I’d been reading with real fascination about the Japanese writer Marie Kondo and her worldwide bestseller, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, when I received word that my 93-year-old aunt was at Death’s Door. I flew to Florida and must say she had as peaceful an end as anyone could hope for, in a hospice that looked like an upscale Caribbean resort. John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme on the jazz station, the priest there for last rites (Hildy was a Catholic convert), and a few minutes later she slipped away.
I was told by the managers of her apartment that it needed to be cleared out within a couple of weeks. When I started going through her things, my mind returned to Kondo and her suggestion that we get rid of the superfluous before our lives end to avoid being remembered as hoarders.
Getting rid of seems popular these days. Self-help guru James Altucher reduced his total belongings to just 15 items.
I’m sharing the process of going through Hildy’s things as a cautionary tale. If you’ve ever squeezed one last shirt into your closet, bought yet another pair of shoes you didn’t need, or filed away photos you suspect you’ll never look at again, read on…
Two truckloads of Hildy’s life
Disposing of 93 years over about ten hours began as so many of these efforts do: by opening a box of pictures of Hildy’s family, her parents Lutheran German immigrants and her father a genuine Swiss-German candy maker. There were pictures of his first candy store on Fullerton Avenue, an actual box of the metal candy molds he’d used to make chocolate elves and Easter rabbits, photos from Hildy’s childhood, her high school yearbook (Pearl Harbor would occur six months later), a box of sheet music for songs she liked to sing as she planned a career as a professional singer (she toured B-grade nightclubs in the Midwest), and photos from her short-lived marriage (her husband died three months into it at 35).
Still more material related to her abandoning the singing career, her life as a secretary for Channel 11, a retirement party, and her move to Florida. Plus folder after folder of Medicare paperwork and a hundred medicine bottles.
As she moved from apartment to apartment in Chicago and then Florida, Aunt Hildy did not throw anything away. Anything. But she did know how to use space efficiently, squirreling away her life in folders, baggies, and boxes of all sizes. By the end of my day, I’d carted off about 20 garbage bags of junk mail from businesses closed decades ago and delivery menus from non-existent restaurants. Also greeting cards by the hundreds, name and address labels, and thousands more photos.
I had the help of her part-time caregiver Annie and two strapping men with a huge truck sent from an immense thrift store that relishes this kind of whole-house donation. A few hours later at the thrift store itself, several volunteers would sort the two truckloads of Hildy’s life.
One of the guys remarked on how well organized she was as she accumulated things she clearly thought she’d be able to use “someday.” A dresser drawer contained 30 to 40 plastic bags, each sealed with a twist and containing everything from a dozen replacement flashlight bulbs and several hundred paper clips to multiple keys for small purses, hundreds of pennies, and five dozen long-desiccated ballpoint pens.
Another drawer was packed with every income tax return since the ‘60s, wedged in with a riot of ancient paperwork, including the employee manual from when she was hired at WTTW and the operating instructions of every appliance she’d ever owned.
Aunt Hildy kept each greeting card she’d ever received and had photo albums of my kids and my mother’s world travels (she was a travel agent and had been everywhere), the once-colored pictures sadly faded to a blurry yellow-orange. Album after album of cousins I’d never met, travels Hildy herself had taken, albums of relatives, and other photos ranging from a formal black-and-white of her in a photographer’s studio many decades ago to a leisurely backyard barbecue, all the picnickers long dead and buried.
Six albums were marked “Erna’s albums.” Whoever Erna might be, she gave Hildy about 500 photos of her family.
Welcome to heaven, we hope you traveled light
She packed into her closets dozens of shoes, handbags, and gloves, pounds of costume jewelry, and nearly 100 bottles of various vitamins and herbs. The junk mail had insinuated itself everywhere. Just when I thought I’d cleared the last circular promising a health secret “Your doctor won’t tell you about,” I’d open a drawer with another wad of them tightly wedged in with a box of a dozen eyelash curlers.
There were boxes of Mary Baker Eddy’s Christian Science books, Hildy’s childhood religion before her transition to Catholicism. There were health-oriented books plus pamphlets on the end-of-life transition and a lot of “What happens after you die?” folders showing Jesus and Mary in poses of warm welcome to heaven.
Several dozen cookbooks, a metal box containing hundreds of handwritten recipes on index cards, and two notebooks in which she’d glued countless recipes she’d clipped from newspapers, most using variations on the limited food items available during the ‘40s and ‘50s (beans, eggs, and pork chops).
Hildy rarely cooked a meal.
She had a large cedar chest crammed with linens, a chest of silverware of the sort salesmen would sell to single working girls back in the day, several cases of books I knew had belonged to a Polish-speaking boyfriend whose goal was improving his reading skills rather than careful selection of subject matter, inspirational books by Billy Graham, autobiographies of forgotten movie stars, and even some car repair manuals.
Hildy kept a folder from every vacation she ever took, these slim volumes variably containing menus, photos, and travel agency itineraries. She’d crossed the Atlantic on the maiden voyage of the SS United States, then the largest ship in the world. A menu was autographed by the ship’s captain in 1953.
As anyone knows who’s tackled the mountain of someone else’s keepsakes, the key is to not become drawn in while looking at items of genuine interest or historical note.
Blessed be the thrift store worker
As the men from the thrift store began to feel overwhelmed, they called for reinforcements and two more helpers arrived, packing and carrying away, packing and carrying away, until slowly the apartment emptied. Piece by piece, her big clunky furniture was wedged through the front door, placed on a dolly, wheeled down a corridor to the elevator, and then down yet another corridor. If the furniture could talk, it might have expressed shock at leaving its lifetime of air-conditioned bliss and moving into the 100-degree Florida sunlight before being packed unceremoniously into a scathingly hot truck.
When I asked about the fate of everything, from the box of paperclips to the bedroom suite, I was told it would all be sold in a matter of weeks.
“Thrift shopping is a way of life in Florida. There’s not much else to do in these retirement cities.”
I asked what sells first.
“Those vinyl records will be gone this afternoon. Collectors wait for our truck to pull into the loading dock.”
Hildy had promised caregiver Annie she could take whatever she wanted for herself. To keep stuff away from the thrift shop men, Annie piled her selections into each of the two bathtubs, but these quickly filled and by the time I left both bathrooms looked like cornucopias spilling Hildy stuff. Annie, 71, and her boyfriend would return to the apartment with a borrowed van. I guessed they’d take two or three back-and-forth trips to the nearby town where they live. Annie admitted she was “a bit of a hoarder herself.”
A Comcast send-off
When the apartment was completely empty, the only object left behind was an old TV set, which the thrift store guys told me they couldn’t even give away. The man who’d spent his life picking up furniture told me he was so happy when the thrift store announced it would no longer accept the massively heavy box TVs that he felt like crying in gratitude.
I took some cable TV boxes to Comcast, the awful company that over the phone informed me it wouldn’t close Hildy’s account until I presented them with a death certificate or a letter from her doctor. In person, I was smarter. Standing in a building reminiscent of an Eastern European post office, with stone-faced personnel, I told them Hildy had already moved to Chicago and I was the messenger from the nursing home. The clerk looked at my four or five pieces of dusty equipment, scowled at me and said “You didn’t bring the adapter” (there had been no adapter).
I was prepared for what came next.
The clerk said “We’ll have to send a bill to her address in Chicago.”
That’s fine, I told her, carefully dictating the address of a cemetery I’d looked up earlier online.
I stopped her newspapers, her landline, and her cell phone (which she never once used). Then I took Annie to lunch and gave her a sizable check in the amount Hildy had directed as a gift. Annie was genuinely taken aback and told me that in 40 years of caregiving for the elderly this was the first time she’d received anything like an inheritance, even when she’d worked for someone for more than 20 years.
The last truck pulled off into the sunset. Later, I’d turn over the keys to the administrator.
And that’s it.
One life, seven years shy of a century, dispersed in less than a day.
When I got back to Chicago, I revisited the article on the Marie Kondo book, determined to begin clearing the detritus of my own life.
Rest in peace, Hildy. Comcast will never find you.
David Edelberg, MD
PS–To save you the clutter of yet another book, here are Kondo’s secrets for decluttering:
- Keep only what gives you immediate benefit and joy. The word “immediate” is important. Anything you own that you’re enjoying now (your comfortable shoes, your current book, your smartphone, a reliable dressy dress) is worth keeping.
- Clear out whatever gave you joy that is unlikely to be recaptured (many of your clothes, all those books, most of your countertop appliances). Give others the opportunity to experience your joy by giving things away or reselling them in a consignment shop.
- Clear out what you bought in anticipation of joy that hasn’t lived up to expectations: the must-have book you’ve started but can’t finish, those shoes that cost a fortune and now look all wrong, your spiralizer. Again, give away so that others have the opportunity of experiencing joy with these items.
- Clear out anything you haven’t used for two years (some people trim this to a year). All those vinyl records and you don’t even have a turntable. Your pasta maker, useless now that you’ve gone paleo.