In the End All We Are is Stories (a sort-of review of the book The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson)
Save your favorite dildo—but throw away the other fifteen!
(OK, no really….that doesn’t represent this book at all, but it made me laugh simply because it is so out of tone with the rest of the book.)
(Here’s a real favorite quote.)
If you give an old desk to a young person, make a story about it, not a lie of course, but tell them what kind of letters were written on it, what documents were signed, what types of thoughts were entertained around this desk—and the story will grow as it is passed on from young person to younger person to younger person. An ordinary desk becomes extraordinary through time.
Then I checked it out to read for myself, but then she got sick. Then she passed away.
Then my sisters and I had to do her death cleaning.
What is death cleaning? It is decluttering your possessions with an eye to help your family after you are gone. Sometimes death cleaning is writing small notes about the meaning of the objects you keep. Its purpose is to give meaning to your objects—what is left is what matters to you.
I didn’t read Magnusson’s book until after we had finished cleaning out my mom’s house. I discovered that it probably wouldn’t have mattered if I had given it to my mom, and by some miracle it didn’t hurt her feelings and she actually read it, because the thought processes captured here are so different from hers.
Consider, for example, the giggling doll. This was a doll she bought for my oldest sister Michele, when she was about four or five. When you shook her, she giggled. (Clearly this was in the days before shaking babies was discouraged.) When my mom moved from her house in Springville, the giggling doll came with her. Even though she was filthy, and her head was literally hanging on by only a few threads. When I asked her why she was packing the giggling doll, and she said (after some annoyance and avoidance and after I literally held that dirty baby by the arm behind my back so she couldn’t touch it, maybe not my finest moment) that she wanted to keep it because the giggling sound reminded her of the days when Michele and Suzette was little.
I understood this. I thought about my Rubbermaid of Halloween decorations, which has those three cat handles in it. The cat handles I got for free from Baby Gap one fall when my Bigs were little. 2000 I think. The cat handles were made to put on a trick-or-treating bag, so when the kids opened it, the cat handle meowed. Howled, really, like a scary Halloween cat. I never used the handles on bags (because my kids liked buckets), but those cat handles. That sound. That sound takes me right back to those very specific years, with their happinesses and troubles. With exhaustion and sweet baby nibbles, Haley’s sticky hand in mine, Jake’s little voice naming off all the dinosaur names he knew.
The cat handles take me back.
The giggling doll took my mom back.
This is so hard. It is hard to do on your own because possessions, while they don’t entirely define us—they are tied to memories. And memories are tied to feelings. So I’ve kept the cat handles because of how they make me feel.
So that is why, even though my mom had passed away and we did her death cleaning for her, I wanted to read this book. (Also, even though I am not dying.)
When Magnusson wrote about that desk, I started to cry. Because that is why it was so hard to go through my mom’s stuff: because I had that memory of the giggling doll, and it made me realize that everything she kept made her feel something—but I didn’t know the stories.
So what I didn’t keep, or what someone else didn’t keep, felt like sending my mother’s feelings to the Goodwill.
Now her house is empty. Now her car is sold and the house is clean and all of her possessions have been spread out into the world, and now I need to turn to my own house. My own possessions.
I can’t help it. I know it is maudlin and maybe a little bit morbid, but I do think about the time after my death quite a bit. And I don’t want my kids to feel like I felt, death cleaning my mother’s house. I want them to go through my things and know the stories, know where I got this desk I am writing on (it was my grandpa Fuzz’s desk) and what I did with it (not just writing blog posts, but lots of different writings, and I sew on it, and I craft on it, and I remember my grandpa sitting at it and figuring out the rent payments). I don’t want them to feel like they are throwing or giving away things that are meaningless to them but had meaning to me.
Right now, my front room is full of a bunch of my mom’s stuff. Knick knacks from her curio, fabric from her stash, a few clothes, some dishes and cooking tools. Photos—so many photos. And it just keeps sitting there because I don’t know how to start. I don’t know how to start processing my stuff in order to make room for hers.
I was hoping The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning would give me a check list: do this, do that. It doesn’t, really. Instead, the author discusses her process in a kind and rambling sort of way, but always coming back to that central fact: having too much stuff is a burden on everyone, you while you’re here, your family once you’re gone. I don’t want to be my mom, toting around a dirty old doll because it helps me remember a different part of my life. I want to find a balance between remembering and looking forward. And I think Margareta Magnusson doesn’t spell out an exact process because it must be different for everyone, it must be individual.
Death cleaning my mother’s house was difficult. It broke my heart to get rid of some of her things. But more than anything, it broke my heart that I didn’t know more stories. That we didn’t have a strong enough relationship for her to tell them to me or for me to ask her about them. That I have the aqua and gold vases, the floral-print oval-shaped china bowl with silver chasing, the tea cups. The images of faces I am related to but who I don’t know. These are all beautiful things and I kept them because they tie me to my mother, but the only stories I can tell are the ones I make with them.
Which is true of all of my stuff.
So, the biggest thing I took from Swedish Death Cleaning was this reminder: without stories, nothing means anything.
And if, in the end, all we are is stories…then if we want to still be stories, we have to tell them. With our voices or, if no one wants to listen, with pen and paper.