End of an Era: 54 Years and 4 Generations in 31 Days

My Brother's Room

My Brother's Room

Ho-Ho-Kus, New Jersey, U.S.A.
It is done.  The house my mother lived in for 54 years is clean and empty, on its way to having a new owner.
It started last May and June, when we spent 6 weeks here due to my mother’s emergency hospitalisation and unplanned move to assisted living.  In September we returned for 2-1/2 weeks, and this trip we have had 4-1/2 weeks, exactly 31 days, to complete the process.  It seems like years, but altogether was done in a total of 13 weeks, or one full quarter of 2008.
We had a hard deadline due to other commitments with our global blended family and non-refundable air tickets back to Sydney.  At times we had to force ourselves to just keep going, and push away all thoughts that we might not make it.
Stuff and Things
Generally I think there is too much ‘stuff’ in the world, and I fantasize regularly about a spare, zen-like living space.   (There’s a well-known George Carlin routine about Stuff which, though a bit crude, captures some of my feelings on the subject.)  Yet certain things – family photographs, books, vital records, albums, letters, jewelry, mementos — are precious to me and I couldn’t bear to let them go.

We worked non-stop, except every 3-4 days when we paused and I published one of my late October Paris blog posts and Clive caught up on world news by reading the “Times,” an English newspaper he was delighted to find at a local newsagent.      

Anyone who has ever had to clear and sell a house knows there are physical and emotional hurdles each step of the way.  I haven’t had time to fully comprehend it all, but I do know the process of dealing with my mother’s house and family things involved the following, in no particular order:

·        54 years of possessions and papers – she had thrown nothing away

·        4 generations of belongings

·        100+ bins, boxes, shoeboxes, files, and bags of paper (some of them mine, I must admit)

·        50+ trips to recycling

·        June, September, and November curbside pick-up days

·        2 shredders going almost constantly

·        200+ black garbage bags

·        1 mother, to whom I took things she asked for or that I thought she’d like to keep

·        1 father and his wife, to whom I took other things related to my father’s university days and early law career

·        1 real estate listing agent, trying to sell the house

·        many other agents, showing the house — the economy may be in recession, but buyers/bargain-hunters are out there – showings were by far the hardest and most disruptive in our ability to get things done  

·        1 son visiting for the weekend, taking a few things

·        3 cousins coming in next, taking more things

·        1 professional appraiser, selling the remaining things

·        1 liquidator, taking the unsold things

·        5 overflowing levels:  cellar/garage; kitchen/dining/living; bedrooms and bath; more bedrooms and bath; and a huge, stand-up attic

·        unexpected gifts (love letters of my grandparents, whom I adored; articles about my late brother’s victories on the high school tennis team); files that brought me to my knees but I still wanted to see (police photographs of the automobile accident in which my brother and uncle were killed); and a million other childhood and young adult memories awakened by the books, photographs, and papers I held in my hands     

The Biggest Challenge

Door to the Attic

Door to the Attic

This door in my brother’s room leads to the attic, one of those spaces that is magic when you’re a child.  It’s so much fun to explore because it’s full to the brim and you never know what you’ll find next.

When my mother and father bought this house, they put boxes of their university books and papers in the lovely, spacious attic.  Each year, up to and after my parents divorced, my mother stored personal and financial papers in the attic, along with unused wedding gifts, holiday decorations, luggage, teaching and tutoring files, and, as her two children grew up, their outgrown books and toys.

When my grandfather died and my grandmother came to live with us, the contents of their attic in Paterson, New Jersey, were moved to my mother’s attic in Ho-Ho-Kus.  There was still so much space to spare, including the L-shaped area in back, which doubles the size of the main space.

In the years to come, when my grandmother died, then my brother, then my mother’s sister, my mother was the grieving but capable executrix for each of them.  She stored their estate files in the attic.  When I was graduated from college and started my first job in Washington, D.C., I put boxes of my own university notebooks, albums, and papers in Mom’s attic.

Moves and More Moves

When I was transferred to Westchester County, New York, and then married in the 1980’s, I stored my “single life” files and love letters from old boyfriends in the attic.  When I moved to Australia with my husband and son in 1995 for what we thought was 2-3 years, we stored over 20 bins of Connecticut family books and files in the heretofore unused “L” space in Mom’s attic.

Now that I’m a mother myself, I wonder if it would have been better if my mother had, at any point, said, “I’m sorry, dear.  I have no space left.”  But she was never like that.  She was always helpful and supportive, and if that meant assisting me with storing my things, she only said, “of course, dear, that’s fine; you can use the attic.”

In the past 31 days, tackling the attic mostly felt like a battle.  We were often up until 1am sorting, purging, shredding, and saving.  We ended up with ten medium-size boxes shipped to Sydney, along with our possibly-overweight suitcases and carry-on bags containing the most important items we want to be sure arrive home safely with us.  Clive says, “Physically, the attic was the major conquest.  Emotionally, it was (your) letting go.”

Life Goes On – Seasons, and Presidents, Change

As much as it seems inconceivable that this house where I grew up will no longer be “mine” to visit — or maybe because of this sea change in my own life, I’m aware more than ever that nothing is guaranteed – I do know that in the past 31 days, I’m not the only one experiencing a lot of change.

I knew Halloween was bigger in the U.S. than just about anywhere else, and both Clive and I were amazed at the sometimes-elaborate, sometimes-ghoulish, or as Clive calls them, “elaborately ghoulish” decorations in front of many homes. 

Halloween Decorations, Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ

Halloween Decorations, Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ

When we got back to the U.S. in late October, the trees still had most of their leaves and glowed in the autumn sun.  As I write this post, most of the leaves have fallen and we have driven around hundreds of piles of them waiting to be collected.

At the national level, America has a new President-elect.  We watched election returns on the Internet, where overseas networks called the result much earlier than U.S. ones, who waited until 11pm New York time.  Notwithstanding the current global economic crisis, there’s a sense of hope and optimism going into 2009. 

The Duck Pond, Ridgewood, NJ

The Duck Pond, Ridgewood, NJ

At a personal level, we spent our anniversary and both of our birthdays doing things that needed to be done for family members.  We figure we can carve out some private time later when we’re home in Sydney, and it was more important to do what needed to be done in the time we’re here.

As the trees outside went from beautiful to bare, so did my mother’s house.  The country will soon have a new President; the house will soon have a new owner.  And Clive and I have strengthened our resolve to sort and purge our papers and files at home in Australia.

An African Kikuyu Custom

My late husband and I spent three weeks in Kenya on our honeymoon, and one of my favourite books in the world is “The Flame Trees of Thika,” by Elspeth Huxley.  Reading it, I learned of a Kikuyu custom that if you kiss the walls when you leave a home, you are bound to return.   This is not necessarily a physical statement, since many homes were temporary mud huts, but the idea that kissing the walls is a physical expression of your love, and you will carry the place inside you forever, always able to return to it in your heart.

A few years after my husband’s untimely death, when I was through the worst of my grief and, thanks to Clive, smiling again and looking forward to the future, I sold the house in Sydney where my husband, son, and I had many happy memories.  My son kissed the walls when he returned to college in the U.S., and on the last day before the closing, I went to the house by myself and kissed the walls.

This month, once again, we did it again.  My son came up for a weekend, and before he left, we played a final game of whiffleball in his grandmother’s front yard.  Then, he chose to kiss the walls of her room, where he occasionally slept on the floor in his sleeping bag when he spent the night with his Gram. 

A Final Whiffleball Game

A Final Whiffleball Game

Today, before the liquidator comes in for a final clean sweep, I went upstairs to the third floor by myself and kissed the walls of my room and my brother’s room, then came down and did the same to my mother’s room.

Already I can close my eyes and see and feel it all:  the smells of Mom cooking bacon and squeezing orange juice for breakfast, or putting on her favourite perfume, L’air du temps,  before she went out at night; the sound of her dresser drawers opening and closing as she got dressed; the taste of the turkey and homemade dressing she made every Thanksgiving and Christmas;  the feel of her hair and cheek brushing mine when she kissed me goodnight; and the sight of her standing and waving inside her front door.  Whether we were coming or going, she always smiled and waved and held her head high.

What’s important now is that Mom is happy in her new place, and I can easily visit her there.  We have talked a lot about “46” and what a wonderful home it was for all of us.  I kissed the walls, and I hold it in my heart.

My Mother's Attic, Empty as I'd Never Seen It Before

My Mother's Attic, Empty as I'd Never Seen It Before

14 Responses

  1. Very very emotional post..We have moved homes so many times in my life, and so has my mum..My father was in the Royal Air force and so were my ex and present husband..We don’t have a family home, my mum lives in my step-fathers house..

    Your mum is Happy and this is what counts now.

  2. This was an amazing post…I recently refined my belongings down to about 40 to 50 boxes which I need to weed through before my move to Cornwall can be complete. I dread it, but I don’t have near as much stuff as you described to go through. It’s the old letters and pictures that will be the most difficult as well as the books that have kept me company throughout my life. I can’t take everything, but it’s hard to let go. I can’t imagine what it took to accomplish your task.

    I loved what you said about kissing the walls.

  3. Wonderful story! I love, love, LOVE reading about your experience growing up in HHK. From the looks of the photos, the house is in the Cheelcroft area over off of Sheridan. . .? I’m so glad you have such wonderful memories of your ’46’. I have equally wonderful memories of our ’82’.

  4. Thank you for your comments, Anne, Elizabeth, and Amanda. They really mean a lot to me.

    Amanda, yes re Cheelcroft 🙂

  5. I found your blog by accident – it is really lovely. This post is especially moving. I think of my own dear parents, and all of their beloved things. Oy. Thanks for blogging.

  6. Susan, a belated but sincere thank you for your comment – much appreciated.

  7. Carolyn, what a surprise to come across this post. I was looking for something on David Calderini and google brought me to your blog on HHK downtown. My two sisters live in Bergen county so I heard the homestead was on the market. I tried to find out what had happened to your Mom. Even David Campbell didn’t know. Oh I have fond memories of your mom tutoring me. Lunch at your house, birthday parties.
    Now I have good friend who live in sydney partime. so I hope to visit.
    Please keep in touch.

  8. Janet, thanks for your comment and memories. My mother is doing well in assisted living. I was sorry to miss seeing everyone at the HHK reunion a few years ago — maybe next time!

    Cheers and glad you stopped by 🙂

  9. When was the picture taken of the house with the halloween decorations. I lived there untill 1996 when I was six. Even though I was young when I moved, I had fond childhood memories of living there too. I got a kick out these pictures after I stumbled upon them. I hope your mother is doing well.

  10. Warren hi and thanks for your comment! I took that photo in fall 2008. My mom loved your family and often showed me pictures your mom had given her of you and your sisters and brother (especially of you and Alexis, I think!?).

    Hope you are all well – please give your mom especially a big hello from me and my mom (I’m in the US at the moment spending time with her – she’s doing well and happy at the assisted living place). Gilbert Rd. still looks good!

    Cheers and take care – thanks again for visiting.

  11. rick robbie and i played in that attic many a time never thought it would ever be empty your pitcures of gilbert and the memories are great ,how about the sled riding down that hill and the forts on the trolly tracks behind the strypes brett

  12. Brett, hello and thanks so much for your comment. It’s wonderful to hear from you and see your name here.

    I have so many wonderful memories of your family and your parents. So true about sledding down Gilbert Road, and the forts you guys made in what I remember calling the ‘Ride-away’ which I guess stood for the old trolley right of way 🙂

    I hope you and your family are doing well. Thanks again for stopping by and here’s to the memories. I appreciate your sharing your memories about playing with Rob.

    Cheers and xxoo Carolyn

  13. Hi Carol,

    I looked up this particular article again because I just received a few minutes ago, from my brother, John, similar pictures of my mother’s house. I’m glad it is over, although I am somewhat surprised that I was not there at the end. I offered to come for this past week when I knew the date I would have my grades completed, but Janet and John didn’t think I needed to.

    So many belongings from the 62 years of my parents’ marriage had to be dealt with. Moreover, items from the homes of both sets of grandparents and my Aunt Eleanor’s belongings had all landed with Mom and Dad. It was an overwhelming amount of stuff that took over two years to divide up or get rid of. The closing on the house is set for May 30. As John, wrote, it is done.

  14. Eleanor, a hearfelt thanks for your comment and well done to you and your brothers for completing this enormous task. Trust the closing went well and hope you all feel a well-deserved sense of accomplishment for that final step on a very long path.

    I relate so much to the issue of belongings from multiple generations and the overwhelming amount of STUFF to deal with.

    Again congratulations and a big hug to all of you that it is done.

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