Memoir: after my mother died, I spent 16 months clearing out her home—and remembered who she really was
I thought my mother would never die. I’m a compassionate person, but 20 years of eldercare had leached me of patience. Dad’s Alzheimer’s had consumed most of my 40s and 50s, and now Mum was on oxygen, tethered to a belching machine on the second-floor landing. She’d been active all her life, playing tennis well into her 80s, so she railed against her infirmities, lashing out at my brothers and me. Her increasingly irascible, domineering behaviour made me want to jump off a cliff. Our relationship was in tatters, and when she died in her sleep in her 94th year, I felt released.
The clapboard house my parents left behind was a rambling barn of a place in Oakville with 23 rooms and 84 windows, loved by family and strangers alike. At the foot of town, surrounded by dirt paths and lilac hedges, it had a gracious verandah overlooking the lake where a wild, pebbly beach coughed up dead fish and driftwood. It had changed little since 1917 when the previous owners used it as a summer cottage. They called it Summerholme; Mum renamed it Point O’ View.
The place was a time warp. Mum and Dad bought it in 1952 and, over the next half-century, filled it with five children, nine grandchildren and mountains of junk: toys, books, gewgaws and furniture, including the antique Chinese opium bed that served as our coffee table. Dad was a disciplined Brit whose favourite motto was “Waste not, want not.” He put bricks in the toilet tank to conserve water, made us go to bed early and turned off the furnace at night to save on gas and electricity. He hated untidiness and followed Mum around with a dustpan and broom. But Mum was a fun-loving southern belle whose clutter followed her like a wake from a pleasure cruiser. She loved parties and people, and never locked the doors. Strangers often wandered in, assuming our house was a museum.
I moved in after Mum died, planning to clear everything out in six weeks. How hard could it be? Initially, I tackled the project with gusto, making lists and emptying cupboards. Friends came to help. We stuffed all of Mum’s clothes—86 seemingly identical red sweaters and pairs of black polyester pants—into green garbage bags and heaved them over the banister. We cleared a lifetime’s worth of mushroom soup and tinned tomatoes from her kitchen—some date-stamped before her grandchildren were born. My brothers hauled out hundreds of books and magazines—including stacks of National Geographic and 48 Bibles—to the church rummage sale. But the stuff was in layers, like the growth rings of a tree, and as we peeled back the years, Mum’s walkers and canes gave way to her party dresses, 1950s home movies, infant mittens, Dad’s greatcoat from World War II and his great-great-grandfather’s prison diary, dating back to 1805. Even as the days and weeks and months progressed, time sucked me backward.
There was another difficulty: how to distinguish trash from treasure. Some of the antiques, like Mum’s Edwardian dresser—what auctioneers now call “brown furniture”—were things nobody wanted, while junk of no apparent value had such memory-laden significance that my brothers and I had to draw straws to see who got it. Everyone wanted the plastic sign from the back door: NEVER MIND THE DOG—BEWARE OF THE OWNER. I made weekly trips to the print shop to photocopy things like our old allowance book, where Dad had made us sign for our weekly nickels.
Six weeks turned into six months, six months into 16—long enough to teach me that shovelling life into garbage bags wasn’t the answer. I found more than 2,000 letters Mum had written to her mother, along with the loving wartime letters she and Dad had exchanged when she was stationed in England with the American Red Cross, and he in the Far East with the British navy. I read them, curled up in bed with the roar of the lake outside my window, and remembered Mum the way she used to be—her enthusiasm for life, her generosity of spirit. They revealed life before we were born—Dad’s sacrifices and bravery, Mum’s courage and derring-do. Their love and hopes for us filled me with gratitude.
I took photos of our family’s imprint on the place, capturing sunlit rooms, shadowed nooks, worn doorknobs, paw-scratched doors, even the dents in the back stair treads. Sadly, it’s all gone now. After a final garage sale, we sold the house to new owners who gutted it, adding all the bells and whistles that modern families think they need. There are luxurious bedrooms, each with an ensuite (I can hear Mum’s voice: “Who wants to clean six bathrooms?”) and a high-speed elevator instead of our mahogany staircase. A wine cellar has replaced the old cardboard box where Dad kept his sherry, and instead of Mum’s “junk drawers,” where she stored her silver, there’s a walk-in vault with a wall of safety-deposit boxes. In 65 years of leaving their doors unlocked, Mum and Dad never had a single break-in, but their old TV room is now a security station, where video monitors scan and record the outside perimeter. Mum might have enjoyed those—she would have used them to invite people in.
Plum Johnson is a former publisher. Her memoir, They Left Us Everything, will be released by Penguin Canada in March.
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