I was sick this weekend, down with some bug that left me feeling like I had been body-slammed by The Hulk. I wanted nothing more on Saturday but to remain in bed as late as possible and then to spend the rest of the day in PJs and bathrobe drinking herbal tea. But my husband is a task master. He reminded me that we needed to start cleaning out my Aunt’s house. “It’s not going to get done if we don’t do it.” Although I had a legitimate excuse to beg off, I also knew that if we didn’t get started, I would find another reason to postpone this very unwanted chore. I loaded up on Alka-Seltzer Plus, dressed warmly and slept in the car for the hour and a half trip to my family home.
There was a parking spot right in front of the house when we arrived, so we parked there instead of navigating the narrow, cheek-walled driveway. While my husband got the construction trash bags out of the back, I stood looking at the two-family brick home I’d grown up in. At one time, seven of us shared that house; my mother and father and I downstairs and my grandmother, two aunts and and uncle upstairs. It was empty now. I moved my aunt up to Connecticut with me eleven months ago. Nobody has lived there since then. I have been back a number of times to take care of various issues and I never noticed any change. But it looked different now. Desolate. My last, living connection to it was gone. It was just a vacant building now.
I knew what faced us. I’d been there since my Aunt began her decent into dementia. I knew it was dirty and cluttered. But I’d always had some other purpose to occupy me while I was there. Now I was just trying to empty it out.
The stale smell of a closed up place assaulted me the moment we opened the door to her apartment. And there is an odor about the very old that is difficult to describe but unforgettable that clings to anywhere they have spent time. I looked around at the piles of random things, the signs printed in large print with names and numbers and other important things taped up everywhere and all the other tricks she developed to navigate through the jungle of her life. Truthfully, it was depressing thinking about this woman who was an executive, who worked until she was 79, struggling to figure out how to do the simplest of tasks.
Our goal was just to clean out her bedroom. We began with her clothes, just pulling them out of closets and drawers and putting them into bags for Good Will. There was a stark contrast. She had always been a meticulous dresser. Smart, tailored suits from Saks, silk blouses and casual clothes from Talbots. They were there, hung sharply on good hangers in dry cleaning bags. But there was also, stained, cheap pull on pants and dingy tops hung haphazardly on bent, wire hangers. In the end, she was rinsing out laundry in the sink because she was afraid of the washer in the basement.
The dresser held much more than clothes. She had kept every greeting and birthday card sent her, many of them from me. And photos everywhere. And all sorts of “junk” that had held some meaning for her but meant nothing to me and therefore went into the garbage bag. I felt like an intruder, a voyeur and a heartless despot tossing aside things that obviously she held close. I kept all the photos; they would be gone through at a later date. But even they would be decimated. I knew there would be many faces I would not know and therefore would end in the trash pile. I felt I was judging her life in a way, what was worth saving and what was not. I know she was more than the sum of the things she had collected and treasured but still…
We opened a second closet in her room and the bottom was full of bags of used and unused Depends and dirty underwear. I imagine she knew she couldn’t flush them but was embarrassed to put them in the trash on the chance someone would find them. She was always proud. We had to make a cursory search before just tossing them because she would put important and good things in with things to be thrown out.
In the bottom of one, I found something wrapped in tissue paper. It was a beautiful, Christmas ornament in the shape of a rose. I’ve written before of the significance of a rose to me. It is always a sign from someone I love who has died that they are with me. I find them in the most unexpected places. And mixed in with the Depends was the most unexpected place. It was then I knew Aunt Mary was letting me know that it was OK for me to be sorting through her things. She probably felt bad that Paul and I had to do it to begin with.
That day, we threw away more than we kept or gave away and we still have a whole house to sort through. But I know now that none of that matters. It doesn’t matter to me and it doesn’t matter to my Aunt because the only thing she took with her and the only thing she left behind is the love.