore for her first wedding. (I told her she didn't even need to look at it, just toss it straight into the donations box.) (Plus: who knew that going-away dresses were such a big thing in the 1960's? I think after my wedding reception I put on a pair of black pants and a sweater!) A purple sundress, lined with white rickrack, that I remember my grandma wearing. The dress Mom wore to Michele's wedding and the one she wore to mine.
And not just dresses. Two coats of Grandpa's and his favorite flannel shirt. My dad's brown wool coat that I remember him wearing. A beaver-fur-lined coat that was my grandma's which Mom couldn't decide what to do with.
Every item had its story. She told me the stories, unbidden, unstructured. Then she'd decide if it should go into the D.I. (the Utah version of the Salvation Army) or to the second-hand clothes store downtown. It was one of my favorite moments I've ever had with my mother: I handed her old clothes, she handed me old stories.
And just like seeing all of those dessicated beets was sad (so much work for nothing but dust), seeing all her dresses being sent away was sad. Whomever buys them won't know the stories. They might make new memories in them, but my mom's connection to them is broken.
Later, we found a box with pictures stuffed inside. I managed to contain my ire about photos being stuffed into a box by remembering that's just how they did it back then. Luckily the mice hadn't gotten into it, because many of the pictures inside I'd never seen before. Random pictures of all of us.
Down near the bottom were some older black and whites: my mom and her brother dressed in their Sunday best, my mom at about twelve years old.
My mom with her date, in that black and white dress.
As we sat on the floor and sorted pictures, I thought about my gonna-do's. The projects I've bought the stuff for but haven't yet actually made. There are still a lot of them—a pink and black quilt, a hand-pieced quilt, quilted tableclothes for every season. My tall pile of library books is a gonna-do. My unwritten novel is, too, and the essays I've written but never submitted anywhere. The list of hikes I want to take is a list of gonna-do's.
And definitely, my scrapbook supplies are simply gonna-do's.
I thought about the dress, the elegant black-and-white dress. I thought about the photo of my mom in the dress. I thought about my mom in the junk room telling me the story of the black and white dress. And I thought about scrapbook pages.
It's so simple to lose your focus in this hobby. It's a quick switch, the lure of something new and pretty. It's almost completely about, in fact, pretty. Or it can become that way. About the supplies. About the outcome—a pretty page.
But what I continue to learn, especially in the past year, is that the pretty doesn't matter. The design doesn't matter, balance and composition and visual triangles. Because what if sometime, in some fashion, my mom had written down the story of the black and white dress? What if she'd put it with the photo?
The design wouldn't matter. Embellishments wouldn't matter. The pretty wouldn't matter. Just the story would.
So there on the floor of my mother's basement, surrounded by photos and newspaper clippings and funeral programs, I reminded myself again: the stuff doesn't matter. Even though it's pretty (or elegant or stylish or hip or just-so-perfect-I-can't-ever-use-it). The thing that gives scrapbooking its value isn't all the money I've spent on stuff. It's just the stories, paired with the pictures. Written down, kept somewhere safe and mouse-free.
I want less gonna-do's in my life. Not in the sense of doing less. But in accomplishing more. I want to finish that black-and-white quilt I've been buying random quarter-yards for. I want to snuggle underneath it and make it a real part of my life instead of a thing that's still unformed, in pieces.
I want to write my novel and publish my essays.
I want to use my stuff so that when I am in my mother's shoes I won't have a bunch of unfinished gonna do's.