Reflections on Selling the Family Home: the Life-Changing Challenges of Decluttering House and Mind

Time to Let Go

© 2016 by Jack A. Urquhart 1500 words

Recently, in preparation for another major move, I have been reading Marie Kondo’s best-selling paean to the joys of decluttering, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo’s book, the well-timed gift of a dear friend, has proven instructive as I sort and cull the material goods of our soon to be sold central Florida home. That would be the ranch-style house my parents built in 1960 and that has, in the nearly sixty years since, been home to various members of the Urquhart clan, immediate and extended.

For the last three years since my Mother’s death, the house has been home to spouse, Raymond, and to me. And I can testify that letting go of the place has not been easy. Nevertheless, I’ve found that there is much to be said for Marie Kondo’s approach to tidying. Put simply, Japan’s Mistress of all things neat and orderly holds that one must physically handle one’s personal possessions—each and every one of them—in order to determine if the item should stay or go. If the thing inspires hand-held ‘joy,’ it stays. Anything else and it’s going, going, gone.

If that sounds ‘New Agey’, then welcome to my club. But I can honestly say that I’ve experienced satisfaction in employing some of Kondo’s paring down techniques. The goal the author advocates, and that I’m shooting for, is, I believe, a worthy one—that the possessions going forward with one in life, to paraphrase Kondo, should only be things that evoke something akin to happiness.  Which means that one must learn the ‘art’ of decluttering.  And then practice it.  Assiduously.

No small order, but, it seems to me, do-able.

Alas, if only Kondo’s teachings were as easily applied to all kinds of ‘possessions’, all kinds of clutter! Namely, the mental variety. The kind I’ve encountered in moving room to room these past few weeks.

It’s an odd assemblage, this mental dis-order I’m discovering—a messy jumble of worry, regret, and nostalgia—almost all of it to do with my parents (big surprise). I’m finding it in every room—little bits and pieces of parental history begging to be tidied, lovingly folded and stored away like the shirts and camisoles featured in Kondo’s Zen-like YouTube Video.

The messiness awaits attention, to cite a few paternal examples, in the cheaply paneled room my father tacked onto the main house back in the late 60s. The room, a flat-roofed concoction, was Dad’s solution to the problem of where to put a pool table he’d brought home on what, if memory serves, was a Bourbon-fueled whim. The walls in his “billiards room” still bear the pockmarks of his cue racks, the scrapes and holes yet in need of putty and paint. Working on the other side of the house, I am reminded in emptying the linen closet of how the towels and bed sheets once concealed Dad’s ‘secret’ stash of Wild Turkey.

Workaholic and taciturn when sober, my father never talked about his drinking, just like he never talked about his World War II service in the Pacific—an experience that, I’ve been told, commenced almost immediately after his enlistment at the age of seventeen. Why, I kept wondering in packing up our linens, had it never occurred to me that Dad’s boozing might’ve been anesthesia against painful memory? Certainly a few shots of the hard stuff always seemed to unlock his vault-like heart, seemed to set loose something that was almost happy-go-lucky. Perhaps the remnants of the boy he’d once been? Barring the discovery of a long-lost diary, it’s unlikely I’ll ever have an answer. Just like I’ll never know what epiphany of consciousness led him late in life to Alcoholics Anonymous and the stoic sobriety of his retirement years. Dad passed much of that time in his private “billiards room” where, ensconced in his Lazy Boy, he spent his days watching televised sporting events. That is, until the cancer took hold. He never offered an explanation for the years that went before, and I never asked.

Conversely, my mother, always a font of ceaseless (sometimes charming, other times exasperating) chatter, favored the open gathering spaces of the house. Like the sewing corner she carved out of the “Florida Room.” For years Mom, a frugal child of the Great Depression, created her Sunday-school finery in that space relying for inspiration on the ever-changing stylistic guidebook of her Simplicity patterns.

Disposing of her ancient push-pedal sewing machine recently stirred up a whirlwind of dusty history. Like the memory of how in later life, her eyes grown weak, Mom abandoned seamtressing for quilting, laboriously hand-working in that same corner of the house intricate padded patterns—Cathedral Windows, Jacob’s Ladder, Windmills—into artful creations that would become part of the legacy she left her grandchildren. Until recently, her quilted samplers hung in several rooms. They’ve all been packed away now; but Mom’s energy lingers on.

I encounter odds and ends of it in the kitchen where the center isle is currently strewn with box tape and bubble wrap. Packing the flatware not long ago, I couldn’t help but reflect on the twice-weekly breakfasts Mom and I shared during the last years of her life. All those rambling gossipy sessions came back for close examination—like the way Mom invariably got ‘round to touting Baptist orthodoxy (as the only reliable path to eternal salvation), or the way she would laugh in recalling how in decades past, she’d always played parental enforcer—the one who made sure my brother and I, squirming on uncomfortable stools at the same kitchen isle, completed our homework before we were allowed escape into the neighborhood. A neighborhood, I should add, that in those days was a jungle garden of school-aged Baby-Boomers swinging (sometimes literally) from the trees.

Today the old neighborhood’s demographics swing more to a middle-aged jog, if not a downright geriatric shuffle. But all that is about to change, as it always does. And soon.

That is because, barring real-estate catastrophe, come June 30, a much younger mother and father, accompanied by their school-aged children, will bring new vitality to the ‘hood. Together they will take possession of these rooms, this house, and proceed to fill the spaces of their home with hopes, dreams, and yes, I expect, clutter. Of every kind.

Likewise, on that same day, Raymond and I will begin a cross-country trek toward the next chapter of our lives. Heading west (again), we’ll make our way toward the So-Cal coastal town that will become our new home, settling by mid-July into a condo close by where family and friends are already in residence.

But In the meantime, there are household possessions to be culled. Right here. Right now. There are goods to be packed, memories to be examined and neatened (as much as that is ever possible). There’s a lot of work to be done.

I expect this post is part of that work—part of the attempt to extract sense from disorder.

Even so, I know that I won’t complete the job here, that much of the clutter, mental and otherwise, will head west with me. Whole rooms of it.

Indeed, I expect I’ll be unpacking and sorting the stuff for the rest of my days. I expect to be revisiting these Florida rooms in my dreams, in my daytime reveries and in moments of random déjà vu. For that is how it has always been for me—the business of making sense of life: rarely in the short run, with the clutter quickly sorted and placed magically in its proper perspective. But rather, usually well after the fact, after having unpacked my baggage, handled it, and sorted it. Many, many times. Only then do the clues concealed in the mess begin to divulge their meaning, and their importance. Sometimes on no more than a moment’s notice.

Here in conclusion is one of those moments—the recent realization that I miss my parents more now than I ever did when they were alive and living half-a-continent away.

Which means that I must have loved them. Far more than I realized. And isn’t that sad, sad, sad. But then, I’ve always been a slow learner. And chronically myopic. Not one to take a good hard look at things—until they’re right in my face.

Which brings me back to this house, this brick and mortar parental metaphor for everything I’m struggling to assess. I suppose I should be encouraged that in some mysterious and surprising way, I find myself handling, quite literally if not particularly skillfully, a lifetime’s accrued baggage. And in very close quarters. It will take time to complete that appraisal. And there will be sadness. But also moments of gladness. The kind of ‘joy’ that Marie Kondo perhaps had in mind when she began espousing the ‘life-changing’ merits of tidying up. Like the thrilling exhilaration that comes in recognizing what to keep, and what to let go.

I’m beginning to think the lady is on to something.

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About jaurquhart

Jack Andrew Urquhart was born in the American South. Following undergraduate work at the University of Florida, Gainesville, he taught in Florida's public schools. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English, Creative Writing, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he was the winner of the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Award for Fiction (1991). His work has appeared online at Clapboard House Literary Journal, Crazyhorse Literary Journal, and Standards: The International Journal of Multicultural Studies. He is the author of So They Say, a collection of self-contained, inter-connected stories and the short story, They Say You Can Stop Yourself Breathing. Formerly a writing instructor at the University of Colorado’s Writing Program, Mr. Urquhart was, until 2010, a senior analyst for the Judicial Branch of California. He resides in southern California.
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One Response to Reflections on Selling the Family Home: the Life-Changing Challenges of Decluttering House and Mind

  1. TermiteWriter says:

    Such a great piece, Jack. My mother never threw anything away, even though we moved a lot. When we were ready to move, she would stick everything she had accumulated in a box and we would ship it. We always had to rent a place with an extra room to store the boxes, many of which were never opened. After my mother died, I spent two and a half years like a treasure hunt, opening boxes and never knowing what I would find inside. Strange what people do during their lives.

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