Spring is approaching, and it is time to clean house. I am cleaning a house alright, but sadly, it is not my own.
My mother has reached the point where assisted living is the best place for her, and that is where she moved a few months ago. She is quite content there, no longer having to cook, clean or do many of the things that were becoming difficult for her. And this new arrangement is a tremendous load off the minds of my sister and I, who had worried about her quite a lot.
However, while we can stop worrying about Mom’s day-to-day living arrangements, the new worry is about getting her house emptied. We have determined that rental will be a better option than sale for her, and rental will require that the place be empty. In her new digs, Mom has very little space for the things that once seemed so essential for a home. Therefore, decisions have to be made on what to store, what to give to family and what to donate or dispose of.
It is a strange thing to be going through everything from a loved one’s life while that loved one is still living. Even more when that loved one has little more than general interest in what will be the disposition of so many of her things. This job seems most common after a family death. But there is no less finality to gifting or donating this item or that one whether there has been a death or not.
It strikes me that we all place too much importance on “stuff”. This is being made clear to my sister and to me as we wade through those things which our Mother valued so much. Our mother was certainly no hoarder, as her home was always tidy and orderly. But even so, it is sad to think that so many of the things which she valued so highly are valued little (if at all) by those of us in later generations.
Take the piano. (Please?) Our mother has always loved music, and has had a piano in the living room since before we were born. In fact, that piano was her first major purchase after completing nursing school, other than a used 1953 Chevrolet, and I am not at all sure which came first. From that time on, she played it frequently, and we have many memories of Mom at the keyboard playing and singing the way so many people used to do. One look at it starts a soundtrack playing in my head, and reminds me that I am probably the only person under eighty who knows the words to Shoo Fly Pie (and apple pan dowdy, makes your eyes light up, your tummy say howdy . . . . )
But there is one problem. In 1965, an interior decorator suggested that its rich mahogany finish would look out of place in his plan for her living room. It would look so much better, he suggested, with a light antique green finish. With gold-painted accents, of course. Thus, any temptation that one of us has to make a home for our mother’s beloved piano is dashed against that awful light antique green paint job. If I wanted to refinish a piano, I would start with the pre-1900 upright that is in my own home, which has not seen regular use since our children stopped piano lessons quite a few years ago (and which my dear spouse would love to see somewhere other than in our den). Then I would have a beautiful antique with its full sound instead of a short midcentury spinet piano that is nowhere near as interesting, either musically or otherwise.
Unless they are something special like a coveted Steinway Grand, used pianos are essentially valueless today. Everyone’s mother or grandmother or aunt has (or had) one, and they have been moved from house to house more as keepsake than as musical instrument, until someone is left holding the hot potato and has no place to keep the old thing. And might I add that all of these free or near-free pianos are not antique light green. And frankly, we are fine with putting someone in possession of a free piano if they are willing to move it.
What though do we do if free is not inexpensive enough? If the green piano belonged to a neighbor or an inlaw, I would be happy to help that person haul it to the dump with no more regret than for any other item that ought to be useful to someone but is being thrown away instead. But this piano does not belong to a neighbor or an inlaw. It belongs to our Mom, who loved it, played it and cared for it for sixty years, but is no longer able to keep it. How could I tell her that her piano ended up in a landfill somewhere? Well, that’s easy – I simply could not.
And so it goes with so many other things. The dinette set of a style from the late ’70s that tried to look all stately and classic like the place where members of the Spanish Inquisition would go for a dinner break. Or the Zenith console television with the luxurious 25 inch diagonal screen. It even has remote control, and is all ready for a cable hookup without so much as a single adapter. Our mother saw much value in such things, but nobody in the younger generations does. Had she kept some of her furnishings from the era of the piano, our children might be fighting with furniture dealers for some of these things. But her later upgrades have not yet stood the test of time.
So here we are. My sister and I take the items that hold sentimental value to us, even as we both scream silently that things should be leaving our homes instead of coming into them. The grandkids get next crack and, to their credit, they have stepped up to claim quite a few of Grandma’s things. But then there are the “donate” and “trash” piles. Each item that is consigned to one of these categories reminds me that I should be doing the very same thing at home. Because if I am honest with myself, I have to acknowledge that some of the things that I value in my own home will be so much flotsam and clutter to my own children, who will someday be fretting about what to do with all of Mom and Dad’s junk.
So, note to self: get ready to rev up that eBay account. Or start seeking out those who might like some of that stuff that has overtaken the basement. It simply must be done, and the sooner the better. But first, I have to do something with a green piano.