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The Mom Stop: Cleaning project requires right stuff

Lydia Seabol Avant
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The Daily Herald

It was around 2 a.m. one recent morning when I sat in a folding chair in an enclosed patio room at my dad’s house. I was sorting through not just my dad’s life but my grandmother’s, too.

There were folding files of receipts, some from Sears purchases in the 1970s, and paperwork from a roof installed at the house in 1988. There were boxes upon boxes of unopened mail, starting in the mid-2000s.

“Dad, if the mail isn’t important enough for you to open when you get it, chances are it’s not important enough to hold onto for 15 years,” I thought to myself as I opened and then tore up the mail before trashing it.

There were family photos, some of people I knew, others of people I didn’t know. But I had to decide: what to throw away, what to donate and what I would be able to bring back to Alabama in a suitcase.

Other than repeated episodes of “Hoarders: Buried Alive” there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a step-by-step guide for what to do when a loved one is a hoarder and dies.

It would have been nice, looking back now, if there had been a book that could have prepared me for what to do when you run across your grandmother’s 50-year-old lingerie, or news clippings of relatives you’ve never met, or a scrapbook from a love affair your grandma had in her 70s, but never told anybody about. If an empty box of Sweetheart candies with a love note scribbled on them meant so much to her, should it be saved? Or by saving it, am I only continuing the generational effects of hoarding? (Don’t worry, I took a few photos out of the scrapbook to save and the rest went into the trash.)

I never in my life thought I would utter the words to my sister “Hey, do you want Dad’s lederhosen?” or ponder the “correct” way with disposing of a slightly racist Cuban ashtray from the 1950s. My sister and I found a proclamation in memory of a great-uncle who died in World War II signed by President John F. Kennedy in the attic. My grandfather’s 1982 death certificate was located in an electric bill envelope in a storage building in the backyard. My dad’s class ring was in a drawer in the garage.

It would have been nice if someone could have told me what to do with all those photos, (I kept them) or if family heirlooms had been labeled (they weren’t). It would have been nice, if we had known what we were getting into.

A few days after our dad died, my sister and I made plans to fly to California. We planned to clean out the family home of the last 50 years, where both our dad and our grandmother had lived. I guessed that if we flew to California, it could get done in a solid 10 days. How wrong I was.

We could have easily qualified to be on one of the “hoarders” TV shows.

In the end, we hired a junk crew to clear out the backyard, which took four men three days and seven garbage truckloads to empty out. You could literally see my dad’s backyard junk from space. (Thanks, Google Earth.) It took us four trips to California and 22 days total, plus seven dumpsters, two yard sales, three truckloads of donations to the Salvation Army and another truckload to the “hazardous waste” dump to clear out the family home.

And just when we’d get one room cleaned out and think we were getting close to done, we’d realize that the home was a Pandora’s box and the hard-to-reach attic was filled with stuff, too. Or just as we were about to donate the antique china cabinet, we’d realize that we forgot to go through its drawers, which were filled with antique crystal or that the garage filled with stuff actually had dozens of boxes stacked all the way to the rafters.

And while the process wasn’t easy - I’ve probably breathed my fair share of asbestos and rat dropping dust for this lifetime and cured myself from any hoarding gene as a result - I do feel like I got to know my grandmother and my dad better. Not who they were because they were hoarders. But who they were before. Who they were despite it.

Lydia Seabol Avant writes The Mom Stop for The Tuscaloosa News in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Reach her at lydia.seabolavant@tuscaloosanews.com.