aging in place, Caring for a parent

in which i come to a better understanding of pacratitis*…

and write way too many words about it.

It was too stormy for an outing, and we had no doctor appointment, which meant we were staying in for Together Thursday. Which meant I was doomed to help Mama with some ridiculous task that would drive me to early drink.

Over our knife and fork breakfast of scrambled eggs with sautéed red peppers and chantrelle mushrooms on the side because Mama doesn’t like them mixed; bacon, warmed fruit compote, and blueberry ricotta coffee cake from the freezer that she didn’t think there was any more of, I ask the dreaded question: “What are we doing this morning?”

The answer takes infinitely longer than the question. “Michelle was looking for fabric to recover my rice bag and couldn’t get to the boxes on the shelves in the storeroom (nee craft room, nee workshop) because of all the stuff on the floor in front of it. I just had her get the first one she came to, which wasn’t what I wanted. It’s purple gingham; I wanted something bright yellow that I could see. We were going to take a pair of pants to Lillian for altering…” You see how this is going.

Long story short, she wants to clean up the area in front of the shelves. I know right away nothing will be said by either of us about the two rolled up rugs in front of the shelves—one fake Navaho and one braided by my grandmother—that have been there for years. I know right away there is a good chance that nothing much will be exiting the house. I know right away it isn’t going to be just the pathway she has her sights set on. I am right on all three counts.

She wants to start with the large table—the cherry-stained one my father made that replaced the round oak pedestal table that was moved to the family room and is currently covered with boxes of nature photographs that she wants me to help her go through, an unaccomplishable task that fills me with horror and so far I have sidestepped. It is also the dining table that my children’s father and I began our marriage with 38 years ago last month. Before that it replaced the ping pong table that used to be in the room that was eventually refinished and is my apartment’s living room now. It was always too covered with stuff to play ping pong on.

The table became Mama’s craft table when Daddy moved his workshop to the new space over the carport. But I don’t think she made creating a high enough priority to do it very often; and now she can’t see but she still pretends she might do something there. I think claiming not to have time for creative endeavors, or covering the table with so much stuff that there wasn’t space for playing, were her go-to ways to avoid engaging in things she had convinced herself she had no talent for; but that didn’t stop her from collecting materials.

For months, probably years, she has been saying, “If that table were cleaned off, I could do projects/wrap gifts.” And it is not the first time we have made the attempt. A few days ago she tells me, “If that table were cleaned off you could work in there.” In no universe could I be creative in a space so full of stuff. I am more of a Zen-space girl. Today she says she could probably see better in there to sort photos. I haven’t heard that one before. Always the challenger, I say, “I thought you could see better in natural light? And there is none in there.” She says nothing. Because I am right. Also, if she would just let me clean off the table solo, it would be done in ten minutes; I itch to do the whole room, a job that would take more years than she will live to do together. But she has been less than respectfully “declining” such offers of solo work since I moved back; afraid, I suppose, that I might throw out something she or someone else might need or want. (Like bottles of dried up craft paint; solidified Drain-o; hardened glue; flowers that have been drying for a decade; rocks and shells and driftwood; baby food jars that used to hold homemade fabric dyes labeled dark blue, deep pink, light lavender.)

We make quick work of a couple of items spilling out from under the table, but do not delve further into that abyss:

“No, that is a shoe rack, not a freezer shelf. Goodwill?”
“Maybe I will try it in my closet. It might work better than the one I have.”
“You only wear two pairs of shoes. Wouldn’t it be better to get rid of shoes than to find a better way to store them?”
“Just set it aside for now,” is the testy reply.

I see how this is going to go: exactly as I thought it would. Among the items on the table:

  • A cobalt blue Noxzema bottle (sadly, when I remove the lid, all vestige of the smell that would resurrect my entire adolescence has been scrubbed out) and a green jar that she saved for a melted glass project she dreamed of are relegated to recycling. (Later I set the vintage Noxzema bottle aside. I swear, that is the only thing I keep.)
  • A clock that my niece got for her Nana in Europe that has been on the table for years with a note on it to “ask Joanna” is put in a box (as opposed to Mama’s suggestion to leave it lie) of things to ask others about to see if she would like it back, or perhaps her mother would like it. I think not, but I put it in the box without saying so.
  • A purple Blenko glass bowl that was cracked from one side to the other in our move from Olympia in 1960, needs to be “carefully” (with instruction as to how to accomplish that) taken upstairs to be dusted and put on the cedar chest to put glass balls in. I don’t know what will happen then to the pottery bowl the balls are currently in, or the vintage turquoise salad bowl that I like them in. They will probably be put on the table we are currently cleaning off.
  • I do remember fondly the small yellow ceramic Dutch shoe that had a florists’ frog in it and held little bouquets. No, I don’t want it; I am happy with just the memory. We put it in the box to see if Jo Ann or Rebecca wants it.
  • We add several items to the box of Christmas gifts, most of which have been on the table over at least one Christmas.
  • The silent butler crumb tray with no scraper made in Occupied Japan with the Empire State building and other NYC tourist attractions etched on it, goes in the box to take to an antique store, along with some other items she has had in the box for Lord knows how long and that will never be taken to an antique store in Mama’s lifetime but will continue to sit on the table until dozens more things are added to it after she is gone, perhaps to put on E-bay.

Unable to ever finish anything, about halfway through the table clean-off, Mama suddenly decides to move to the floor—the stated goal for the morning. A grocery bag with styrofoam cups and plates spilling out of it that she doesn’t know the origin of and another paper bag of my sister’s plastic champagne glasses are moved to the Goodwill side of the room. (The next day she says maybe the Methodist church would like the styrofoam cups, and they are removed from the Goodwill box.) There really isn’t much in front of the shelves, other than the aforementioned unmentioned rugs; and I make quick work of it without discussion.

We move to under the shelves. There is a narrow custom-made box (by Daddy I am sure, the king of perfectly-sized container making) full of the cardboard backs from tablets, posters with famous quotes on them, and several yellowed poster boards with calligraphy on them that she must have used for display when she gave talks on the national Ribbon Project for Peace of which she was Washington state’s coordinator in 1985. A collection of Weyerhaeuser and Sierra Club calendars completes the contents of the box. She doesn’t want the calendars or the posters, but “it hasn’t been very long ago that the Methodist church asked about a Ribbon Project presentation.” Right.

We go through a dish barrel, one of several left from our 1960 move. It contains items she had purchased over the years to give as gifts—obviously forgotten—including five pairs of really ugly socks with Mt. Rainier National Park printed on them along with a graphic of flowers or bears; alphabet magnets probably meant to be given to grandchildren who are now old enough to have children of their own; a disassembled three-dimensional puzzle with no picture or instructions to indicate what it is supposed to look like. We put them in the Christmas gift box. (Sorry, whoever gets the socks. Think of it as service to the cause: they are out of the house.) We empty a vintage Girl Scout cookie box of materials for a tissue paper “stained glass” project, putting the tissue with other tissue paper in another cabinet. We keep the box, which is fine with me—it is a classic! (Okay, I kept two things.)

Three hours later we quit; Mama is tired. The table is no less cluttered than before, but the boxes on the shelves can be accessed—not that she is likely to need to get to them again. She wants to leave everything out in the floor we had just worked to clear, so Dan the Man could vacuum. I sweep it and put the stuff back under the shelves. The next day she has Dan pull out the boxes and vacuum.

There are three things in the Goodwill box and a bag for recycling.

Two days later, while I am gone for the weekend, she is putting postage stamps on a mailing for my sister and needs a piece of the poster board I “threw out.” She can’t think of anything else to use to provide colored contrast under the white cards so she can see the corner for proper placement of the stamp. She tells Rebecca I threw out poster board and she knew she would need it. When she complains to me on Monday about my impulsive purging, I suggest she could have used the brown clip board that is next to her chair. Then Rebecca rails at me: “She said you threw out poster board! I buy poster board!”

They were posters, not poster board. And they were white, not colored. And had we not been “moving stuff around,” Mama never would have (mis)remembered things that have been there for decades, and she would have found something else to use—as she has in the past. And saving things for 40 years because someday they might have a use is how this house got too full of stuff to have space to use said items.

Also, I didn’t throw them away.

60 years of my accumulated belongings fit into a 10×10 storage unit, plus a few additional pieces of furniture, when I moved here last year. I’m ready to go through it and make it fit into a closet.

*pack rat syndrome

10 thoughts on “in which i come to a better understanding of pacratitis*…”

  1. I feel your pain. I moved 20 boxes of books for Dad downstairs so he could sort through (and get rid of) them.
    Months later I moved them ALL back upstairs. A few months after that, upon a request to move them yet again, I refused! When we cleaned out the house readying it for sale, my brothers and I took 40 boxes of books to Powells. This inspires me to get back to my own decluttering project.


  2. Oh gawd. No way you could have done that with fewer words. I’ll take the clock from scotland, which, to be fair, did sit on the kitchen counter for a few months.


    1. I will put it in your room 🙂 It needs to go home with you.

      I couldn’t make it shorter. I’m sure it will reduce readership, but there you have it. It’s mostly for me anyway. Thank you for affirmation.


      1. For you and your sisters, too, it’s definitely not too long because it’s hilarious and every detail is a memory. I have to say I was sympathetic with her wanting to make her own decisions. Except she didn’t actually make any, so that doesn’t work. I see, reading it again, that you didn’t say the clock hadn’t been used. Somehow that got into my head. I think you should just sneak the dried paint and Drano etc. out of the house. She won’t know. :>o


      2. JAS, Believe me, I have thought about just getting rid of this and that and she would never know. However, unlike Mama, I don’t have much interest in doing things part way. I can’t find satisfaction in doing a tiny bit of a bigger task. I’m kind of an all or nothing person. Writing that, I just flashed back to when I would clean Emma’s disaster of a bedroom while she was at school. She would come home and be amazed; and exclaim, “I’m going to keep it this way FOREVER!” I think I want that from Mama. I want to clean it all up and have her be so excited. Never has happened; never will happen. Thank God for Emma.


  3. I am working on getting stuff out of my area…it is sometimes quite hard to realize, “I really don’t need that!!!” Thanks for sharing your time with mom…I never had that with my mom, bless my brother for being there 4 last years of her life. Family members certainly can be saints!!


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