A peek inside my mother’s secretary desk with Ike and Mamie
I am an only child who’s preparing to sell my 62-year-old childhood home, the home my parents moved into on their wedding night in 1956.
On my most recent trip to my little North Carolina hometown, I decided to take the pressure off myself of trying to organize a yard sale from 5 hours away. I realized I didn’t need the stress of tagging each little trinket, dragging everything to the driveway in the early morning, and haggling over prices. Instead, I took 6 boxes of Christmas decor, afghans, and small appliances to a community ministry outreach center.
One of the items I donated was my mother’s light blue overnight bag, with which she traveled for years. It always smelled of Shalimar cologne-her favorite. I have many fond memories of her on our family vacations taking out her skin creams and cosmetics and spraying her Shalimar. She continued to travel with that bag long after I married and had a family. It was a staple in her travels, and the scent of Shalimar lingered inside it for a few years after she passed.
I shared that information with the nice woman who helped me unload my items, and she expressed empathy for me as I continued to “deconstruct” my childhood. While walking away, I took a deep breath, turned around, and took one last book at the familiar blue bag. “Thank you, God, for the good times,” I uttered, then got in my car and drove away.
Like so many adults of a certain age, I no longer have parents. My father passed two years ago, and mother has been gone since late1999. I was an only child and now, an adult orphan. Cleaning out my childhood home has been my task, alone. I’ve taken a few years to accomplish this cleanout and to get a few large projects done, such as installing new windows and a new roof. It’s provided me a good physical space in which to grieve and time to reconnect with family and friends. My emotions have run the gamut of mourning my childhood to being grateful we had a home. I cry when I feel like it, and although it’s hard bidding goodbye to a town I love and where my early life formed, it’s freeing to think about the unloading of the responsibility of a second property. Hopefully, sooner than later, “a little house with a big welcome,” as my mother called it, will go to someone who can love it back to life and take care of the yard my daddy created. Besides, a house isn’t really a home unless the people who live there make it one. My childhood abode is an empty shell awaiting someone to bring it back to life and to create, well, … HOME.
Ideally, adult children should have talks with their parents while they are living and create a plan to declutter or downsize. My father raised a ruckus and would politely shut me down when I’d broach the subject with him, so I just accepted that I’d have to one day clean the place out.
And that’s what I’ve done, and it’s all okay.
What advice can I offer to only children or others who must face this task alone? Here are seven bits of advice:
*Go at Your Own Pace (if there’s no mortgage and minimal monthly expenses). If you can bear the expenses each month, you will find that emptying a house on your schedule-and no one else’s- can be a beautiful thing. You can grieve and conserve your physical energy. Plus, you may decide to renovate and hang onto the place as a retreat of sorts. Take your time!
*Don’t Put Pressure on Yourself. Oh, the “shoulds” and “ought tos” that crop up in this process and the good folks who offer unsolicited advice… Remember: This is your life and your responsibility. Do what YOU want to do, and take the pressure off yourself. This is YOUR life and YOUR journey… no one else’s.
*Always Have a Plan. Each time you visit your childhood home, have a plan in place, and stick to it. One visit may involve cleaning two closets and donating items to charity. Another trip might focus on cleaning out the kitchen and bathroom cabinets and drawers. Again, go at your own pace, but do create and stick to a schedule.
*Reframe Any Negative Thoughts. If you catch yourself saying something negative, such as,” I can’t do this,” or “this place depresses me,” reframe it. I caught myself saying the latter not too long ago, but I quickly flipped my perspective around by saying a prayer, thanking God that my parents could buy the house and eventually pay it off. Keep your perspective positive as much as possible, and know that a huge dose of gratitude helps!
*Look at Each Object With Thanksgiving then Let It Go. Yes, I let my mother’s blue travel bag go, and I gave thanks for all the wonderful trips we had together. When I took my father’s clothes to a local nonprofit organization that serves veterans, I shared his story about being a Bataan Death March survivor and how he wanted all his fine clothes to be given to homeless veterans. I drove away from that place with tears streaming down my face but with a warm heart.
*Cry as Needed. Crying is healing. Period. When the tears come, let them flow. You’ll feel better.
*Be Gentle With Yourself. Saying goodbye to one’s childhood-even if you’re a grandparent, as I am- is not easy. I think it’s especially hard for us onlies. Remember to move at your own pace (with a schedule!), and don’t put pressure on yourself. Take long walks around your old stomping grounds, visit with long-time friends, and enjoy a nice bath in the evening. Take care of you, because you are taking care of much!
Everyone’s situation is different, but in my current place in life as a widowed empty nester who’s tasked with cleaning out and selling a house five hours from where I live, I have found those seven nuggets of advice I offer you to be very helpful. Plus, my older son is a military officer whose precious family is preparing for their 7th move. They create a home wherever they live, and this inspires me. In fact, they have a sign that reads “Home is where the Army sends us,” and it has an ever-growing list of places hanging from it. Again, home is where you make home.
If you have siblings with whom you are sharing the effort of cleaning out the family home, please don’t fight over stuff. This is a time to grieve, celebrate, and heal.
Play nice. You may even catch a wisp of Shalimar or some other special childhood scent!
Amy Walton is a multi-certified women’s life coach living in coastal Virginia. She works with women around the country to help them create their best lives, whatever that means to them. She is a widowed (but happily engaged!) adult orphan who thinks she may have finally grown up… maybe. She can also sell you a cute home in a quiet town near great hiking and lovely wineries. Connect with her at http://www.amywaltoncoaching.com.