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DIRT recently ran an article and an interview with the editor of a new book of essays I am included in, called DIRT: Writers on the Quirks, Habits, and Passions of Keeping House.

In the article the writer says that “The most interesting essays in the collection are the ones that show how dirt sifts into the cracks of our closest relationships, standing in for everything that we do to, and for, each other. Kyoko Mori flees a country on the run from her suicidal stepmother’s “angry spotless house.” Patty Dann writes about ironing her husband’s shirts, the night he died of brain cancer. Cleaning, she says, “is what allowed me to survive… I know I am not the only woman who cleans as she sobs in the night.”

My essay, excerpted here, talks about just that subject: dealing with my mother’s “dirt” when she was diagosed with Alzheimer’s and we had to clean, stage and sell her house–virtually out from under her. Here is a taste:


“I guess this is why parents have more than one child,” my sister said to me as we carried yet another large green plastic garbage bag full of old magazines and newspapers outside and tossed it on the back deck.

“Yes,” I answered. “I can’t imagine doing this alone.”

We were at my mother’s house in Providence cleaning it out and preparing to “stage” it for an open house that had been scheduled for three days hence, to take advantage of the spring market and beauty of her garden. Her nearly hundred-year-old cottage, quaint but in dire need of updating, sat in one of the city’s best neighborhoods so we were not particularly worried about the house not selling (buy the worst house in the best neighborhood, the adage goes); but we were supremely worried that there was no way on earth we would possibly be ready for the open house.

Before her diagnosis with Alzheimer’s, my mother had lived in that house for twenty-six years—she bought it soon after her divorce from my father– and she had the paper to prove it: every Brown Alumni Monthly, every Sunday New York Times Magazine and book review, every Cape Cod Life and Rhode Island Monthly, Newsweek, New Yorker she ever received had been stashed away on some bookcase, in some basket, on some closet shelf. She also had also financial records dating back to her divorce as many years ago, insurance policies for things she no longer owned, and warranties for items we could not find. And that did not include two four-drawer file cabinets filled with copious manila envelopes containing hundreds and hundreds of torn out articles and labeled “Things to read some day.”

My mother had also collected numerous “objets de art” from her travels around the world; she had huge numbers of photographs taken from her many travels around the globe. Many of them she had blown up and framed and hung on the wall. A monk in Tibet, his orange robes brilliant against the beige sand background; multicolored laundry hanging on a line at the beach; the windblown repair tarps on a Cape Cod bridge; fruit and vegetables in the south of France; Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, his face criss-crossed by telephone lines. There is something completely honest in the photos: like Goya’s paintings, the ugly becomes truth. She was a wonderful photographer and in another time, perhaps, could have been a professional. My sisters and I culled some to hang on the walls of her new place and too some for ourselves. She also had boxes and boxes of her own writings and journals—all sadly unpublished– along with hundreds of books, and scavenged leftovers from her own mother’s house—silver, glass, silly chotkes she would have never displayed (they weren’t her styled) squirreled away in cabinets and closets. She still owned, it seemed to my sister and me, every item of clothing she had worn for the past quarter century. And that was just the beginning.

Some years ago, my two sisters and I had proposed that our mother begin her own weeding out, that she prepare to move into someplace more suitable for an older woman, a home without narrow stairs to the second floor and even more hazardous ones to the basement laundry, a home with central air and a roof that someone else would see to, where someone else would take care of snow removal and gutter replacements, weeding and mowing: a home in short for her later years. She listened to our arguments and then, politely, declined.

So, there we were, my sister and I, trying to assess the last many years of our mother’s life: what to keep, what to throw away, what to store and save, what to give away, what held meaning, what did not. The winnowing took forever as each letter uncovered demanded more than just a cursory glance, some of them screaming out to be read aloud, each piece of paper called up a memory of our mother, what she was like then, what she is like now. My sister and I culled through photographs of ourselves tiny and helpless, dressed in doll-like dresses, posing on vacations we can barely remember. We uncovered thank you notes from our children, and even the menus and bills from the caterers of our weddings decades ago.

How could either of us be sure which statuette, which small painting, which tea cup, hads real meaning for our mother and which did not– when my mother herself could not even remember where she collected half of her possessions.? How could we be confident about what to save and what to toss, what to keep for our own children and what would merely be another burden? We could not. Were my sister not there to hold my hand and I to hold hers, both of us would have quickly fallen apart. Our middle sister had gone through the house a couple of weeks earlier: editing books, choosing things she wanted and she phoned daily to provide much needed support and love. But all of us found it painful and troubling to decide for someone else what to keep and what to add to the quickly growing mound of black plastic garbage bags. Our mother would want some of her things with her in her new place, a small apartment in an assisted living complex twenty miles away; but that space made her tiny house look huge:, but there was simply no way that even a third of what she had gathered would fit. And truth was, most of it was junk.

I had had no idea my mother was such a packrat. She hid it well. On my many visits to her house, it seemed a little “overstuffed” but still clean and lovingly decorated. I explored neither the closets nor the basements with any care; I did not rummage through the shelves and baskets and filing cabinets; I had no real idea of the enormity of her collections. The surface order of her house merely served to mirror the surface order of her life: for years her mental health had been deteriorating, a condition my sisters and I put down to her growing intake of alcohol. She seemed to function at least fairly well; she rose, put on her clothes and make-up, tended to her daily duties (although we were never sure exactly what they were after she retired). But when we finally got her into rehab, the doctor’s prognosis was dire: her brain was shrinking for sure, Alzheimer’s, in who knew what stage, had gotten hold of her. Decisions had to be made quickly; she simply could not go home again, she could not live alone. In the pile of papers were unpaid bills, charges for things she did not own, as far as we could tell, and reams and reams of letters from charities, some of which she had obviously donated to more than once, more than twice. Her finances, despite her brother-in-law’s efforts to try and oversee them, were chaotic.


To read the rest of the essay and more wonderful pieces by more than thirty other authors: you can buy DIRT: Writers on the the Quirks, Passions and Habits of Keeping House at many bookstores or online.