CLEANING THE OLD HOUSE
I wasn’t exaggerating about the duct tape; my father even used it in his gardening. As the lilac bushes bloomed in the spring and became top-heavy, he’d wrap the tall stems together with the tape. This way they didn’t bend over and snap. I wonder if the house will sell before they bloom again.
After meeting with the realtor and going through the house with her, we realized we had a lot of work ahead of us. So I went by yesterday morning before work, intending to drop off a few empty cardboard boxes for packing and large trash bags for the stuff we would be throwing away.
I put the boxes and bags in the dining room and then I pulled a chair into the kitchen, climbed up on it, and started taking down all the pot holders Mom had tacked up on the walls. I should have counted them. My guess is she had twenty up there. She used them as decorations. They had flowers and vegetables embroidered on them. They’d been up there, along the top of the wall, above the cabinets, for so long. They were grimy and dusty and greasy. As I was piling them on the dining room table Debi walked in. She’d also decided come over to start on the cleanup. She grabbed a trash bag, shook it open, and slid the potholders off the table into the bag.
“You don’t want these, do you?” she asked.
“Nope,” I said.
The two of us continued to work on the kitchen walls. My mother was a clutterer. Knick-knacks everywhere. Not one wall in that house has more than a few inches of naked space. And shelves, windowsills, end tables, any flat surface - covered. She loved to go to garage sales and flea markets and craft fairs and bring home more stuff. Most of it was junk. She didn’t care. To her it was cute or pretty or funny, and that’s all that mattered. The only problem was all that junk collected dust, and Mom did not like to spend much time cleaning. The house always looked neat, and it was always welcoming and homey, but if you looked closely, you could see the layers of dust building up, growing denser as time passed.
After Mom died, my father became a very good housekeeper. He developed a routine and schedule for his dusting and vacuuming. Just like when Mom was alive, the house appeared neat and clean. But by this point, the crust of dust on all the knick-knacks had become a thick shroud. My father’s surface cleaning wasn’t enough to wipe it away. So everything stayed where she had put it, and he’d run a dust cloth around it all, and be satisfied.
Debi and I laughed as we took things off the walls and tabletops and shelves and windowsills. We laughed at the ghostly imprints left behind. A donut where a wreath of dried flowers had been. When we removed a narrow display shelf from the dining room wall, there appeared the silhouette of an erect penis. Flowers pots stuck to the windowsills and had to be pried off. We’d hold up each object, like a game of show and tell, and ask “Do you want this?” Nine times out of ten the answer would be “no.”
I did want the crystals that Mom had hung with lace ribbon in the dining room window. Debi said, “Fine, they’re yours.” I had bought them for my mother. Going through the dining room and living room I came across other knick-knacks that I’d given to her. A birdcage, made of wood, just for decoration. Victorian-looking, painted a pale blue, with pink rose decals along the wider bars. I remember loving it when I bought it for her. I must have been a teenager. I don’t think she liked it very much, though she wouldn’t have told me that. I just sensed it.
Many of the gifts I gave my mother were, in her eyes, strange. Like the crystals. Things I liked. I had moved to Worcester, Massachusetts, when I was nineteen - to live in an urban commune (and that is another story in itself) - and stayed there a year. When I came home at Christmas time, I gave her a huge box wrapped in newspaper. She looked so excited when she saw it and I was so happy to be giving it to her. She looked like a little kid opening it. But then I knew. I saw her face: her disappointment. Well, maybe it was more confusion, puzzlement. I had bought her a model of a colonial tall sailing ship. I had thought she would go crazy for it, but when I saw her looking at it, I realized I had no idea why I thought she’d want something like that. It became the perfect dust collector. Mom put it on the corner shelf in the dining room, a very prominent position, and it sat there for years. I do remember when she finally got rid of it. My nephew Billy was a toddler and he’d cry to play with it, and so she would take it down for him. Soon the strings holding the sails together were broken, the sails themselves in tatters, and now she had a good excuse. “I’m so sorry, but I think I have to throw this out. I’m afraid Billy will get a splinter or poke his eye on one of the sticks from the sails.”
So Debi and I were working and laughing and packing things in boxes and putting things in the trash bags when my cell phone rang. It was my boss. “What happened?” she asked. I told her I’d stopped by the house and got caught up in some reminiscing and she was fine with that and understood. I have a very nice boss.
“I’m going to stay for awhile. Try to get more work done,” Debi said. “If I think there’s anything you might want to keep I’ll put it aside.”
“No. Don’t bother. I don’t want anything. But maybe Eddie or Terri will want some stuff.”
“I’m not putting any of the trash bags or boxes outside yet anyway. I’ll wait until they have time to look through everything.”
“Good idea,” I said. And as I was driving to work I thought about some of the junk we’d packed up and put in bags. I started thinking that maybe I could find a spot for the giant duck - or maybe it’s a goose - cookie jar. Or the paint-by-number “tapestry” of a red barn that my mother had done. She wrote the year on the back, 1966. The frame is broken, but I could fix that. When I have time to get over there again I’ll take a second look.