“If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance.”
George Bernard Shaw said the above. The words ring true when reminded of the highs and lows and ups and downs we experienced when relocating my elderly mother. Three floors of our lives were detailed. There were discoveries. It wasn’t simply a fill a garbage bag here, or mop over there, type of deal. This was my childhood home. My heart did the flippy floppy from March of that year until we closed on the house that fall. It’s still difficult to drive by.
We realize our luck. Having been alone for eight years after dad passed, mom was ready to make the change. She wanted to meet people, be surrounded by friends. She did not fight the move. We felt blessed during the months-long endeavor to resettle her, and thankful for her help.
But, someone had to clean the house. In doing so, we uncovered much of our past. It can be very unsettling. Even disturbing. It can also be hilarious.
You will make discoveries about yourself.
There may be tears of joy, longing, surprise, or laughter, and they need to flow.
This relative’s coif is a never-ending source of laughter. Enough said except, what were they thinking?
Then there’s the guy in the picture frame…
Mom was a dabbler, but I’d never seen this painting. She drew in her younger years; the below is one of many. This one is of me at about age three.
I’ll get to that later.
For now, try to see relocation for what it is, be open to discovery. Try to enjoy the process.
Who, for example, would not enjoy the vintage hair dryer mom used when we were kids? Here is my sister on estate sale day enjoying the moment. Mom is in the back.
I began to see the process as a puzzle with quirky pieces. After we’d carried, piled, and sorted, mom casually mentioned dad used to hide money inside books. Translation: more hours flipping pages. I didn’t mind; I love the smell, the feel, the travels they offer. (And, it’s a good thing there were several sets of eyes: inside one book my husband found Japanese yen from the 50s, sent home when dad was in the navy. My sister and I had already looked through each book.)
When mom made the actual move–into 388 square feet of Independent Living–we began the sorting, tossing, keeping or selling of what remained in the house.
The valuables were already taken care of. It was the rest of the story that got…weird.
Bones (You Thought I Was Joking?)
Consider the photo below. This is my son on a mission. He was bound and determined to find the gun. We’d been looking for a pistol with a pearl handle. It was old and hadn’t been seen in years. We’d searched and searched but came up empty. He brought me a deer leg instead (also old and hadn’t been seen in years).
None of us hunted. We occupied the house in 1963. The wooden beams (photo, below right), placed to retain the dirt pile on the other side, existed long before we arrived. The workbench (photo, below left) may have been used to butcher said deer. The leg had been lying just inside that wall, for at least 51 years. The skin was perfectly intact.
My thought? Where was the rest of the deer (and were there other equally, nasty animal or other parts buried in the pile)? I stayed upstairs for a while.
Apparently, our father was given a different name at birth. Dad never mentioned it, even though I found this booklet with other documents, in plain sight. Dad’s first two names were Rodney and Merle. He went by Merle until his early 20s and by Rod the remainder of his life. We were stunned to see “Merle Douglas” on the log of dad’s weight and height over the first weeks of his life, in grandma’s handwriting.
While the whereabouts of the pearl handled gun remain a mystery, I found a revolver on actual moving day. Something told me to double check the folks’ closet. It was on a shelf at the very back, loosely wrapped in a piece of brown paper, next to a box of bullets. I grasped it easily, making sure it was pointed away and down, before carefully unwrapping the paper. That’s when I called for my husband and brother-in-law, both of whom know guns. It wasn’t loaded, just alarming. This unnerved mom more than the actual move: this had been one quiet skeleton.
Aside from the tangible, moving a parent can cause an emotional uprising. Consider looking for the last time at this:
The “peephole” provided endless fun once we were tall enough. The circular light with the glass danglies–our chandelier–was pure fascination for this girl. My self-appointed job was to show it off to each and every guest, a mission I accomplished thoroughly and proudly, according to mom. The light still works.
As all of dad’s jobs required significant amounts of writing, his proficiency showed. He had mastered the power of the pen. He later composed his memoir and authored short stories, but we also have his navy letters from 1951-1954.
Can you guess what it’s like to read your parent(s) words, written long before you were born yet after they died?
It is eery cool. Why? When reading his words, I know how he would have said them, his nuances and intonations. He wrote about his future children. It took my breath away. He wrote with passion, his morals and ethics coming through. We would be educated, he wrote, both at home and publicly. He was 22.
His short stories and memoir musings have had me laughing out loud. I oughtn’t print one such story, so I’ll tame and recount it to the best of my ability: There once was a poor fellow whose bare buttock, for two young boys with BB guns, became target practice. The owner of said buttock was “busy” with a female partner in a car in the woods. These woods–an open playground for the entire neighborhood–were a haven for two young boys and their guns. Dad and friends spent countless hours here, exploring. One day, they happened upon the activity. With BB guns at hand, said boys crept up as closely as they dared. Using hand signals between them, they worked together to let the air out of the tires. When this did not alert the couple, the boys settled back in the brush nearby. When it was time, the young boy (who would one day become my father) took aim and fired. Target hit, just inside the right buttock. By the time the howling man could pull up his pants and take off in pursuit, the boys were long gone (paraphrased, RG).
Not a short story, this was a memoir find. That dad would shoot someone in the backside, well, when thinking of this entire scenario, words escape me. I can only smile.
Musings from the Adult Child
The biggest surprise? I felt like I’d lost dad, again. Never mind he’d passed several years prior. Sorting through the photos, letters, and writings–and reading for the very first time his work articles and reports–made his death feel fresh. As I watched my elderly mother move from her home of 51 years, as I tried to help her adjust, I had to say goodbye to my childhood home and my father, all over again.
I also had to find a way to incorporate the less-than-pleasant discoveries (there were others, they shall remain private) into what I know of us, this collective group of people we call family. How did I make the skeletons dance? I embraced them. We can laugh off the creepy deer leg. The gun in the closet is a bit tougher. I believe dad feared harm and acted accordingly. Dad’s second name will always be a mystery. He knew; the document was in his files. That he kept quiet was his choice; I’m OK with that. I never will know everything about him or them; this isn’t bothersome. Neither my parents or children know everything about me, I think. I hope.
It is important to pay attention to what others are experiencing as you go through the process. Their perceptions may clarify or solidify yours. They’ll be your support when you feel unearthed. On letting go of the house, it was my sister who first said, “It’s just a shell.”
One day at the house, as I walked out back, I was flooded with memories. I saw our swing set, recalled happy hours swinging from the side bar. I saw the high jump dad made for me when I was 12. I saw our pets, Clancy and Yippi. I saw the plastic pool we splashed in with the neighbor kids. I recalled many BBQ dinners.
I’ll never again hear the creak of the stairs or smell the musty basement. I’ll never again walk in to the smell of mom’s Thanksgiving turkey. Long chats in the family room are no longer; picnics under the Christmas tree have ceased. The elder library has closed.
But I noticed something else. I feel full. The letters, cards, reports, articles, stories, movies, photos, the memoir and more are a gift and huge pieces of that quirky puzzle. They provide opportunity for sharing, asking questions, further discovery. I am learning. I am full.
A few of us gathered together on mom’s last walk through the house. It was difficult. She moved here with her husband and two young daughters in 1963. She lived right here most of her life. She later said the house felt cold and empty. Kind of like a shell.
Mom is comfy in “the big house” as her best friend (but recently deceased) Barbara once described the Independent Living residence. We continually feel grateful it was a smooth move. We are ever thankful for mom’s willingness to embrace her health changes and the need to relocate.
Reflection: Have you moved an elderly parent into a new residence? How easy or difficult was your transition? What’s in your basement?