Cleaning Mom's House an Exercise in Family Archeology

Last week, seven months after she was found wandering in her front yard incoherent from a burst aneurysm in her brain, my mother moved home.

It is the close of a painful chapter for us. From the end of February to the middle of September, a piece of the fragile mobile that is our family had broken, leaving us unbalanced and buffeted by that awful, unexpected hurricane known as catastrophic illness.

For a long time, everything was disorienting and overwhelming. In those first awful days there were the hospital, the doctors, the surgery, the tubes and hoses--until the emergency was contained, the life was saved.

Then, just when we had gotten used to the hospital, navigated the nurses, schedules and lack of privacy, they told us Mom was ready to be discharged.

A convalescent home was the next step, they said. Here's a list. You choose.

And so we did, hoping for the best, but full of misgiving and worry. Each time we walked in, we'd sniff the air, we'd eye the nurse's aides (they weren't even real nurses!). We would watch for signs of abuse and neglect. We would hit the roof when things went wrong--after all, we were the only advocates our mother had. We learned to make demands, to shed the nice-girl act, to stand up for the one person who stood up for us when we could not do it for ourselves. And we realized, with a shudder, that we had traded places. The daughters were now the lions, our mother the helpless cub.

Slowly, but steadily over the days and weeks, the person who used to be our mother started to be our mother again. She started to walk, to talk, to eat. To demand a cup of coffee. (An unimaginable thrill for us.) And just when we'd gotten used to that , they took us into a conference room at the convalescent home and told us she would be released at the end of the week.

Panic set in: Where would she go? What would we do? She was simply not ready to be at home again.

Our family solved the problem by upending two households--first my sister's in San Diego, where our mother lived for more than three months--through the setbacks of a stroke and a broken wrist--and then ours, where she stayed for two months, steadily regaining her speech and comprehension.

Last week, after more than half a year away from her own home, it was time to return.


But there was a problem. A big one. Her house was a mess. My sister and I had vowed that before our mother stepped foot in the place, it would be cleaned from top to bottom.

Our mother has always been a pack rat. And she has always had better things to do than dust.

We always thought of her cluttered house as a metaphor for the inside of her head: She complained constantly of not having enough time for her projects, of not having the energy to keep the house the way she wanted, of not being able to find things.

Little wonder.

The place was crammed: 10-year-old magazines (she might want to read them), more chairs than she would ever need to sit in (half of them seatless), clothes she hadn't worn in 20 years, outdated school material from her teaching career, audiocassettes of church lectures, every piece of financial junk mail that ever passed through the slot in her front door. I always felt overwhelmed and depressed by the clutter. I believe my mom did, too.

Last Saturday was momentous. We rented a dumpster--16 feet long, 8 feet wide--so big, in fact, that we needed a city permit to keep it at the curb. We hired two friends to help, and the four of us scrubbed and tossed and polished and vacuumed and rearranged the entire house.

As we cleaned, we discovered things out about our mother that we never knew: her expertise in mutual funds, her extraordinary beauty (in old photographs), her hidden acquisitiveness that has manifested itself in the purchase of the same cardigan in 20 different shades. (So that's why she always seemed to be wearing the same thing!) And, most movingly, her sentimental attachment to the early artistic endeavors of her four children.

I brought home an especially ugly group of ceramic tiles I had made in junior high.

"You know why I kept those?" my mother asked, as my husband and I laughed at them.

"God, no, Mom. I can't imagine why."

"Because I loved them so very much," she said, beaming.

By day's end, the dumpster was half-full. The front yard was piled with garage sale stuff: old chairs, lamps, pots, books, tables and baskets.

The house, a lovely, English-looking cottage in the Hollywood foothills, positively gleamed.


On Sunday, Mom walked across the threshold. We were excited. "Isn't it great, Mom?" "Don't you think the house looks beautiful?"

She looked around warily. Things were out of place.

She eyed the stack of cast-off goods on the front lawn. She frowned.

A few minutes later, she walked outside and began rescuing things.

Maybe we had been a little overzealous. We talked her out of a pair of table lamps, but could not change her mind about her old coffee pot.

That's OK. We're grateful we had the chance to do this for her. Sifting through the layers of her life as we cleaned her house was an exercise in family archeology, something most children don't get to do until a parent has died.

We look upon her return home as a grand experiment, one that we hope turns out well, though certainly, there are no guarantees. For now, anyway, the winds have calmed, the hurricane is past. Our family mobile has been restored.

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