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When I enter someone’s home, I never know exactly what I am getting myself into. I have encountered hoarders, minimalists and everything in between.
As I help pack up lives to get a home ready for sale, my team sorts through belongings for donation, sale or the dump. We are taking apart the pieces of the puzzle of someone’s life, and each piece gives us a bit more of their story – if they liked music or model trains, travel or stamp collecting. If the homeowner has died, I wonder how they felt the day they received that merit award for service or when someone broke the walrus tusk on that old soapstone carving.
I see their face looking out from recent photographs and versions of their younger selves. Among them are graduates in gowns, stern sepia faces of their ancestors and a faded blurry image or two of a bunch of kids on a dock. If the homeowners are present when we are packing, we hear of the names and dates and stories attached to each photo. “No that is not me, that is my sister, May, and yes, that is Pierre Trudeau shaking my hand.”
In this job, the best case scenario is when someone in the family has already come to take a few things, items that are imbued with the person’s life stories and memories. Too often, no one has had the time to come and claim the heirlooms – they don’t want solid-wood furniture or fine china that can’t go in the dishwasher, even if it did come from the old country.
It is heartbreaking to try to convince someone in their 80s, who scrimped and saved for years to pay the monthly installments to Sears for their bedroom or dining room set, that it is now only valuable as a donation, and that they have to pay to get it to where it is being donated.
The worst case scenario we encounter is walking into a bungalow where someone has lived for 50 years and now has to leave because of the onset of dementia, failing health or death of their spouse. They are reluctant to part with anything because they have already lost too much.
Every wall is covered with family photos, paintings, samplers, plaques and clocks. Any horizontal surface is cluttered with layers of knickknacks and smaller framed photos. The closets are overflowing and every bed conceals bins and boxes underneath.
In the basement, the shelves are stacked with their kids’ old toys, games and puzzles and the workshop, with its pegged walls, has more tools than my local hardware store. There is a sewing nook with a jumble of colour – scraps of fabric for decades old works-in-progress and buckets of rags. After all, you can never have too many.
If relatives are present at the decluttering, we are witness to some family dynamics that are as old as the carpets.
I’ve worked with a woman who made demands to all in a demanding voice you know had been perfected over many years. And I remember the father who’d spent most of his life off in his den from his wife and kids. The room was walled on all sides by folders and binders overflowing with paper – a warranty for the 1950 Kelvinator, a parts manual for the ’57 Chevy (along with the plates mounted on the wall), a yellowed receipt for a suit he bought for his dad’s funeral. There were drawers filled with office supplies pilfered over a 40-year career. When we started to move boxes around, we found desiccated mice cocooned in dustballs.
The only place grittier than the home office is the kitchen, which shone and sparkled in its heyday of the 1950s and 60s, when there was always a counter full of pies cooling or something roasting in the oven. When the missus spent a good part of her day in there with the Joy of Cooking propped against the tiny portable TV installed sometime in the 1970s on the corner counter.
But now the casserole dishes are cracked and chipped, and the layers of grease are built up on the tops of the cupboards. And yet, she was still shopping for a family of seven up until last year. The pantry may be stacked full of boxes of Shake ’n’ Bake, Jello and gravy mix. There is a two-foot-stack of disposable aluminum pie pans and beside them, a tidy pile of old brown sugar bags, emptied and pressed flat to be stored for future reuse. Or perhaps she lived through times of scarcity and can’t bring herself to throw anything out. It has to be kept, just in case.
Even though she is moving to a single room in a retirement home with no oven, she can’t let go of that old rusted baking sheet. She has just baked too many cookies in it. I don’t push her to get rid of it because I know it will be more important to convince her that four full curio cabinets are three too many for her new home.
There are moments of panic, confusion, anger and frustration as we pack a meager bin with a set of four plates and cups, a few microwaveable dishes and a kettle to take with her, leaving behind a lifetime’s accumulation of cooking supplies.
When we arrange her belongings in her new home, with the most beloved and familiar things being given prominence, she flops down in her old armchair, exhausted and shaky. Her face shows resignation, sadness and some relief at having made it through this ordeal and into the next stage of her life.
Alzheimer’s has not stolen her memories and personality yet.
Her eyes move automatically to the window to gaze at the blue spruce she and her husband planted in the front yard 50 years ago. She can still see it, though now there is only an infinity of blue sky outside her apartment window.
Sue Gravel lives in Wakefield, Que.