How a slim book helped me sort through a lifetime of my mother’s stuff
My two grandmothers had radically different approaches to clutter.
In her final years, if you handed Grandma Howard a birthday card, she’d say “oh, how nice” and shove it in the trash. After she passed, my mother and three sisters roamed the house looking for possessions to deal with—to split among us, say, or to give to the Salvation Army. The closets and cabinets were echo chambers. There was one coffee mug and a pair of nylon bedroom slippers.
Grandma Lilly, on the hand, was what we’d now call a hoarder. A housecleaner—ironically—she owned a circa-1920s bungalow that was jammed with stuff her clients gave her: hip-high stacks of National Geographic, sofas on the porch, broken appliances, a thicket of hand lotion bottles with just a dab left in each one. She was a tiny woman who wore three dresses at once and, on one skinny wrist, several watches.
“Well, none of them work,” she’d say, if you asked about them.
Until it came time for her to move into an apartment, I would have thought my mother, now 90, fell into the first category. She is the daughter of Grandma Howard, after all. She owns simple Danish modern furniture. She wears clean-lined Eileen Fisher tunics. She spent the cold-weather months in Palm Springs, occupying the Berkshires home just six months out of the year.
A couple of weekends’ work, my sister Susie and I estimated.
Hundreds of hours into it, we revised that estimate: It would take forever, until the End of Days, and even then there might be just one more carload of stuff, pulled from oh that closet in the basement. In actuality, the work consumed most weekends this past spring, a project made more fraught by our mother’s changing moods on the topic. She knew we needed to sell the Berkshires property but it made her sad to think of it. Then: She was grateful for us emptying the house but she didn’t want to sell it, not just yet, let’s wait until next summer. Then: What, exactly, were we doing with all her things?
Her emotions were high. Her commitment to the decision was wavering. So we placated, prevaricated, packed. And I found both solace and counsel in The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning: How to Free Yourself and Your Family from a Lifetime of Clutter. Suitably slim—no excess prose!—this marvel of a book was written by Margareta Magnusson, who will only say she’s somewhere between the ages of 80 and 100. Having death-cleaned her way out of the house in which she raised five children, she now finds joy in the pale Scandinavian sunlight shining on the bare surfaces of her clutter-free Stockholm apartment.
Think of döstädning—from the Swedish, dö (death) and städning (cleaning)—as a gift to your heirs. “Someone will have to clean up after you,” is Magnusson’s brisk warning. “Whoever it may be will find it a burden.”
It wasn’t my mother’s fault she couldn’t shoulder the burden herself. She was in Palm Springs, attending to her partner who, sadly, passed away in May. So Susie and I did the decision making, arguably the hardest part of deaccessioning. We made the classic “keep,” “give away” and “throw away” piles, determined to go easy on the local landfill. We trafficked mattresses across state lines to Connecticut, where they could be recycled for free. I hauled decades-old cell phones into Best Buy and paint cans into Sherwin-Williams, which has a recycling network in partnership with the excellent paintcare.org. We burned a big batch of Verizon bills from the early-to-mid aughts in my backyard fire pit.
But we were flummoxed by how to deal with the little forest of tennis trophies and baggies full of twist ties saved from packaged bread and baggies full of crumbly rubber bands that broke, exhausted, if you pulled on them. And the saucers and salad plates nearly did us in. My mother owns five sets of dishes and every set comes with those small, fussy plates and the kind of tea cup no one uses and their even more useless saucers. No one should ever make salad plates and saucers, ever again.
Fortunately, the Great Barrington Goodwill drop-off door was only nominally guarded by a couple of teenage girls who whiled away their shifts smoking cigarettes under its dripping eaves. Rebels themselves, they didn’t seem to care we flounted the rules by donating a broken VHS player with a Mary Kate and Ashley tape stuck inside it (“It Takes Two,” in case you were wondering).
“Please tell your parents to start death cleaning,” I wanted to say to them, “right now, before it’s too late. And also stop smoking, it’s really bad for you.”
The mostly empty house sold for $100,000 over ask in one weekend in April, thanks to a bubbly real estate market and Fed Chair Jerome Powell’s threats to hike interest rates (he did and then he did it again). My mother accepted the news in her once-typical no-drama way. But when she joined us on the East Coast and started going through her stuff, she had a near-perfect recall for the things that were missing from the boxes we packed. Tapping into the superpowers she possessed when we were teenagers, she caught us out in our little and big lies. O.K., yes, I did take the teak chest of drawers. And yes, we did get rid of the throw pillows. And no, we were not inclined to buy them back from Goodwill. And yes, heated words were exchanged and I felt like a bad person for quarreling with a grieving nonagenarian who has lost so much—her partner, her driver’s license, her beloved Berkshires home—and who imagined those 70s-era Marimekko pillows would cushion the pain.
“What are we fighting about here?” I wanted to say. “Our shared fear of memory loss and decline and death? Or pillows?”
I didn’t ask that, though. And soon, a moving van will come to transport what’s left of her things to an independent-living apartment in North Carolina, where another sister lives. I’ve booked tickets to fly us both down, a passage I fear will be harder still. Our conversations have been fractious, she seems to blame whomever she is with for this unwanted change, we know it’s for the best but it’s still not easy to stay neutral, helpful and calm.
Experiencing this has forced me to contemplate my own possessions. I can’t control aging. But I can control the stuff around me—all of us can—and I’m determined not to ask my children to do my death cleaning. To that end, here’s a deal for any of you reading this: Who wants a box of assorted salad plates, teacups and saucers, 100 items total, maybe more, and as a bonus gift, a half-full bag of Milk Bones, left behind by the last of the family dachshunds? To claim this offer, please leave word in the comments.