Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part One

“An archeological excavation is the exposure, processing, and recording of archeological remains.”

I have been living in my family home almost nine and a half years. My mother, ninety-six when I arrived just after Independence Day—when I lost mine—had been living in this house for over half a century. The house was stuffed to the gills with the remains of my parents’ life, accumulating since long before I was born.

On a few occasions over the next years before she moved to assisted living, Mama roped me into helping her clean out some bit of the room in the basement that had once been my father’s workshop, before he built a new one over the carport. It was impossible to make any progress because she wouldn’t get rid of anything, we just moved stuff from one designated box to another. Our forays into the underground were confined to the large table in the center of the room—never was a cupboard opened or a shelf attacked, her goal being only to clear off the table in case she wanted to do a craft project. Sadly, her vision was too far gone to do crafts, and the lighting was bad, and that just scratched the surface of the reasons that wasn’t going to happen. But she still had her dreams.

I once tried to clean off the former workbench in the back of the room and when she discovered I had thrown out something—she couldn’t see what, she only knew it was different—I was soundly reprimanded.

After she left the house and then eighteen months later made her permanent departure, I started moving stuff from upstairs to downstairs and the “storage room” grew even more bloated. I disposed of some things from the wall of cabinets and the opposite wall of shelves to make room. When Pandemic School started, I switched the large table for the smaller one in the family room to give the grands a better workspace, getting rid of more things in the process. And then I just started piling on as I moved things from the family room to make room for toys and art supplies.

It’s dead weight knowing that room is lurking beneath me in what was a bomb shelter in the mid-century-modern house plan. Even if I keep the door firmly closed, I’m afraid it will explode and invade the rest of the house, creeping up the stairs and down the hall searching for me. I’ve put off dealing with it so my sisters can help—archeologists love company—but it will take months, or years, if it’s done only intermittently. I had just turned sixty that summer I arrived here. Now I’m six months from the next decade birthday and I need this weight off my shoulders.

I often wonder if my mother stayed around so long because she hadn’t cleaned out the house and didn’t want to burden her children with the task. And did she feel weighed down too? Unable to leave the house, or even the world, because of the unfinished, unbegun, business? Now I’m faced with the same dilemma. Except it’s not my stuff holding me here.

I decided this is the winter I am going to dig out. I reread a favorite memoir in preparation. One should always do research before engaging in a new career, right? I highly recommend They Left Us Everything, by Plum Johnson. Her words make me feel a tad less resentful that this has fallen to me, when I had been living in a minimalist, Marie-Kondoed, environment. Johnson lived in her parents’ home for over a year after the death of her mother—learning more about her mother and father and their life as a family in the huge house—and it took her that long to excavate, with little help from her brothers.

A few days ago, I took up my shovel and pick—and two large garbage cans—and started.

“Excavation involves several types of data: artifacts (portable), features (fixed), ecofacts (evidence of human activity), and context (relationships among the other types of data).”

I decide to begin at the back of the room, on the fixed feature workbench where, though I hadn’t gained much ground a few years ago before I’d gotten my wrists slapped, there is more piled stuff in the space I had made.

Had my father not been gone for seventeen years that summer I arrived, the hardware collection would have been even more extensive. Two drawers are filled with screws, nails, picture hangers, carpet tape, string, petrified rubber furniture floor protectors, obsolete dimmer switches, dust masks; but it’s my mother’s abandoned crafts projects that have taken up the slack on top.

I throw out the rest of the plant-based dyes, having already discarded the dried up jars in the first run at the task. I put the rinsed Gerbers baby food jars in the recycling box, then take them out. Does baby food still come in glass jars, perfect for storing small screws and nails? Maybe someone will want them. I can see this is going to be a challenge for me.

I open a box stuffed with enough small paintbrushes to supply an art class and sigh. I bought brushes for my number two grandson last Christmas; I forgot to shop my personal thrift store first.

I make reasonably quick work of the silkscreen ecofacts, and finish the top of the bench, putting a package of clothespins in the thrift shop box, unused sponges in the laundry room drawer, more picture hanger sets in the workbench drawer (I’ll deal with the drawers later), miscellaneous metal in the recycling, Draino in the hazardous waste box, leaving only the time capsule: “Open in 2025.”

I’m tempted to skip the shelf and the floor under the bench, but I power on. I throw out plastic garden pots and many sheets of plastic. The cow skull mounted on a piece of a wagon wheel goes outside. Two woven guitar straps and several stamped copper trays go in a box with the two bedside lamps from the top of the workbench, that were on tables next to my parents’ bed before we moved from Olympia when I was eight, to ask my sisters about. More paint brushes are added to the brush box and I add the collection of baby food jars to an old metal box with a lid that holds more jars. Perhaps a refrigerator crisper box? There is one of those too.

Boxes of beach stones and more of driftwood are poured out on my beach stone and driftwood memorial garden outside the door; it’s not my first time down that memory lane.

I vacuum up the dead insects, dirt, and dust, wishing I’d donned one of those dust masks when I first started coughing.

It’s a small beginning, but it is a start. I step back to view my progress, then drag the full garbage can out the back door without turning around to see what a truly minuscule percentage of the task is complete.

To be continued.

19 thoughts on “Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part One

  1. Keeping your sense of humor will definitely help the process. This brings back so many memories of cleaning out both my in-laws and father’s residences. Looking forward to your continued excavation stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wishing you strength and continued good humor. You will need both. And there will be a point when nothing matters, you’re sick of it, out it goes. But you probably already know this.
    I do love that she hoped some day to return to those craft projects in spite of poor eyesight. It’s endearing. Thanks for writing about this!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gretchen – I do not envy the process of excavating, sifting and sorting, releasing and holding on that you have returned to as you continue to make this place your home. What a gift that you have a writing practice and platform that helps you process and share this journey with us. I wish you all the best as you continue the excavation and look forward to reading more of your story. Be well, dear one.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Jude. Some of it is touching, and I need to wait for my sisters to go through it. I’m going to be more careful what I examine, what I toss, and what I leave untouched to do with them. But truly, I don’t think we all need to be present to discard eleventy hundred canvas bags from conferences and such, or tiny boxes that someone might put a gift in, and leftover wrapping paper and stashed gift bags. Right? Thank you for the opportunity in this comment to realize that!


  4. One of the things I’m eternally grateful for from being a nomad during the time my husband was in the Air Force is that we never got an opportunity to save all that STUFF. I helped clean out my parents’ attic when they “retired” and moved to my Grandmother’s house. Then I got to do the same thing again when we sold THAT house and moved them into care. As for Al and me, moving around the world from assignment to assignment, often meant we could take no more than 2000 lbs and the rest had to go in storage. When you haven’t seen STUFF for 2-3 years you realize the didn’t need to save it in the first place. So I did a clean out of OUR stuff really regularly. Thanks be to God!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Excavating artifact and memory is the work of the heart for sure. A woman I follow here on WordPress wrote recently about how she learned so much about her husband, after he died, by way of the things he kept. I wonder if you’ve had similar discoveries as you have begun unearthing more layers of their lives. In fact, I am wondering now what others might learn by what I keep. Thanks for the love and humor of your process along with the thought provoking questions. 

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  6. bwahahahaha!!!! “Maybe someone will want them.” Oh dear. I’m sorry you learned that sentiment from her. And sorry I laughed, but you can make anything funny.
    This makes me wonder, though, in all those times when she couldn’t do anything except sit in her recliner and sleep, and we’d ask “How was your day?” and she’d reply, “Well, I didn’t get much done!”, if what she really had hoped to do (I never thought to ask) was work on those impossible craft projects.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Eye roll. I’m definitely going to have to get over that. And no, I don’t think she wanted to do crafts. I asked her once what she would do if she had no limitations, and she said, clean out stuff, she guessed. Not go for a hike? I exclaimed. Not in the winter! she said. Another eye roll. I think it really did weigh heavily on her. I found the photo album we made when we tried to get just the book shelf cleaned out in 2001 (next post for that one). We did try. Is there room for one more eye roll?

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Awesome, Gretchen! What a major step forward! Most of all, I loved the view through the two windows over the workbench.
    The humor you sprinkle though out makes this a delightful read, albeit not a delightful activity. Guess there’s more coming. I look forward to sharing this journey with you.
    Mary Jo

    Liked by 1 person

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