The Unravelling: Shedding Stuff and Uncovering What Matters

When I set out this winter to excavate my mother’s old boxes, hoping to reclaim our basement before the advent of spring, I hadn’t quite anticipated the potential aftermath.

When we’d moved Mom across the country two years ago, she wasn’t anywhere near ready to part with most of what crammed her house, even though she was quickly transitioning from a two-story home to a 1-bedroom apartment.

That resulted in an awkward combination of my husband and I trying to appease her by: 

  • overpacking the little Penske moving truck to the point where it endangered us to open the back gate 
  • making plenty of deceptive trips with endless carloads of stuff to the Salvation Army when she wasn’t around
  • cramming too many boxes from her old house into our basement so that she could wean herself of the more sentimental things when she felt ready

This more or less appeased her, although it became increasingly obvious after a few months in her new state that she had not only completely forgotten that she had tons of old boxes in our house, but caring less and less about what she owned in general.  (One of the graces of aging with dementia.) That liberated me to embark on my winter of purging mania. 


Our childhood home was decorated with stuff cascading everywhere.  I remember being a few feet tall, opening doors of my parents’ “office”, and stuff falling on my head;  clearing off stuff to try to find where my bed had gone; pushing stuff out of the way so I could find my Mom and Dad in their bed in the morning.  It was insane, but the only life I knew.

My dad was bipolar, probably with terrible ADD, (not really a term then)- a brilliant man who could invent anything in his mind or under a microscope, but couldn’t function in the overwhelming physical world.  Mom, the saver, with plenty of her own emotional issues, could never let anything go, especially so many bad memories of past wrongs and hurts she’d saved up to retell herself (and us) over and over and almost seemed to revel in. 

I remember wishing I could free my mother of all that stuff stuck inside her and uncloud her vision, so she could see as far ahead as she could behind.


Back to this current winter…   There were quite a few ridiculous boxes that were quite easy to let go and pass on to St. Vinnie’s (our local thrift shop for charity):

  • 3 boxes of holiday napkins (how did I not catch those back on the east coast?),
  • clothes from her young adulthood that she was going to “diet back into”,
  • tax records from the 70’s and 80’s
  • boxes of pictures not of our family that neither Mom nor any of my extant relatives can identify anymore

And then there were the doozies.  One box contained files and files of letters that said both kind and horrible things about Mom.  I was dumbstruck to find that she’d managed to save possibly every source of validation or criticism she’d ever received in print, as far as I could tell.  Report cards, work reviews, notes reading “thanks for volunteering”, “we loved the cookies”, “appreciate you feeding our dogs this weekend”, “thank you for giving to the UNICEF fund”, “that report you sent out today was perfect”… 

Piles and piles of mostly piddly-seeming things that affirmed her existence as a decent human being, which rudely contrasted with another group of findings: 

copies of parking tickets; complaining, critical letters from her mother and in-laws; her divorce litigation correspondence, letters from her angry teenagers (yikes, that’s me,) written when we were grounded in our rooms and had endless time to dissect her every flaw; some biting letters from my dad and a few men she’d dated after his death that outlined her deficiencies; rejection letters from jobs she’d applied for, rejection letters for essays she’d tried to publish, lots of obituaries,

..and (gulp), a stack of incredbily depressing letters my dad had left minutes before he ended his life in 1980 when my sister and I were in grade school, for which he partially blamed her.

ouch. ouch,  OUCH.


Picture of Dad and me I found in one of the many boxes

I took a long break from the basement,

and felt pretty awful for my unhappy, confused and tragically blinded parents for a while, not to mention for my younger self and even younger sister, who had looked to these people to help navigate the murky world.


Once I’d crossed over the emotional gulf, I still had stuff to deal with. 

I kept winnowing it down.  Aside from my discomfort with deciding the fate of so many items Mom had insisted on saving over a lifetime, I was struck by the visceral evidence that my mother had always been unable to dismiss any person’s fleeting opinion of herself; she’d never ever felt OK and worthwhile at her deepest core – something I’d always sensed in the blurry way children “get” things subliminally, but now it was spread out  before me in tangible mass.

I felt strongly that the releasing of Mom’s marriage and divorce documents, the affirmations, the nasty letters, and all the rest of the weighty dear and awful things merited more ceremony than a mechanical shredder or a toss into the recycle bin.  I wanted to burn them, feeling that fire would give them some long needed, irreversible, and dramatic closure.  Fortunately, we live out of city limits, so you can set fire to your past (or your parents’, as the case may be,) anytime you please, as long as you first notify the police of your location and intent. 

I knew it was the right thing to do once the first few papers rose up in a deep golden blaze as the first wide curl of flame encircled them.  My dad loved my mother dearly- he was a kind, sensitive father and husband with a horrendous disease that in those days was incurable. (His death resulted immediately after he was urged by his doctor to try one of the first medications developed for manic depression.)  In his right mind, he never would have wanted the love of his life to suffer endlessly for something written in overwhelming, blind desperation. 

No doubt I was compelled to destroy the stagnant storylines that held my mother captive so long for my own peace of mind.  But part of me hopes, in the way emotional energy might work that we can’t fully understand, that Mom will now be better able to move through her short future a bit more lightly without all that stuff lingering in the dark corners of our basement and her mind.

I can hold onto the memories of my wonderful, messed-up parents with their love, their angst, and their unfinished dreams without any more testimony from the boxed remnants that were only skeletons of their unfathomable stories.   


This post is dedicated to one of my favorite bloggers, Brooks Palmer, whose fun, tender, Zen-ish musings on people and their stuff kept plenty of light on the horizon during this emotional clutter-busting adventure.  (His link is on the sidebar under “blogroll”)
This entry was posted in caregiver stress, support, and respite, dementia, family issues and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Unravelling: Shedding Stuff and Uncovering What Matters

  1. Thank you for your wonderful and revealing words…am going through a slightly different version right now.
    However, the path that brought me here has been because of my husband’s PD (2008 diagnosed, but had signs for years before) and the start of dementia (June 2010)

    He and I are (now) retired teachers from Australia.
    I am now his full time carer even though he is, except for medication regime and driving, pretty independent.

    This is a huge shift in our relationship, and one which felt incredibly lonely, at first.
    However, I now blog (but chose after a while NOT to make it about him & PD even tho it was a first idea) and have on-line and IRL friends who understand.

    Our family is grown, with kids of their own. My dad, very fit at 87, is in the process of selling the family home and moving to an independent retirement living place.

    He and I are pretty organised people, and over time (since 4years of Mum’s death) he has culled and culled….so no big surprises when the move occurs.

    Thanks for your blog…excellent work…and cheers from this Aussie

    • Hi Denyse,

      How neat to have you connect from so far, far away. Looking forward to checking out your blog. You’re one of the first people I’ve heard from in person whose family member has dementia and PD together. It’s quite a combo, isn’t it?

      I’m curious about the options for your dad also, and if the situation is better in Australia for people who don’t have a lot of reserve money for their final years. Are there a lot of options? Is it the same breakdown there? (Independent living, assisted living, or nursing home?)

      Thanks for saying hi!

  2. momsbrain says:

    That is really something. What sorrow your mom has experienced – your whole family, really. Very interesting that she kept it all. This reminds me that I have boxes in my basement of Mom’s papers, which I just crammed into receptacles when I was cleaning out her apartment, deciding I would visit them on some other day. That was more than three years ago, and I still haven’t gone through them. I don’t think I’ll find anything as dreadful as you describe, but I know I will find poetry that she wrote, and her dream journals. I am both curious and afraid of feeling sad. I like your theory about burning all that right out of the dark corners of her mind.

  3. Thanks Emily,

    It was plenty of sorrow, but also many good times. And as you can probably relate to with your mom’s situation now- if you manage to survive such things intact and overcome them, I think they give you a depth that’s somehow precious, especially in appreciating and understanding life on a whole different level.

  4. Marty says:

    Wow, Margaret, that is a lot of negativity to survive. Thanks for sharing the positive that can come out of burning all that bitterness!

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