Cleaning out my mom’s house

#181 in a series of true experiences in real estate
February 1997, Hills Newspapers

Although my mother died almost eight months ago, Anet and I are still working on cleaning out her house in El Cerrito. We go there as often as we can — a couple of times a month — to sort and pack.

It’s a little house. There really isn’t that much in it and yet, it seems like so much. In some ways it makes me feel good to go through my mother’s things and take care of them. Bring them home to use or give them to friends and family. In another way, I know that I’m reluctant to finish, to make her home as she made it vanish from view.

Often when we’re there I find something that I want to ask my mom about. “Where did this come from? I’ve never seen it before,” I want to say. Or, “Mom, I can’t believe you saved this all these years.”

A funny thing happened this week while we were working in the garage, something I sure wish I could laugh with my mother over, tease her about.

We were sorting things into piles, going through quilting supplies, vacation scrapbooks, and plant food in the garage when we came across a large plastic garbage can with a lid. Inside, neatly packaged, were disaster supplies — a very complete kit.

Sweaters, pants, extra shoes and socks. Band-Aids, Tums, antibiotic cream and such carefully wrapped. Canned foods, a tiny can opener, bottled water. Portable radio and batteries, separately packaged.

It looked as if she had followed a recommended list to the letter, then added a few things more. A pair of scissors, eating utensils and cup, plastic containers, even twine and rubber bands.

Anet said, “Well, obviously your mom’s house was where we should have planned to go when disaster struck. She was prepared to take care of herself and several others, too.”

Money, toilet paper, Kleenex. Comb, mirror, soap. Candles and matches. It went on and on. Down at the bottom, wrapped in plastic, Anet found a tablet of paper, pen and pencils and — this is what was so funny — a song sheet.

“A song sheet?” I asked Anet who was laughing so hard she couldn’t answer. “What kind of song sheet?”

“Good old Alice,” Anet gasped, “How I loved her. There’s only one song here and guess what it is? ‘Oh, dear, what can the matter be?’ — several verses. Can’t you just see her leading the neighbors in song?”

We both collapsed in giggles.

I want to call up my mother, ask her, “Mom, how come you included ‘Oh, dear, what can the matter be’ in your disaster kit?”

I want to say, “Were you planning on cheering up the troops?”

I can’t call her, so I called my friend Karin instead. Not long ago Karin and her brother and sisters cleaned out their family home after their mother died. I wanted to know if they’d found surprises, things they wanted to ask their mother about.

Also I wanted to review with Karin how they had managed to live through and complete the clearing of the house, then selling it.

Theirs was rather a more complicated project because the house was in Illinois but the children lived in California, North Carolina, and Kansas City. Except one. Karin’s sister Mary lives in Illinois about an hour away from the house.

“We call her Saint Mary,” Karin said, “We couldn’t have done any of it without her.”

It’s a big house, Victorian, 3 stories, 13 rooms on an acre of land plus a 3-story barn. The family had lived there for 54 years, accumulated furnishings and belongings — books and tools and linens and all of the things that people bring home for all that time.

When Karin’s mother died, the children, spouses, and grandchildren went home to attend to things. In a week’s time they went through the house, sorted, packed, and shipped boxes back to their 14 different households.

“There were no squabbles over anything,” Karin says. “Everybody had a different eye. Those of us who had grown up with the oriental rugs, carved and overstuffed furniture tend toward more minimalist decor. But our children loved the gooey stuff, so they got it. It worked wonderfully well.”

But how did they deal with the sheer volume? “Mary made an inventory. We each chose what we wanted. We got a dumpster and threw away tons. We laid out seemingly thousands of items on tables and the antique dealers came. We donated to the historical society, the library, the thrift shop. We gave fifty outfits to the local opera company for costumes.”

“We sent aunts from out of town to the house after the funeral to take a pick — often something handmade, an embroidered tablecloth or two. We divided up among us thousands of loose photographs and many albums, records, tapes, videos. The people who bought the house wanted some things.”

“And anytime Mary said she wanted something, we said, ‘It’s yours.’”

Did they find any surprises? Yes, they did.

A mysterious bag of dirt in a plastic bag in the barn. Not potting soil, just dirt. Why was it there? Where had it come from? No one knows.

Their Swedish grandparents’ wedding clothes. Black morning suit, stiff white collar; high-necked white lace dress. They recognized the clothes because they’d seen them all their lives — in a gilt-framed wedding portrait hanging in the house.

And probably the most valuable and surprising find of all — original Walt Disney drawings, paper cartoon strips. In a suitcase in the attic storage room, apparently packed away in the 1930s, were Mickey, Ferdinand the Bull, Pinocchio.

“Our folks didn’t even let us go to the movies,” Karin says. “They certainly weren’t Disney fans. How did they happen to have these strips?”

It hadn’t occurred to the finders that these strips might be valuable. They simply wanted to know why they were there. And then they realized why.

The Swedish grandparents had a dear friend, a man named Louis Nader. Every Sunday Louis Nader, a local banker, went to dinner at the grandparents’ farm. He dressed elegantly, always wore a fedora, was a fascination to the children.

Louis Nader had another friend, they remembered now — Walt Disney. The strips must have been a Sunday dinner gift.

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