There was nothing shocking about my mother at age 95 going into residential aged care, and while the need for that came about overnight the move was about time. What was shocking was the instant devaluation of her treasured possessions.
One day the material accumulation of her life was immensely valuable and the next day it was worthless. From treasure to detritus in the minute it took for my mother to leave her house of more than 50 years on her way to hospital.
Thankfully she recovered over a week or so in hospital from the gastro illness that had hit her family members and so many people of the Hunter in May, but she chose to go from hospital to residential care, and she told me repeatedly that she didn't care what my sister and I did with the contents of her house.
It was sad. The silver bits and pieces once owned by long-gone relatives, the cutlery that may have been a wedding gift, inscribed plaques with ancient and obscure significance, the old Sunbeam Mixmaster that had made so many cakes for her young family, the material milestones of her young married life, and suddenly they didn't matter.
There wasn't much we could do beyond removing it from the house, because the house had to be sold to provide what's called an accommodation deposit to a nursing home, and so we asked her grandchildren to take what they wanted. They took just a few things that spoke to them of grandma, but their houses are already furnished, their shelves as full as they want them to be.
We phoned the charity shops, and they were interested, conditionally, in a few pieces of furniture but not in anything else. You can have, we offered, the 20 big bags of fabric so carefully selected by my mother over many years of trawling quilting shops. And everything else. No thank you.
Suddenly I appreciate that material things are not memories, that when they are of no use they add to our life nothing but a burden. I hope to convince my wife that we should deal with that burden over a year rather than leave it to our children to deal with over a week.
We invited secondhand dealers to the house in the hope they would take everything, but they'd pick a few items and tell me that the market for stuff had expired eight or nine years ago, that until then they'd have been able to sell everything in the house.
We had a garage sale, which garnered less than $100 and made not a dent in the mass. The first fellow there gathered together the record player, amplifier, DVD player, speakers and records and offered $10!
Then I went to the dump. Twice. The recycler fossicking in my pile of old saucepans, cake tins, pottery jars, teddy bear novelties and cat ornaments had seen it many times before. Are you, he asked, clearing out your mother's house?
And that night I said to my wife that we must clear out our conglomeration. Start, she said, in your shed.
I will. First to go will be the spanners and other hand tools I've wrapped in oily rags over many years with the intention of giving them one day to my sons and sons-in-law. They don't want them now and they won't want them when the time comes to clear out Poppy's shed.
Next will be the old fishing reels that only ever had a value because they were old, and things I've been going to fix one day, and as I write that I wonder if I should keep the old electric coffee machine that I hope needs just a descaling. No.
Gone, too, will be old outboard motor tanks, an ancient valve spring compressor, a few small motors that I can't remember whether I've fixed or not, and perished fishing waders, and already I'm feeling better.
Fifteen years ago when it appeared likely that cancer would claim me one thing that worried me more than most was leaving my shed for my wife to clear out. A strange thing to be worried about, I know, but worry about it I did, and I suspect that in my 70s or 80s I will worry about it again. Lightening my load now may pay dividends later.
The real anguish, though, awaits me in the house. My shortwave radios. I don't think I've ever been as excited about any material thing as I was when I bought them, over 30 years, and while their day has long gone I treasure them still. But the fact is that they are now lumps in my life, as useless to me as the clothes I'll never wear again.
The house will be a battle, my wife will be a war. She agrees we need a thinning but she does not agree with me having a role in it.
Let's start in the corner cupboard in the kitchen, I suggest, the cupboard that spills most of its plastic containers and jugs onto the floor whenever I open it.
If we haven't used it in the previous few months, I say, let's hoick it. Start in the shed, she says again.
In my adult life I have experienced the two extremes of material life. For years as a single fellow I moved abode with a cardboard box and an armful of bedding, and getting close to half a century later I'd need a team of professionals and several trucks. Marital life became material life.
The instant devaluation of my mother's material life has had an impact on me. Suddenly I appreciate that material things are not memories, that when they are of no use they add to our life nothing but a burden. I hope to convince my wife that we should deal with that burden over a year rather than leave it to our children to deal with over a week. Yes, I'll need good luck with that.
- Jeff Corbett is a former journalist with the Newcastle Herald. He contributes a weekly column to Herald's Saturday edition. Contact Jeff: email@example.com
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