I could have titled this post “dostadning,” but not many would know what it meant. It’s a hybrid of the Swedish words for “death” and “cleaning.” A close relative of the thus far better known KonMari method of “tidying up,” dostadning advocates the proactive and mindful clearing out of possessions before death, thus saving the children the onerous task of making decisions about what to keep and what to throw or give away. You can read all about it in the book, “The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning,” by Margareta Magnusson, which I haven’t read yet.
It’s what my parents didn’t do. They weren’t classic hoarders, but disciples of the Post Great Depression Method of Keeping Everything. Ev-er-y-thing. I did the KonMari clean-out with my own belongings before I moved across the country in 2012—way before the Netflix show—and I’ve done it a couple of times since then, including this week in my own closet. Yet now I’m stuck with my parents’ accumulation. It’s a classic Baby Boomer nightmare.
One thing leads to another in this old house, sometimes in reverse order. The first week in March, hardwood floors are replacing a patchwork mosaic of dirty beige carpet, green carpet, water-spotted tired oak, and red shag.
Before that happens, there are three rooms and six closets to paint. And before the closets could be painted, they had to be cleaned out. (I painted the last closet this week. If a snow apocalypse happens this weekend as predicted, and I can’t go to number three grandson’s fifth birthday party—which likely won’t happen anyway—I will be sad; and the last room will get painted.)
To be fair, my mother was aware of the burden being left to her daughters. She wanted to clean out, but at 96 when I arrived on the scene, it was far, far too late. “I thought,” she told me one day as I was standing in the open doorway going out someplace, “you would help me clean out the house. And then there was Emma and Wynne’s wedding and it didn’t happen.” The wedding was two weeks after I moved across the country.
According to a formula I found online—square footage of the house times average height of the “stuff” gives you cubic yards of treasure times .8 to 1.5 (wo)man hours per cubic yard to dispose of it—it was not going to happen in two weeks, even if I hadn’t been acclimating to a new home and roommate and preparing for a wedding. And one of those women was 96 years old and hadn’t been able to part with an overload of paperclips. We once spent a morning cleaning out two small dresser drawers and all that got thrown away was what I sneaked out unnoticed. Enough said.
Marie Kondo’s signature question is “Does it spark joy?” One of the important questions Magnusson poses in her book is: “Will anyone be happier if I save this?” And there lies the question. Will someone?
I loved a memoir titled, “They Left Us Everything,” by Plum Johnson. (It’s in transit between libraries so I can read it again.) As I recall, when all was said and done after completing the overwhelming task of cleaning out their parents home, Plum Johnson and her siblings were unexpectedly happy. They didn’t want to keep the stuff, but holding the bits and pieces of their parents’ lives and their own childhoods in their hands, did spark joy. (I guess that’s mixing the two theories.)
Does dostadning sanitize the real emotions following the death of a parent by erasing too quickly the evidence that they walked the planet? That the original family unit once existed? That the parents existed before the children? Even as I make space for my own life in this house—which I have to do or go mad—my sisters and I will log light years of time travel exploring the corner of the house where I’m stashing everything. It’s about to explode. If a bowel blockage killed our mother, I hope the constipation in the storage room doesn’t kill us.
When I cleaned out the last closet, I found another large box of slides to go with the other large boxes of slides. I wonder if there will be time before we die to look at them. Or will we leave them to our children to deal with?
I can’t begin to imagine what my parents set aside to put in the canister labeled “Time Capsule, Open in 2025.” The whole house and its two outbuildings is a time machine, covering almost a century. I’m trying to imagine them choosing what to include more than 20 years ago. Was it their thought that everything else would go before they did? But no, they left us everything.
Here is a tiny sampling of what I found in the closets.
I need to open a museum.