My husband and his siblings were still coming to terms with the 2007 death of their father when their mother died last year.
After dealing with their elderly parents' deteriorating health - their father succumbed to the soul-crushing effects of Alzheimer's disease and their mother to the misery of cancer - the thought of cleaning out the house with all its memories was too daunting. So the task fell to my sister-in-law and me.
How do you begin taking apart the household of a couple who were married almost 60 years? My sister-in-law Rosemary, a whiz at organization, took control. With military precision she laid out the plan for sorting through the large back-split home. We'd work from the top down, starting with the bedrooms, the bathrooms, then on to the living room and dining room, the kitchen and then down to the basement. The garage, which contained my father-in-law's workshop and tools, would be left to the men.
My father- and mother-in-law, in true Italian fashion, kept an immaculate household. Everything had its place. Always on top of repairs, they were early adopters of recycling and repurposing, not because it was fashionable but because frugality is what they knew. They threw nothing away.
Maybe it was the poverty they experienced in Italy that made them want to never be without, but my in-laws had multiples of everything. And I mean everything: Ten brooms (six of them brand new); a half-dozen mops (as I said, the house was clean); and enough tape measures, tools and nails to start their own hardware store (each grandchild will be getting a toolbox filled with their nonno's tools).
Every shelf, every nook, was used as storage. We found paint and oil cans dating to the pre-bilingual 1960s, postwar appliances, parts of old vacuum cleaners and more than two dozen tins of whole tomatoes long past their expiry date.
It was as if, despite their prosperous life in Canada, they were always preparing for the flood, the earthquake, the next calamity that might take it all away.
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The first weekend of cleaning left me overwhelmed, tired and dirty. I couldn't believe the scale of the task at hand. The master bedroom alone took five hours to clear and that was after my husband's sister had already removed most of the clothing. From the four bedrooms we sent 15 bags of clothes to Goodwill and generated a dozen bags of garbage and recyclables.
As soon as I got home I called my mother. "You have to start cleaning out your house! Now!" I yelled into the phone. I may have sounded hysterical.
"Are you free later so we can go to the Bay?" my mother asked.
"You're not listening," I said. "I don't want to have to deal with all your stuff too."
"I know I have too many things," she said, "but I'm not planning on dying tomorrow."
Too many things? She had to be kidding. As a retired seamstress, my mother has fabric dating back 40 years, shoes from the seventies that she's kept for her daughters, hoping they would come back into style (they did, for about five minutes, but of course by then they didn't fit my sisters or me) and every towel she's ever purchased since arriving in Canada from Greece almost 50 years ago.
"I'm just giving you a 20-year head start," I said, "because that's how long it's going to take you to get rid of all your junk."
I know I'm right in more ways than one. In 20 years I'll be in my 60s. I won't have the same energy to deal with my parents' things that I have today. And I'm not being generous with time either. Longevity runs in my family. My mother's parents are alive and kicking and into their 90s; her grandmother lived to 105. So it's possible I could be in my 80s when I have to deal with my mother's things. Of course, by then my robot housekeeper Rosie will do most of the work.
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Four months after we started, my in-laws' house was emptied and scrubbed clean of its former inhabitants. The only reminder of my mother- and father-in-law is the backyard. Their love of gardening will be felt by the new owners as they discover a patch of strawberries just beside the shed. The pear tree, heading into its winter sleep, will erupt with fruit next year. And when it's hot next summer, the grapevine growing over the pergola will provide shade (and grapes).
I'm glad my in-laws' house was full. Had they followed the advice I gave my mother, we would never have found the chest that came with my father-in-law to Canada in 1951, or my husband's baby shoes, or their mortgage discharge papers from 1974. At the end, disease robbed them of their identities. Going through their home helped me get to know them again.
It was only after their house was sold this year that I realized I shouldn't be pushing my mother to empty hers just to make it easier for me and my sisters. Once she and my father are gone - when they are really, really old - sorting through the house will be part of the grieving process. My sisters and I will cry and laugh and reminisce our way through the place. (So many shoes! So many towels!) More tears and laughter when no one takes her ugly dining-room set.
And when the time comes, I promise not to complain.
Demetra Samaras lives in Toronto.
Illustration by Kate O'Connor.