Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part Two

My mother’s superpower was, it seems, the will to collect, prepare, and press leaves and flowers. I hope she took joy in drying them, because that is all there was. Divining from the dates on the newspapers they are pressed between, she began after my father’s death in 1995. I’m sorry I didn’t count the shirt boxes filled with them and stacked on the shelves in a cabinet.

The boxes labeled “dried leaves, etc., for crafts,” are stacked with those marked “special shells and stones from Fiji, Australia, Cape Cod, PNW,” “bead craft, etc.,” “small shells, sand dollars, etc.,” “glass craft,” “seed pods for crafts.” Flowers, ferns, leaves are pressed between paper towels, newspapers from the last century, bulb catalogues, glossy brochures from new car showrooms. The process is not only a study of my mother, but of civilization. Too bad paper towels are not recyclable. (I Googled, they are not, though I could have reused them had I thought of it.)

Other than three pages with a single flower or leaf mounted on construction paper, covered with clear contact paper, and slid into plastic notebook sleeves with identification, to my knowledge she did nothing with any of them. I am my mother’s daughter: big ideas, little follow-through. The dreams are the fun part. I wonder if she realized that, or if she just felt guilt at not finishing the projects.

I painstakingly take the brittle remains out of their shrouds and layer them naked in a box. I realize then, as small a thing as this seems on the surface, I am learning about my mother. I’m finding how she spent her days after she was freed first from PTA meetings, teaching Sunday school, and keeping children in clothes; later from being dutiful wife of the boss; and later still from keeping my father’s ill health in check by feeding him salt-free food and worrying. After his death, she finally was mistress of her time, for the first time.

My sisters need to be doing some of this with me. My older sister is coming from the east coast for a visit in March. The three of us can scatter the dried plant life remains together in the memorial crafts and beach garden, along with more beach stones, driftwood, sea shells, and colored glass I find on the shelves, adding to what I found on the workbench. I vow to hereafter leave nostalgia on the shelves, entombed in labeled boxes, and stick to discarding canvas bags from this and that organization, string too short to save, boxes too small to put anything in, wrapping paper and gift bags that might have seemed good to save at the time but obviously was not fruitful. I can’t bring myself to throw out the vintage Girl Scout cookie and Frederick & Nelson boxes just yet. My sisters can do that with me. F&N was Mama’s favorite Seattle store, and there are memories closed up in these empty boxes.

I move on to the waterlogged cardboard file box blocking the back door, soaked when water seeped under the wall a couple years ago from the permanently dripping spigot. (I left the hose connected this winter so it drips into garden. Some things you just have to live with, the plumber told me about the other dripping spigot.) The box and its contents, files of history from Seminary Hill Natural Area and stuck together photos, are moldy. I take a cursory look and drop it all in the trash can. The box next to it, on top of a dish barrel from our 1960 move labeled “old bedding,” is more of the same, only not moldy. Damn. The mold made it easier. I stick the files in the filing cabinet I emptied and moved here when I cleaned out the family room for Pandemic School. I flip through the hundreds of photos that are mostly flowers and trees and people I don’t know. I pull out a few that my parents are in and trash the rest, rolling my eyes at the stack topped by a note reading “don’t need these.” I’m feeling ruthless, and if feels great.

The doors of the cabinet that held the dried vegetation and wrapping paper at one end is covered with clippings about saving, well, everything. I’m curious about their presence. Empowering her to save, or encouraging her to stop? If the latter, it didn’t work.

The doors don’t completely shut. At one end, the dried stuff and wrapping paper and ribbon, and at the other old and long unused Christmas tree ornaments, the tiny boxes, and OMG! more dried plants. These must have been her early attempts, in an actual plant press. I can see she improved her technique over time. I leave them on the shelf.

In the center, where neither sliding door will easily give up the secrets hiding behind, I reach in and find a roll of batik projects, still pregnant with wax. And a box labeled “Batik supplies.” On the footlocker under the cabinet, labeled “things from Mom’s apartment” that I know is not what is in there, is a box of children’s artwork.

Part of the process of aging is letting go of what you can no longer do when you still feel your younger and more alive self within. My mother, at some point, physically let go of the dreams for these things she had collected, but she took the intention to still do it to the grave. The process of excavating involves sifting and sorting, holding and releasing. I feel her spirit as I let it go for her.

I returned to the dig for a while the next day to gather up another load of pasteboard for recycling and another large box for the thrift store. I did feel better when I got it out of the room and up the stairs, but I am completely overwhelmed. I need to get rid of furniture, lamps, moving barrels from 1960, footlockers from WWII, and old rugs (including a large braided one my grandmother made) just to be able to get to the shelves full of boxes. And this will be my second go at those shelves. There are still the bookshelves on the other side of the room (that have few books, but notebooks and boxes of photos and piles of I don’t know what), and the wall of closed cupboards that I have also been through once or twice so I could make room for stuff from upstairs. It’s covered up, so last priority.

It makes me weepy and tight-chested just thinking about it under the room where I sit typing this in the early-morning dark and a raging storm outside. Like most of my age-mates, our parents were children of the Depression. Perhaps saving gave them the illusion of abundance. Boomers, perhaps—especially as we clean out our parents’ homes—struggle betwixt and between the need for the control a more spartan existence brings and the undeniable pull of what we grew up with.

Onward.

Stay tuned. There is so much more. Including the children’s artwork that is a sociological study.

17 thoughts on “Excavating a Home: An Archeological Dig, Part Two

  1. “the mold makes it easier” — I laughed at that one. I’ve been going through Dan’s things — not so many boxes as we curated things when we moved to our apartment a few years ago, and I keep learning about him in new ways even though I lived with him. Such an interesting process to discover what a person you loved saved, and to try to figure out why.

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    1. It is so interesting. My mother, though, just saved everything. Why is a bigger mystery. Actually, what she thought would happen to it is the biggest mystery. What do any of us think will happen to what we save? I have only a single (large, antique) trunk full of memorabilia. Far less than my mother’s rooms full, but really? Why do I still have my battered red lunch box from grade school that I’ve schlepped across the country and back?

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  2. Wow. Thank you for unpacking not only the room, but your process and your emotions, the complexity of it all–taking apart, parting, and especially the mindfulness. This is your “superpower,” and I am grateful to be reading alongside you. And now… out to “the office” that little two room shed in our backyard to ask what we are ready to let go of…

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  3. So much bittersweet. (She probably would have saved that too, if she’d found any.) She saved the dried stuff so long that doing crafts with it is out of vogue.

    The batik pieces, on the other hand–maybe cut down and framed in a gallery display, or for the great-grands’ rooms with her photo in the center? Cover the tops of tiny wooden boxes? Any artists have ideas?

    As for future paper towel discoveries–they decompose well in a compost pile.

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  4. I can almost smell the musty pages and cardboard boxes. I can imagine the leaves crumbling at even the gentlest touch. It’s as if that storage room is a time capsule, and you, the modern day explorer cracking it open. I think my favorite thing is your mother’s musings of “The Web of Life”. I love that so very much. And she is so right…

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    1. A person could get lost in that room. The thing is, I have no choice. I guess I could hire someone who has no attachment to just bulldoze is all out. But I need to hold it, thank it for its service, and let it go. It would be easier if I were an only child.

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