The grueling task of cleaning out parents’ home

My mother likely has never heard of Marie Kondo (Tidying Up with Marie Kondo), and they probably would find little in common. Mom comes from the Depression generation that keeps everything that you or your kids or grandkids might use someday, or that has sentimental value. She and Dad stocked enough cleaning supplies to equip a maid service and toiletries to provision a sorority house. They saved bank statements going back many years, greeting cards from family and friends, and hundreds of articles my sports editor brother wrote.

Sorting through the mass of stuff last week was as grueling as expected, and there’s much more to do before we can sell the 1,500-square-foot condominium that our parents left for an assisted living apartment not even half the size. As ungenerous as it sounds, I confess to feeling resentful about the burden, especially since I myself have resisted accumulation.

Despite thinking several times during the week that a micro apartment has appeal, I drove back to Chicago with my parents’ car jam-packed with items I might use — toothpastes, moisturizers, laundry detergents, blankets, spices, spiffy hangers, a vacuum cleaner, and a few decorations. After everything was unloaded, my own condo looked like I’d just moved in. I returned the car, took a Pace bus back to Chicago, and groaned about going to bed in another home where items needed to be sorted out. Exhausted and fed up with dealing with stuff, I was inclined to shove things into any empty space.

And then I paused, realizing that a reason our homes end up cluttered and disorganized is that we want to get stuff out of sight as quickly as possible. I was too tired to make good decisions about where to put things.

It was a glorious late afternoon. Having been indoors for most of a week when the weather was reportedly beautiful, I took a mystery novel out to the balcony. When it grew dark, I went to bed and slept 12 hours.

The next day, rested and bolstered by NPR’s great Saturday morning lineup, I finished the task except for organizing spices and rehanging clothing on the spiffy hangers. I discovered that I should have checked the expiration dates of the moisturizers and toothpastes before shoving them into a bag. They’re all expired. Another reminder that speediness isn’t always productive.

Feeling better in an organized home, I thought about whether the previous week held any lessons. I was never a shopper, and even less of one in recent years, so there’s not much danger of acquiring a lot more stuff.

Much of what I’ve stored wasn’t bought in a store. One of the best tips I’ve read is to put a note like “Can discard without sorting” on containers of stuff of interest to no one but oneself. That I’ll do with boxes of clippings and publications from my career, journals, memorabilia from travels, genealogy notes, and articles about Chicago. Then I’ll feel good that no one else will inherit the burden of going through those personal items, but I can enjoy revisiting them.

For everything else I own, I have a good excuse to put off a purge. That task has to wait until my parents’ place is empty.



“Trump is using government travel to line his own pockets. . . . From an ethical standpoint, it doesn’t really matter whether Trump is losing or making money . . . The scandal is that he is finding ways to use the presidency to drive new attention and revenue to [his properties].”
— David A. Graham, The Atlantic


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  • I applaud your courage. After five year in a studio, I have advice to add: When I'm shopping, I carry things around for a while. If I don't like carrying them in the store, or have to look to remind myself what something is, it's time to leave -- without buying something.

  • I think it's necessity rather than courage!

    Your tip is a good one to prevent impulse buying.


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