Cleaning my parents’ house was painful – but I found it therapeutic

I was drawn to emotionally charged objects: miniature wooden elephants that I dusted as a child; The Narnia series by CS Lewis, which my father read to us after dinner. I saved something beautiful, like an exquisite crystal polar bear on a family trip to Sweden. I also demanded everything I couldn’t bear to see wasted: a can of black beans, a ream of writing paper, an entire roll of cling film – and I bet my frugal mother would approve. Finally, I confess that I have had a lifelong obsession with small boxes.

For some families, the distribution of parental goods triggers petty conflicts and brutal falling-outs. But Berger and I were the only heirs and we adore each other. In a weird way, we had a wonderful time. The only item we both wanted, an Asian cookbook, Berger gave it up in 10 seconds. Sharing parental loot while sharing memories (not all good ones) has brought us closer.

We fell into a rhythm. Up, coffee, then a 15-mile cycle from my home in Brooklyn to the apartment we’d visited for 30 years. We worked non-stop for 12 hours straight – no lunch – we locked ourselves in at midnight and rode the 15 miles back. I was preparing dinner and we were eating at 2am over a well deserved bottle of wine. Stand up, coffee, repeat.

The diet was exhausting – and not just because of the bike rides. We hired a disposal company that promised to donate all usable items to appropriate charities. But it was excessive to pay transporters by volume to remove simple waste, of which there were literally tons. Turns out my parents were hoarders. Oh, they weren’t quite newsworthy, but they never threw anything away. My father left behind about 80 suits – probably the number he bought while he was alive – and most were moth-eaten (a shock of this work was how many of these so-called beloved effects were badly preserved, especially the clothes). Every spacious closet was piled up to the ceiling with trash. The sheer volume of three-dimensional materials squeezed into five modestly sized rooms was a geometric marvel.

Being released into your parent’s house to steal what you want can feel like a fantasy come true in some ways. Except that the reality is strangely horrifying. Like most children, I was raised to respect my parents’ belongings and warned never to enter their room without permission. Snooping around in every dresser drawer was deeply transgressive. Stealing my mother’s jewelry gave me a girlish thrill, but the breach also felt like theft. In a fit of wanton vandalism, we threw away or gave away almost everything my parents liked, including dozens of civic awards. There’s nothing more hollow than a certificate of appreciation from the Raleigh Community Relations Committee that wasn’t awarded to you.

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