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Downsizing Dad

Discovering the mysteries of family as I help my Dad simplify his life.

The Seven Stages of Downsizing with My Dad

The Seven Stages of Going Through My Parents’ Closets

I have been elected to help my father downsize. I am the youngest of four siblings. I am the only one who lives near his house. I am the only one with a “flexible job” (as a writer) that can lay down my burden during the day to help him and work on my own work at night (as I am doing now, in writing this.)

After we are done, he will move into a retirement place, and the rent from his house will support his care. We’ve been urging him to do this ever since my mother died in 1992. His wife has been urging him to do this since they married in 1993. Even now, at nearly 93, he would like to put it off.

“I’ll think about it,” he says every day when we begin. “Maybe tomorrow.” Aging is always something that may happen tomorrow. But not to him. Never to him.

So we are working our way through 93 years of closets and cabinets, each one packed top to bottom with stuff. And we are working our way through the lifetimes and layers of our own attachments and ideas about our lives, identifiable stages we slip in and out of, like the seven stages of grief.

 

Featured post

Helen — my father’s mother — and baby Jimmy

Here is a photo of Helen, my Dad’s mother, holding her first son, Jimmy. Jimmy died at about age 3 of Diphtheria around 1916 when Helen and Jimmy went to stay with Grandfather in Camp Beauregard, Louisiana, before he shipped out to France for WWI to run an ambulance corps. The camp was on lockdown/quarantine to prevent illness aboard the ships overseas, so when Jimmy got sick, grandfather — a doctor — could not come out of the camp to save him. I imagine grandmother — a nurse — desperately trying to bring down his fever, all alone. What grief! losing her baby and watching her husband go overseas to the most brutal war the world had ever known — years of trench warfare and battlefield surgery. Helen returned to Stroudsburg, PA to stay with her mother for the duration of the war, while Jay — grandfather — was overseas. I wonder if Jimmy is buried in Stroudsburg? Perhaps one of our Gearhart cousins knows?

I found these dresses in the costume trunk. Are they the same dress and skirt grandmother is wearing? It’s hard to tell.img_3966-1img_3973 img_3964-1 What always strikes me about the picture, though, is how intelligent Jimmy looks, and how much Helen adores him.  He’s looking right at the camera!

Dodge City Days

When mom was 14, the movie Dodge City was filmed — guess where? — in her hometown of Dodge City. The whole town became a festive place, and Mom got to be part of some kind of cowgirl queen’s pagent. She never bragged about that kind of thing, but there are such great pictures left behind. These outfits were in the costume box. It may be the very same thing she is wearing — it’s kind of hard to tell.

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Family Wigs and Hair

My mother cut her hair off really short when I was in kindergarten — a pixie cut, the gamine look, like the model Twiggy. Looking back at old photos, she looked really great. But at the time — eek! I don’t think we were very nice about her haircut. She didn’t look like Mom any more! I remember seeing her for the first time with it cut short, sitting on a lawn chair smoking a cigarette, wearing a white plastic earring and necklace set and a sleeveless shirt. Perhaps I am remembering a photo, and not the actual first sighting of the hair. But I do remember having a visceral reaction of horror.

So, she grew it out, saying, “Well, you all have to look at me more than I do.” While she was growing it out, she would put it up in rollers, wear it pulled back in a hairband, or, if she ran out of time getting everyone ready for church, she would wear a wig.

I wrote about her wig in 2nd grade. It was an impressive thing, having a wig.img_0472

I found the wig in the costume trunk this week. Before hair color, I guess this was the thing to do. I’m not used to taking selfies and am never sure where to look, so it’s a wierd photo, but there’s the wig, right on top!

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By the time I was a senior in high school, her hair was down to her waist, and had lovely grey streaks in front around her face. Then, when I graduated and my parents moved to the Middle East, she cut it all off and left the braid behind. Somewhere I have a lock of that braid so I can see what her hair color was like.

For most of my childhood, I went from long hair to short hair to long hair in a five-year cycle. My daughter has just begun the same cycle. she grew her hair out from preschool onward, and it took all that time to get relatively long hair. Just when it was the length she dreamed of, she cut it all off, snip, snap! So liberating!

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Easter Eggs

Easter was a big deal at our house. We spent weeks blowing the goop out of eggs and decorating them in a variety of fancy ways. We made cookies and egg-shaped cakes, decorating one big one for the family, and one small one for each child. We did it every year. Even when my brother brought all his roommates home from college for spring break, my mother sat them down at the kitchen table with icing tubes — squeezy cloth bags with fancy tips full of colorful frosting –and made each of them decorate a cake. She put everyone to work, and everyone loved it.

When my kids were little, I asked my Dad for the easter egg cake pans, and he had no idea where they were. But they were one of the first things I found when I began to pull stuff out of cupboards in the kitchen, just above the spice shelves, tucked in the back. I guess he never opened that cupboard. And now that my kids are older, I don’t really need them any more.

I was even more surprised to find, when going through boxes in the garage, two big boxes of easter decorations — our Easter baskets, paper mache eggs for holding jelly beans and candy, green cellophane easter grass, and, most astonishing of all, dozens of blown eggs, colored by little hands.img_2790 img_2791 img_2792 img_2793 img_2785-1 img_2786 img_2787 img_2788 img_2789 img_2783 img_2784

Quilts

Just before my Dad finished packing up to head to his new retirement place, we found the quilts. When we were kids, my sisters, twins, had had little bonnet-girl quilts on their twin beds, made by my grandmother. When I was just out of college, my mother began experimenting with quilting, taking cloth scraps from the hundreds of outfits she made for us and cutting them into identical squares. I remember visiting her with a boyfriend in tow. She sat him down, handed him piles of cloth squares, and put him to work, sorting squares into the order she wanted for her pattern. When she was done with that quilt — all hand made of 2-inch squares — it was big enough to cover a 1970s Cadillac.

The quilts were important to my mom, made with love. She did everything equally — always 4 of everything important. So, she had promised each of us a quilt. I remember her telling me she had a quilt for me, and my sister-in-law remembers that mom had made one for her and my brother when they got married in the 1980s. After mom died, however, my father never felt comfortable letting anyone have a quilt. No one was even sure where most of them were — until we opened the cedar chest.

We always knew where the biggest one mom made was. Hanging in Dad’s bedroom on a quilt hanger,img_2912 img_2913 img_2914 img_2909 img_2910 img_2911 img_2905 img_2908 turned inside out to prevent sun damage exactly as my mother left it 24 years ago, was the original quilt she made. That one went with Dad as his bed cover in his new home. Other quilts were surprises. There were two that had been embroidered with flowers and names by mom’s friends when she was young — Edna Mae, Dorothy Joanne , her sisters Josephine and Erma Lee. One was worn — obviously used and loved — and the other in perfect condition, and a SHOCKING shade of bubblegum pink. Another quilt was made of 1 inch hexagons in a  ring pattern — a pattern the internet calls Grandma’s Flower Garden Hexagon Ring quilt, hand stitched and quilted. Another looked very old  in a red and white pattern — perhaps from the 1800s. And finally, one looked like my mother’s first attempt at quilting, a smaller quilt in a blue and green pattern. In the chest were also some thick yellow and white wool blankets, and a crocheted blanket in blue and rainbow colors.

We each– all four of the adult children — took at least one quilt and blanket home. The crocheted blanket is on my bed, heavy and warm — and a little itchy — in the winter air. The ring quilt is on my daughter’s bed. We wonder who made each one. I wish someone had been able to pin a name on each one to show who spent the hours needed to do this handiwork.

Last night, as I read to my daughter at bedtime, she was looking at the detailed stitching– minute, hand-done —  holding the hexagons together. “Look!” she said. “They missed the stitches on this side.” And indeed, on one yellow hexagon amid the hundreds of hexagons with dozens of tiny stitches,  two sides were missing stitches.

“Maybe they got tired of making it so perfect,” I said. ”

Who even had time to do this?” she asked. I can picture my grandmother — or perhaps a great-grandmother — working on stitching the pics together while she chatted with friends. “My mom said that Grandmother Bounce would get her house work done in the morning,” I told my daughter “then she could hang out with her friends in the afternoon. Maybe she worked on it while she talked.” My father says Bounce really liked to talk.

This past year, I joined an art group for women. We often work on creating art pieces while e talk and go through exercises in the book The Artists’ Way. One day one of the women brought in an article about how hand-work increases women’s production of Oxytocin, the hormone that promotes closeness and bonding. We expend Oxytocin when we cuddle up with people, and we build it up by working with our hands. I can imagine one of my grandmothers working on a quilt or crocheting a blanket with a group of friends, building up the social bonds, and creating something that still keeps us warm today.

 

Stuff

Talking to a friend on New Year’s about the downsizing process, he recommended I see the George Carlin skit about “Stuff.” Here it is. Pretty funny. Pretty true.

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The amount of stuff in my parents’ house always bothered me. So much of my life has been about getting stuff, arranging stuff, putting stuff away, cleaning stuff, dusting stuff, storing stuff. Granted, a lot of it is cool stuff. But it’s just stuff. It’s so limiting.
So why do my panties get all it a twist over who gets which  STUFF?  Like Marley in A Christmas Carol, aren’t our worldly objects chains? Aren’t they their own punishment? Won’t my children just have to go through all this stuff in 30 years and make the same decisions all over again? What pleasure will I really get out of owning all of this stuff? If another sibling really enjoys having a lot of stuff, why do I care? When I perceive that one person seems to be slapping “I CALLED IT!” on more of the really nice or valuable stuff, why do I care? What is this all about?
This is the most disturbing part of the downsizing process — the upsizing ego. The downsizing process is beginning to feel unhealthy, unclean. Conflict over things and desires feels  elemental and ugly, less about the stuff and more about personality conflict, childhood roles and sibling competition. For this reason, I’m stepping away from the process for awhile and taking time to understand what this process is all about for me.
Unclean
For as long as I remember, I tried to avoid  conflict by avoiding having things that might engender jealousy or envy. As one of four children, this felt essential to emotional survival. Don’t make them jealous. Don’t make them envious! They will attack, make fun, humiliate you, And you won’t get what you want anyway.
I remember a girl in grade school who was a bit of a gang leader in a group of mean girls. She was a beautiful girl, the best dressed in our grade, and would often promise gifts to other girls as a way to ensure their loyalty. One day I came to school wearing a knit vest that belonged to one of my sisters. It was just like one that the girl had worn before, and I could see her looking at me archly. I remember feeling nervous, a little scared, like I was doing something wrong.  I had felt very cute when I left the house, and happy that my sister had let me wear the vest. But the pleasure evaporated when I saw the girl looking at me appraisingly. I didn’t want to incite her envy, her notice, or her wrath. I never wore the vest again.
Having less stuff is also about flying under the radar.  In our family, we tended to keep our desires hidden. To say what you want directly is risk humiliation, to be labeled as greedy, to be too bold and forward. For me, I think it was also a way to avoid conflict. To be worthy of envy was to be worthy of attack. To have is to risk. It feels very primitive.
But spending all this time with STUFF, managing stuff, looking at cool Victorian or Depression era stuff, checking out music and paintings and furniture and clothes — I find an unhealthy desire rising up. Want. Desire. I love looking at beautiful things. But do I actually need to own them?
I have always tried not to live ostentatiously and to use as few resources as possible. Most of our furniture, clothes and books come from garage sales, thrift stores or from the side of the road. This has given us the freedom to worry more about doing things than maintaining objects. With ownership of fancy STUFF comes the responsibility of taking care of it. Do I really want the work of taking care of fancy objects or furniture or art? Or would I rather take care of people and be active and healthy outside and in the community? When I was in college and our parents were living abroad, my mother spent a lot of time shopping, for want of something better to do. She would send presents on a regular basis — many of which were inappropriate to a college student living out of a suitcase. I often gave these things away, feeling their weight as I moved from place to place putting my stuff into storage. It felt light to own less.
But what I also notice about the process of going through stuff, is that even if I don’t want the stuff itself, I don’t necessarily want anyone else to have it either. In a perverse example of sibling competition, I don’t necessarily want them to have it either, or to “get ahead” or to “get away” with something. I also don’t want to be fooled or manipulated or pushed into giving something up or standing up for myself. I can’t just let it go and walk away. There’s a little voice in the back of my mind that says, “That’s not fair. Don’t push me around!  I’ll take that last piece of cake, even if I am absolutely stuffed, just so you don’t get it!
On the other hand, there are some things that are so lovely I would love to have them, to look at them — just a few things! Is that wrong? Am I calling down wrath upon my head for standing up and saying, No, actually, you can’t have two of those. I’d like one!”

The Resignation of a Hired Hand

My brother texted one day to ask about a set of Native American/Plains Indian artifacts we had found in a cedar chest at the end of his visit. No one had wanted to decide quickly what to do with them at that time, so we had left them where they were, a decision deferred. Now my brother had decided he wanted some of them. His way of expressing this was to ask to have them framed and sent to my father. Then, when my father passes away eventually, they would already be half way across the country, ready to go to him.

“Since he spent money to buy them, presumably he would like to have them,” he wrote.

“Actually,: I wrote back, “he said they came with his family from Montana in the 1930s. In my opinion, with historical artifacts that have a value to society, I think we should offer them to a museum first. What do you all think?” I sent this to all the siblings.

A stinging email flew back:  A lot of things could be of interest to museums, he wrote — including the dolls I gave away, the couch that sat in my grandmother’s house (that I asked for), two identical hall tables that my brother wanted both of and I said I would like one, a grandfather clock, a Chippendale chair, a fur stole that was my grandmother’s (that I gave away to a 1940s pin-up model), paintings by a famous artist that my Dad has taken with him, and some of my mother’s (unidentified) jewelry.  If one of us wants something, he said, we should be able to take it. Everything should be decided on jointly, he wrote. And things need to be fair. It’s not fair right now. He and I have already gotten more things than the others. While I did a “good job” (pat on the head) selling the piano because no one in the family could take it, we needed to keep as much in the family as possible.

Instantly I am irritated. I write several snitty emails. I erase most, but send a few back with snippy replies. I think, “Really? A museum might want a ratty mink coat, available for $150 on eBay and $25 at Amvets? The museum might want a well-used, unremarkable 1930s couch?” And equity? Having not taken anything home yet except a box of books and pots and pans and linens,  I bristle.

I think my upset is about ethics. I even write about that on the blog:

“So, here’s this question, this first-world question, this rich people problem:

Who should own the artifacts of history? One blog reader suggested that all of our family letters should be donated to an archive. To me, those feel too personal to donate.  I suggested we should offer precious objects to museums when we can. Usually they’ll say no, and we can then pass them to family members who want them, or to others who would value them. So far, only two museums have accepted what I have offered — the MIngei Museum of folk art asked for 15 small paper Dickens dolls, and the Veterans Memorial Museum asked for my grandfather’s medic bag. Generally Museums say No, they don’t have room for something. But if an object is extremely rare, or belongs to a culture that would value a return of artifacts, shouldn’t we ask if they would like them back?”

But really, my upset has nothing to do with the ethics of the matter. It is more about independence. If I’m asked to do a job, I’d like the respect to do my best with that job. I’ve done my best to be sensitive to individual needs. But it’s not good enough. More than a disagreement about what to do with things, I think I am feeling the hurt of being expected to deal with all of these objects and the disposal of them, but not having any authority to use my own judgement. It’s the humiliation of having my decisions criticized and second guessed, and — I imagine in my angry brain —  gossiped about behind my back. I can imagine the discussions in the kitchen: “She did what? She gave it away? I can’t believe she did that! She has no right to do that! It’s not hers to give away!”

No, I think that the issue here is not actually what we do with the stuff, but what I am asked to do for this job. Because right now it is a job. And it’s actually a job I don’t want to do. A job I did not apply for. A job I am not being paid for any more, and that was low paid to begin with. It’s a job on top of my other jobs and family responsibilities that need my attention much more.

I bristle at being treated like an employee of a company I would never choose to work for. When you are used to having people work for you — maids, gardeners, academic assistants — you tend to treat others like hired hands. You are polite, but you don’t really see people as equals. I don’t want to work as a hired hand for people who treat you like a hired hand, even if they are family. So, with that, in my mind, I formally resign from my job as professional downsizer. I QUIT! So THERE! I hit PUBLISH on the blog, wait 15 minutes to cool down, and then go back in and unpublish.

Really, I just need a break. Months of break. A year of break. A lifetime to do my regular job, my regular life without this stupid house hanging over my head like Dorothy Gale’s farmhouse, ready to fall and kill me. I know someone needs to do this job. But, again, I ask, “Why me?” If you want it done your way, fly out here and do it yourself! Otherwise, just let me get it done!

Piano Lessons

My mother was a musician. I imagine her mother kept several musicians employed during the Great Depression in western Kansas by teaching my mother. Grandmother Bounce’s Depression era ethic was that money should flow. If you had it, you should employ other people with it. Since my grandfather had a job selling John Deere equipment, Grandmother spread his money throughout the community. My mother had music lessons  — piano, singing, French Horn, music theory — from elementary school to college. When she went to college — the first in her family, I believe —  she became a voice major at the University of Kansas. If interest in something can be judged by the number of possessions devoted to a task, my mother continued to love making music throughout her life. Musical possessions:  an entire file cabinet full of sheet music for popular music of the 1890s to 1940s, books of arias, and church music for entire choruses (given to my daughter’s musical theater teacher); precious books of ballads, spirituals and folk music (given to a local folk singer and actor),  hymnals (given to my sister, who runs a children’s church choir) and a variety of instruments, disposed of over the years.

Mom’s voice was legendary in our family. According to family legend, she placed second (and out) in the Metropolitan Opera’s State competition to find new talent. In college she sang opera arias and jazz with a band — until the boys all left to serve in World War II. We have vinyl records of Mom singing “Begin the Beguine” by Cole Porter, accompanied on the piano by  herself, possibly, or perhaps by my presumably gay godfather, Uncle Buzz. We have vinyl of Mom singing the “Lord’s Prayer,” “Because”, and other popular songs of the early 1940s, made for Dad to hear when we was away in the Pacific during the War. In fact, my husband and I played a record of my mother singing during our wedding.

The family story, however, says that Mom gave up a possible career in opera to be Mom, a fact that used to cause my brother great guilt. She coulda been a contenda! Perhaps.

What Mom did, however, was raise us to love music of all kinds. When we were small, she’d sing with us at the piano, offering oatmeal can drums and rhythm sticks for us to play as we sang Pat-a-Pan and other Christmas songs, folk songs, swashbuckling sailor tunes, and old tunes from her childhood. Church choir came next, with the various high, low and in-between Episcopal churches offering children’s choirs, or mixed-age hodgepodges ranging from me in elementary school to elderly folks, all of us in red robes and blousy  white cottas.

When each of us entered first grade, we were given piano lessons. I’m not sure what my sisters played on when they were young, but we must have had an upright piano as I cannot imagine my mother living without a piano at all. When I was in first grade, however, and we lived in a Philadelphia suburb, my mother hired a church choir director from St. Clements Church — a very high church in the city — to drive out to the suburbs to teach us all piano. Mr. S. was a heavy man with a nasal wheeze, black glasses and a discriminating palate for music. He loved Bach and some Sundays — and always on Christmas Eve for midnight mass — we would travel in to the city to hear Mr. S. play the organ and conduct the boys’ choir. I still remember watching him play the giant pipe organ with his hands and feet ranging all over the organ, every limb engaged in the massive thunder of Toccata and Fugue in D Minor. Here’s a YouTube version to watch: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nnuq9PXbywA

When one of my sisters began to play piano well, somewhere around 6th grade, Mr. S. suggested we buy a new piano.  The whole family trekked into the city to visit a piano showroom. I remember touching the satin black finish of a new K Kawai piano and watching as she sat down to play at it. I was still at (and never grew beyond) the “Porky Pig on the High Trapeze” stage of piano playing — colorful cartoon music books with chords on one hand alternating with fingering on the other. My sister, by that time, had moved on to 2-Part Inventions from books with ornate covers while my other sister and brother, having put in their two years in piano, were moving on to other instruments — viola and voice, guitar and banjo.

When we moved to California, the piano came with us from house to house,  until it came to rest on a corner of the living room of my father’s house in 1976. There it was the focal point of Christmas sing-alongs, experimentation with jazz, my mother’s occasional flirtation with arias and Carole King ballads, festive rounds of Chopsticks, and endless singing of folk songs in preparation for the endless harmonies of long car trips. And there it remained — until this week…..

A baby grand piano is no small thing to get rid of. For one thing, moving a piano properly is expensive — especially across the country. Everyone always assumed my sister would take it. But her house, like all of our homes, is small. A baby grand piano would simply not fit. We discussed donating it to a school or nursing home. No one was sure what to do with it.

Meanwhile, online, a group of friends was discussing a recent Storytime Salon piano recital organized by V., an author friend. Several author/pianists would be reading their stories and playing piano. I mentioned that we were looking for a home for our beautiful piano. Kathleen Krull, nonfiction author extraordinaire, expressed an interest.

“When can I come see it?” she asked.

img_3015-1I set up a meeting between Kathleen and the piano when my sister was in town. I wanted her to meet and approve of whoever bought the piano.  After watching my sister lovingly play the piano for over 50 years, I knew she would feel a strong sense of loss when the piano left home. Kathleen had brought music with her. She sat down and played beautifully, and we listened and chatted with her husband, Paul and discovered my sister and Paul a mutual friend from youth.

When Kathleen and Paul left, my sister could see that they were good people who would truly love the piano. But when an offer came through by text and I forwarded it to all the siblings, she had a change of heart — a sudden clutch of loss, and  texted , like a heroine suddenly realizing she has been in love with the hero all of her life —  “I want the piano!”

She needed time and we gave her all the time she needed and tried to help her think through the process:

Me: Is there any furniture you can let go of so you can fit the piano in your house?

Brother: Weren’t you guys thinking of getting a bigger house?

Me: Maybe Kathleen could borrow it for a few years while you think about what you want to do.

Collective Message: You should take it if you can. You love it so much.

In the end, my sister was able to let it go. It would be too much to move it to Maine. She likes her house the way it is. She likes her current piano. And finally, Kathleen will let her visit and play the piano whenever she wants!

In honor of the piano, I sat down and played a last rousing round of Chopsticks before the piano movers came, loving the weight of the creamy keys, the glossiness of the piano body, the rich sound I will never forget.

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Music Nerds

Music was a big part of our lives. My mother was a voice major from University of Kansas, and once auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. She sang in opera and in a jazz band in college until all the boys were taken away to serve in WWII. She made sure we had music lessons, sang in the church choir, and were surrounded by music.

When my brother asked my sister and me to pick out records to send to my Dad for his new apartment, we spent an afternoon listening to music  we remembered as we packed up my sister’s belongings.  It struck me what music nerds we all were. While my sister was into the music of her times — Yes, Led Zeppelin, etc. — and spent many weekends in high school driving up to LA for concerts. But on the side, we all played classical music — piano, violin, viola and guitar —  and heard everything from Big Band jazz to bluegrass to musical theater and Johnny Cash around the house. To this day, when I am alone in the car, I belt out 40s hits — Sentimental Journey, Embraceable You, Skylark, Gershwin tunes — singing along when no one else was home to the versatile voice of Ella Fitzgerald. I begged my mother for tickets to hear her sing with the SD Symphony when I was in high school. I was a few decades behind my peers, I think. This Rare Records Revisited, pictured on the bottom here,  was one of my favorite albums.

Then there were the classical albums — Lt. Kije by Prokoviev, Pictures at an Exhibition by Mussorgsky, Peter and the Wolf. Each one evoked, and still evokes, powerful feelings.

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