There is still clutter in my house and probably always will be.
But I think I really cut my teeth on de-cluttering over the three years between the passing of my mom and my dad.
If you have never cleaned out someone’s house at a difficult time like that, I don’t recommend it. However, most of us will find ourselves in that position at one time or another.
My Dad’s house was first. He died in July and, totally unexpectedly, his much younger wife followed him just four months later. I found myself in the unenviable position of administering their trust with four step-siblings I had only met once before.
Before you think we’re running into the obvious dysfunctional family stuff, let me say my new step-siblings were a delight. We had a big task at hand and everybody pitched in.
The result? Chaos.
Step-sibs and two of my own sibs lived close to Dad’s Indianapolis home, so they tried to start the daunting task of clearing our 40 years of who-knows-what (including Dad’s pocket calendars from 1953). They started on books and files before I could get there.
My husband, sister and I arrived late on New Year’s Eve to find every surface—including all beds, couches and chairs, covered with stuff. There was nowhere to sit. It was completely overwhelming.
We had 48 hours. Could we do it?
The next morning, about 14 people arrived, including sibs, spouses and some teenage kids. The local sibs with the biggest U-Haul available. After a little aimless wandering and additional chaos with 14 people trying to do something in a 1200 square-foot house, I asked if they’d let me organize the clean-out. They decided to give me a try. I wasn’t so sure I had the skills, but there was nothing else to do.
First, I gave everyone individual colored sticky notes to put on things they wanted. We drew straws for any item that had more than one sticky note. There were no arguments. That stuff moved out the door right away.
Next, we began de-staging. There were only three possibilities for each item: Trash It, Donate It or Get It Out Today.
I muttered a silent prayer to meet my goal: That we would have to go to a hotel because there would be nowhere to sleep by the following night.
Stuff started flying out the door. The U-Haul did first duty by making multiple dump runs. Who would have ever thought the dump would be open on New Year’s Day? It was!
We were lucky it was a clear cold day, so we could move stuff out into the driveway while the dump runs were in progress.
My husband and I and my sister had rented one of those pods for stuff to be transported to our mountain homes, so that stuff was moved out and secured.
The cleaned out garage became the staging area for items to be donated, since pickup wouldn’t happen for a week or so.
As the sun began to set, most of the rooms were empty. I am sure local sibs took stuff they would later regret, but it was definitely working.
We chowed down on some pizza and local sibs returned to their homes
and unloaded their U-Haul. I am sure they fell into bed as exhausted as we were.
They were back bright and early the next morning and we finished the job in plenty of time for a shower and cleanup at our hotel (YES! No place to sleep in the house!) and a shared dinner at a nice restaurant.
WE DID IT!
We were elated and we created a strong bond in the process.
This just proves anybody can do this.
Mom’s house was a bit different, three years later. It was a much bigger house. Mom was a hoarder and I was the sole person cleaning out the place. Worse yet, it was in California.
I devoted a couple of weeks to the task and began with my old plan: Trash It, Donate It or Get It Out Of Here. I had to amend the plan somewhat to include selling stuff—since there were some valuable items and not so many sibs to take things off my hands. I hired an estate sale expert and a mover who would bring stuff to North Carolina and to my stepsister’s in Idaho. That’s why it took a little longer.
Then I started through the “stuff.” The food pantry was ecstatic about the donation of 15 jars of peanut butter, 32 cans of refried beans, jams, jellies and 40 bags of I-don’t-know-what. Ditto for the homeless shelter and the 93 bars of soap, 15 bottles of shampoo and 47 tubes of toothpaste and the animal shelter for 57 towels.
No U-Haul this time. I rented a dumpster.
It was a long job, and I was thankful for some help from a couple of my friends and even some of Mom’s friends, but we did get it done in time to do some repairs and put the house on the market in the optimal season.
These strategies can be applied to any clean-out—even if it’s just preparing to move to a new space or creating some breathing room in your current home. I love holding the things my parents and grandparents held dear and I have kept many of them, so this isn’t a gigantic “trash everything” plan.
Is it emotional to clean out the home of loved ones? Absolutely. I spent more time than I should have pouring over old letters and photos, all of which I shipped to my home and promptly stored in the shed. I scanned some of the photos, but I haven’t touched them since. They still have sentimental value, but that is my summer project. It’s been nine years since Dad died and six since we lost Mom. I haven’t looked at the stuff in the shed since then. It’s time to look again at the things I really want to keep and pass on to my daughter and grandchildren and to say goodbye to the rest, perhaps with a Midsummer’s Night bonfire. You’re all invited.