It was strangely cathartic.
We all gathered one Saturday in the month of March to clean my mother-in-law’s house; my husband, his two brothers, my sister-in-law and myself. We laced up our sneakers, donned our work clothes, and banished ourselves to the basement, garage, and attic until the job was done.
Since his passing, one year ago, not much had changed in the home my father-in-law once occupied. From top to bottom, there were remnants of his life once lived; in some ways comforting to his wife, and in other ways stifling.
My mother-in-law has always been a consummate cleaner. Other than trying to make a buck off otherwise nonessential items at a tag sale, she would just as well toss things away. Having clutter, even clutter she could no longer see, accumulating in the attic and basement, nagged at her. So, with respect for her, we gathered to purge the house, in a way, of my father-in-law, who was a steadfast collector.
The day before we cleaned, we gathered to celebrate the man we lost one year ago to the day, and the next day we found ourselves going through his secret stashes, determining what we deemed worthy to keep or to trash.
My father-in-law was not a hoarder; he was a saver, finding worth in the most insignificant. He saved the smallest pieces of wire, wood, and metal just in case he needed them to fix something in the future. He had a workshop filled with tools, and extra tools at that; thirty hammers in all, because it would be criminal to throw any one of them away. He had mason jars filled with odd screws, nuts, bolts, and nails. He saved everything from small plastic garden pots to old fishing reels; stuffing them safely between the nooks and crannies created by the cellar’s two by eight floor joists. The likeness of Jesus in a tiny ornate frame, a four-inch-tall statue of the virgin Mary, and a simple rosary also graced the hidden crevices of his workshop.
Beaten up Wiffle ball bats, faded tennis balls, and cobweb covered baseball bats, once used daily by his boys, resided in a hidden cubby in the garage. Dozens of half-used paint cans collected dust in a side cellar closet, while a small collection of his acrylic paintings – unsigned warped castoffs – stood abandoned in a dark corner. A slew of gray cardboard egg cartons gathered to be burned in a wood stove that hadn’t been used in years, were haphazardly cast into a dirt alcove of the cellar. His work clothes still hung on hooks in the laundry room, boots he’d never worn collected dust on an open shelf, and unopened multi-packs of disposable razors filled the shelves of a cellar linen closet…the list goes on and on.
In some ways, I believe I speak for the group when admitting I felt a bit compromised that day. It was a good thing for my mother-in-law to have us clean, and yet, I felt in some ways we were doing a disservice to my father-in-law’s memory. When you end a day of cleaning and see an entire garage stall filled with garbage bags and odds and ends made up almost entirely of the things my father-in-law once deemed valuable, you can’t help but feel some remorse.
On the other hand, there were also moments in that day when we laughed about what he loved to pine away, when we looked at old photos from his army days, and when we appreciated his knack for fixing broken things with basically nothing. We took pride in his talents as we collected things we deemed special enough for us to take home; things to remember him by.
Personally, I had to laugh when I’d drag something down the attic ladder and my mother-in-law would say, “I told him to take that to the dump years ago.” Obviously, he hadn’t. I could just imagine him there unloading the trash on that particular Saturday morning and pulling out this one item she didn’t want. I could picture him in dilemma; everything in his being saying not to throw it out, and then later sneaking it back into the house before she could see what he didn’t do.
By the end of the day, I believe we all felt a strange catharsis had taken place. The truth is, my father-in-law’s life was not just in those things, and whether we kept items or threw them away, he was still with us. I am certain he was right there laughing with us about a saved piece of wire, directing us to find buried treasure from between the floor joists, and reveling in the items we wanted to keep to remind us of him. He was also with my mother-in-law, reassuring her that she need not be conflicted, and that her desire to clean reflected her willingness to move on with her life, a life that could no longer include him.
In the end, a little conflict in emotion is not always a bad thing; in fact, it might actually be necessary to moving on in life after loss. If we allow, it may just put the act of living in perspective. A cleaning catharsis, in this case, allowed each of us to embrace the past by relishing the memories, and then take the necessary steps forward to live fully in the present. I’m pretty sure dad was okay with the whole thing.