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August 6, 2012
Life on Planet Kathy
The Clutter of Our Lives
by Kathryn H. Kidd

The death of a friend reminded me of a life passage that many of us have to go through — cleaning out the homes of parents after they die. I’ve done it twice now, one for my parents and one for Fluffy’s.

The most recent occasion was when Fluffy’s last parent died three years ago, right before Christmas. We flew to Utah the week before Christmas and spent several days buried in snow, going through ninety-plus years of Fluffy’s parents’ lives.

It always amazes me how much you can learn about people by going through their possessions — and how often you are surprised by what you learn. Fluffy’s stepmother (his first mother died when he was nine, and Beth was mother number two) kept as clean a house as you’d expect a ninety-plus-year-old woman to do, and probably a lot cleaner than I would have kept one. The counters were cleared off, and except for the treasures you’d expect to find on the surface of an elderly lady’s furniture (framed photographs and little statues sitting atop hand-crocheted doilies), the place was clutter-free and dusted.

It was only when we started pulling out drawers and opening cabinet doors that we were exposed to the seamy underbelly of human lives.

Fluffy’s parents kept everything. They weren’t hoarders, because they only kept what could be safely hidden out of sight, but the drawers and the cabinets and the closets were jam-packed with stuff that had no use to any earthly human being.

They never threw away a calendar. I’m not talking about the calendars you write on, which could conceivably serve as journals because you can look up days to see what you did on a certain date. That would be understandable. They kept little bitty pocket calendars and gas station calendars and whatever free calendars they received, most of which looked as though they had never been opened or used.

They had calendars going back to 1936. This is not an exaggeration. 1936. This was a leap year, starting on a Wednesday — the year that King George V of England died. The year that Gone with the Wind was published. The year that Jesse Owens humiliated the Nazis by winning the 100-meter run in the Berlin Olympics. That 1936.

They kept every old hearing aid they had ever owned. They stored them in small jewelry boxes — the kind you get when you buy a ring or a bracelet at a jewelry store. I would open a box thinking it contained a treasure, only to find a waxy, dead hearing aid that was years or decades old. That kind of thing can really put you off your feed.

There was a closet that held Fluffy’s clothes from junior high school. This may not seem strange, until you learn that Fluffy’s parents lived in a different house until after Fluffy was grown up and married. When his parents moved, they took his ancient clothes with them and hung them up in a closet in their new home, ready for him to wear if some malfunction of the universe sent him back to his junior high school body.

We found old wrapping paper from long-forgotten Christmas presents. Fluffy’s parents would carefully unwrap each gift, fold the paper, and use it the next time there was a gift-giving opportunity. Some of the paper had been used so often that the designs looked like wrapping paper from the 1950s. It may well have been wrapping paper from the fifties, for all I know. There were stains all over the paper where old strips of Scotch tape had been removed or had rotted off and the glue remained.

The downstairs freezer was full of foods we had given them for Christmases and birthdays that had never been touched. Candy. Pistachios. Everything was still in the original container. It had been put in the freezer as gourmet food storage that had never been needed. A lot of the stuff was as good as the day we had purchased it in Virginia and mailed it to them in Utah. We put it in their car, had the car shipped home to us, and ate the stuff in Virginia ourselves.

We solved a mystery when we went through that house. For years, every time Fluffy’s father wrote a letter to us, he would cut off the bottom part of the paper that didn’t have any writing on it. Fluffy’s father was a child of the Depression, and that’s the kind of thing that children of the Depression tended to do. We used to laugh about the effort he had taken to get the scissors and cut off two inches of paper to use for some unknown purpose.

When Fluffy went through their games cabinet, he learned what his father had done with that paper. He had taken those little strips of paper and stapled them together to make score pads for card games. There were many, many score pads in the games cabinet because Lloyd had used far more pieces of paper than he had needed for score pads. But he had personified the Depression-era motto of, “Use it up, wear it out, make it do or do without.” This generation could benefit by learning that phrase and applying it to their lives — but perhaps not to the degree that Fluffy’s parents did.

As I think about the things Fluffy’s parents kept, I wonder what other things we hang onto — things that are no longer healthy for us to keep. Are we hanging onto grudges? Are we holding onto hurt feelings? Are we remembering times we have been hurt? Are we suffering over the unfairness of life?

Just as with our physical keepsakes, we choose our emotional baggage. We choose love or hate. We choose happiness or misery. We choose gratitude or self-pity.

When I look around my office, I see a lot of things that can and should be thrown out. Those things are easy to see. The harder inventory is the internal one. What is cluttering up my mind and my soul? If I can rid myself of these things, it will be a lot easier to live a life of joy and peace.

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