Over the past couple of years, I have had to share – with my partner, sister and other family members – the grim and heart-breaking task of clearing our parents’ house, selling it and saying goodbye to well over 40 years of memories. My father bought it as a plot of land, so it has only ever had our family living in it – until last summer.
Dismantling my parents’ lives and all that they had built up together over so many years has caused me actual physical pain. Despite never having lived in the house, I felt our family’s history seeping from every wall. I was incredibly protective towards it; particularly after my mother had to go into a care home, and the house was standing empty for most of the week. I hated having to leave it every time we stayed there. It felt as though I was abandoning it, and my parents with it (although my dad died 23 years ago), and I would often cry for most of the two-hour journey home. My only consolation is that our buyers are a young couple, keen to put down roots and, most likely (I’m guessing), want to start a family. The place needs another family and all the new life that brings. The last few years have been undeniably sad and tough for us all.
I cried, too, when I saw the skip on the drive for the first time. We had to hire three altogether. It took two solid weekends to clear the garage, shed, loft and airing cupboard alone, never mind any of the actual rooms. When I hired someone to help clear the house of the larger items of furniture in the final week, he had just the one day free that week. He said he had been manically busy, as had all house clearance/van hire people, because of the stamp duty holiday and easing of lockdown rules. This was also the reason why so many of the charities we tried couldn’t take our things. They were overrun with surplus items. The world and his wife, it seemed, had been having massive clear outs during lockdown.
I cried some more when I saw the boxes and boxes of brand-new, never-been-taken-from-their-wrappers Christmas decorations. Mum had obviously bought them (when?), then someone (who?) had put them away in the loft for her. She must have forgotten about them. But she was clearly ordering for a big family Christmas – the kind we used to have, when our grandparents and other family members came to stay, and when friends and neighbours dropped by. I gave some away to the kind next-door neighbours who had been keeping an eye on the place for us when we weren’t there and also to our lovely gardener who was a huge help to us in so many ways. It broke my heart to see them all. She must have spent a small fortune on them; no doubt from one of the many colourful catalogues that dropped through the letterbox on an almost daily basis; her link to the outside world (she couldn’t manage a computer, or even a mobile phone, for which, with all the clever scams about, I was heartily thankful). I suspect half the attraction for her was being able to speak to someone on the other end of the line. I hope they understood this and were patient with her.
We tried putting the bigger and better items from the house at the top of the drive for people to take (again, a lot of them were unused and still in their original packaging) and some of them went very quickly. The rest had to go back on the skip, or to charity. My sister’s friend helpfully put ads on a local ‘free’ website and we managed to pass on a lovely big armchair and matching footstool that way. (We all liked it, but none of us had room in our respective homes for it.) The woman who came to pick it up had had a stroke and was walking with a stick. She was very grateful for the chair, and for a couple of other useful items she rescued from the skip.
Someone else came by and asked if we had any houseplants. As it happened, we had ten, all bought by me in an attempt to make the place look lived-in, and I was planning on bringing them all back home with me, then decided I could probably live without most of them, so he walked away with six plants for his wife. He told me he had been living in South Africa for 12 years but decided to return home for his children’s sake. He wanted a better education and life for them and it was getting very dangerous out there, he said.
Another man came in to see what bits and pieces of crockery were going begging, saying he was getting them for his daughter, who he and his wife were now living with. Their son had been killed in a road accident on the nearby bypass just a year before and it had made them look at things in a different light. They were living in a seven-bedroom house at the time, with four cars on the drive. He said he had had 47 pairs of jeans and about a hundred Ralph Lauren shirts! After letting the family take what they wanted, he and his wife walked out of the house with just one bag of belongings each – and that was it. He looked so sad as he was telling me all this, I really wanted to hug him, but couldn’t (Covid).
Being an avid reader myself, I looked more closely at the books that summed up my parents’ lives. Typical of their generation, there was no internet and Google, of course, and so the bookshelves were filled with huge, hefty tomes of advice and information on gardening, family health, cookery, the Royal Family, travel (just how many books on France and Italy did we need?!) and sport (mostly rowing, golf and cricket, which were my dad’s interests). There were encyclopedias and atlases, bibles galore (and we’re most definitely not a religious family), and sensibly, useful books and pamphlets on making a will and what to do when someone dies.
Having come from a wartime background of ‘Make do and mend’ my parents kept their furniture for decades. There was the 1950s oak sideboard they bought when they were first married. The big, very old family bureau that I’m hoping will stay in the family, though nobody appears to have the room, is temporarily residing in my sister’s living room at her small flat. I know my mother wanted it kept in the family. A few more, smaller items of furniture we managed to share between us without any argument. Oh, yes – ahem – there’s also the very old oak dining table and chairs my grandparents bought at auction a very, very long time ago. I looked and looked and looked at it over the weeks and months we stayed in the house and finally decided I just couldn’t let it go, so I paid quite a bit of money to have it transported from the house to my own house, where it now resides in the already-rammed-full home office at the bottom of the garden, as there is no room for it anywhere else. I used to enjoy dusting and polishing its chubby, curved legs whenever I stayed with my beloved grandparents. There are so many memories of happy family meals around that table. Though who’s going to have it after I’ve gone is anybody’s guess. (Maybe I’ll have stopped caring by then. I do hope so. It’s exhausting and debilitating, carrying around all this emotional baggage.)
However, surprisingly, despite it being very trendy and sought-after in certain quarters, few people were interested in the G-Plan furniture my parents collected from the 60s and 70s. It was in excellent condition, considering its age (unlike the rest of us), but we were paid a fraction of its worth to have it taken away. It had to go. Though I found an old label for how to put one of the items together, and I’ve kept it, so there. (You see how difficult all this has been for someone like me?!)
There were LPs galore: musicals and big band sounds, James Last, Frank Sinatra, Tom Jones, Andy Williams and Simon and Garfunkel. Plus many more. The musical history of our family.
There were countless letters and cards to wade through, postcards both used and unused, newspaper clippings, local theatre programmes and brochures for stately homes and gardens visits and, as one who likes to keep these things myself, it has made me see the utter pointlessness of doing so. Have I ever looked at any of mine again? No. Will I, in the next ten or 20 years? Unlikely. I suppose the answer would be to collate the highlights into scrapbooks but, again, who else would be interested in seeing those?
The ancient family bible, dated 1817, is so huge and so heavy. I was hoping somebody else in the family would want it, but no, it’s landed on my dining table, along with a lot more stuff I have yet to wade through, so I guess it’s mine until I can pass it on to whoever in my family would like it. That’s the problem with not having children. I don’t have anybody to pass all my toot and tat on to, aside from my niece and nephew, and I doubt very much they will welcome it with open arms when the time comes!
Something they might be interested in, though, is my maternal grandfather’s diaries. Unfortunately, he didn’t keep diaries every year – or, if he did, they’ve long gone – but I brought home the ones dating 1934 to 1941 (though not consecutive, unfortunately –whatever happened to those?) and have found them riveting reading. I’ve learned an awful lot I didn’t know about my own family and my partner, on reading them, said that he felt he knew my grandad really well, despite never having met him. There’s lots about the war, of course: rationing, hiding under the table in the kitchen when bombs were being dropped rather too close for comfort and there’s a mention of lots of planes flying overhead one night, which, it turned out, were on their way to bomb the hell out of Coventry. Family and work-related news is in there. They all enjoyed going to the local cinema, and cycled everywhere in the surrounding countryside to visit relatives and friends. The weather is mentioned quite a bit, and it’s not nearly so dull as it sounds. If only he hadn’t written most of it in pencil, though, bless him.
Don’t get me started on the photos. Boxes and boxes, suitcases, albums and bags of them galore – often duplicated, just to add to the confusion. Some of them have careful and helpful explanations and identifications on the back, but many don’t. I study their faces for clues. The houses and gardens in the background. The fashions of the day. Someone in the family has attempted to begin the family tree on my mother’s side, but I’m still no wiser as to who half the people are in the photographs. My sister, panicking at the encroaching completion deadline, threatened to hurl boxes of slides on to the skip, without going through them first, which I thought unwise, so, guess what? They are my own house now, along with the bulky projector to view them with. And I still haven’t looked at them.
There were way too many drinking glasses – who needs that many?! We weren’t a family of drinkers. Nor did we give frequent parties. I don’t know what was going on, there. The local charity shops have got very picky, these days, and will only take full sets, now, so the rest had to go into recycling.
We had a caravan in the 1970s and, yes, right at the back of one of the kitchen cupboards we found a very bright yellow melamine set of plates and mugs and bowls – the ones we used when we were away. But I’m not keen on bright yellow, and nobody else seemed to want them, so they also went to a charity shop.
There were sets of pristine, unused bedding, blankets and towels. After a bit of research and a few phone calls, we were able to take a lot of those to a local homeless shelter. Again, though, even those places were a bit sniffy about what they were prepared to take, which surprised us. And the tea-towels! I said to my partner: ‘Who the hell needs so many tea-towels?!’ When I was back in my own home, I opened the drawers under the bed, where we keep spare linens, and guess what? There were about a hundred tea-towels lurking in there. I sorted through them, kept my favourites and the rest (all unused, of course) went to charity. I do like a nice tea-towel, though – I’m drawn to them, then I put them away, because I don’t want to get them grubby. Sigh. Clearly, it runs in the family.
I have always thought having lots of storage is A Very Good Thing. Not any more. Having ample storage just means shoving lots of things away and never looking at them again and my parents’ small house was very well served with built-in cupboards in every room – sometimes more than one. All deep and all rammed to bursting.
A friend has just had her loft converted into another bedroom and bathroom, and has found she doesn’t miss the extra storage space at all. She says she prefers to have everything to hand; it makes for a much easier life and I can understand that one. It does force you to keep your belongings down and, as far as I’m concerned, this is my new Very Good Thing.
Another friend, who lives in a very small flat, pays storage rental for furniture that belonged to her parents, which she wants to keep but has no room for at the moment. She is currently looking for a larger flat.
This entire, painful, emotional exercise has been a salutary lesson in not hanging on to useless stuff we never even look at again. What is it all for?! All the old newspapers and leaflets commemorating some event or other, all carefully saved and filed neatly into plastic folders by my parents, ended up on the skip, or in the recycling bin, simply because there was no time to go through them all first. And that’s not including the boxes of papers and other items both my sister and I took to our respective homes to sort through. I have all my mother’s old diaries and address books and they, alongside 20 bursting carrier bags, are piled up on a bench in my kitchen – and have been for the past ten months – because every time I go to look through them, I start to cry. But I have mild OCD and I like my home to look good, so it’s a daily niggle for me and I know I have to get on with sorting it all out before an entire year has passed!
I really wish my parents had thought to clear out the loft, and other places, while they still could. Though, of course, nobody expects to have two strokes 12 years apart and die of the second (my dad); nor do they expect to end up physically disabled, and with dementia, in a home (my mother). The wardrobes upstairs were full of the clothes and shoes my mother ordered by phone (she couldn’t leave the house in the last few years), then never arranged to have them sent back when they didn’t fit her, or whatever – they all still had their labels on. Unable to leave the house at all, not even to go and sit in the garden, I’m not at all sure what she thought she was buying all these things for. And the cupboards downstairs were full of brand-new, expensive-looking china, more glassware, kitchen and beauty gadgets still in their boxes and a set of silver-plated cutlery with the receipt still in the box – over two hundred pounds, ouch. My theory is that, after spending most of her life being careful with money and making-do, she could finally afford to relax the purse-strings a little and spoil herself with the sorts of treats she would never have considered before. None of us knew about these things whenever we visited; nor about the unpaid cheques, bills and backlog of important paperwork, or we could have helped her with it all, of course.
The whole sorry process wasn’t helped by me being such a terrible sentimental hoarder. I wish I could have hardened my heart and just tipped the whole lot into the skip. But I couldn’t. In fact, I’m still haunted by what we chucked out and gave away and regret not keeping more, but our own house isn’t that big and is already very full. Sigh. My partner is just as bad: when it came to clearing his parents’ house, he took things to the local charity shop one day, and then went and bought them all back the next!
We had been enjoying regular takeaway Sunday roasts and other meals from the local village pub for some months, since they were able to reopen after lockdown. We wanted to support them. The first time we sat down with our lovely lunches in front of us, wafting their appetising scent everywhere, I said to my partner: “I honestly cannot remember the last time a roast was cooked in this house.” Even my sister, who has a much better memory than me, couldn’t remember.
Then there was the garden: a riot of bloom and colour when my parents were fit and able, but sadly gradually deteriorating over the years. I was paying our regular gardener to come out every couple of weeks to keep it all in shape, and put new plants into the patio pots and in the borders, which were looking bare and unloved before. I was also keen to keep up appearances for security’s sake. To make the place look cared-for and occupied. Last year, at what turned out to be our last spring at the house, I found it particularly moving to notice all the bulbs emerging from the earth. My parents must have planted these and the garden will continue to flourish; oblivious, of course, as to who will be looking at the plants and flowers and taking care of them from here on. And so the cycle continues…
Saying goodbye to the lovely neighbours, our gardener and his wife and the dear elderly and very sprightly man who has lived in the same house in the village all his life and who very kindly took the bins out for us, and for various neighbours who couldn’t manage it themselves (and brought them back in again), was especially hard for me, although we have been invited to tea with all of them – an offer we haven’t been able to take up yet, as our trips to see Mum in the home take up the entire day, there and back. After so many years, it feels sad and strange to no longer have a base in the area. Like outcasts. Mum is unaware we have had to sell the house, and thinks it’s still ours, with all her things still in it, which makes for some very difficult conversations with her. It would be immensely distressing for her to learn the truth and I hope she never finds out. Naturally, she wants to go back there, which would have been impossible in any case, even if we had somehow been able to hang on to it.
A shout-out to my long-suffering partner, here. I don’t know many men who would have done what he did for me, over the past few years. All the driving (I don’t drive), the checking and fixing of things in the house and the uncomplaining support he gave me in so many ways, during what was easily one of the worst times of my entire life was over and above and beyond the call of duty. It continues, too, with our regular trips to see Mum in the home. He is a rare gem indeed.
I finally came off the anti-anxiety/depression/sleeping pills I had been taking to get me through all of it. I was crying every day, and barely sleeping for worrying about the place when we weren’t there. The funny, plain, ordinary, boxy little house that Dad had built had been a true haven, refuge and sanctuary for me over the years, and never more so than in the last two years of our ownership. I think he would have liked that, though I’m not so sure he would be so happy with, or approve of the way things have turned out. I hated that our last few weeks there were so stressful, fraught, panicky and emotional, and I’m still feeling wretchedly guilty, grief-stricken and regretful at what we threw into those skips, and gave away to charity and the neighbours – it haunts me every single day. Sorry, Dad. Sorry, Mum. Though, as someone pointed out to me last year, I’d have most likely felt sad every time I looked at anything I’d kept. He said it’s not always healthy to be reminded. He has a point, though I have kept some things, of course. Just not everything.
And when I do think of what we had to leave behind, I find it helps me a little to imagine that at least some of those things belonging to our family are still residing in the area and, especially, in the village we loved and were very happy to call our home for so many years.
© Clare Cooper, 2022