When you are presented with the residue of death, the material remnants of someone who was close to you either by blood or affection; the sorting through and cleaning up process isn’t as glamorous as it is often made out to be. Sure, it is always possible to find long lost family jewellery, or uncover the deeds to an idyllic island, or stumble on hidden love letters from a person unknown, but it is far more likely you will be sorting through years of the accumulated soiled scraps of someone else’s stuff.
Sorting through my parent’s possessions presented me with exactly the kind of mess I would have much preferred not to deal with.
In the bathroom there were endless bottles and containers of half used medications, some so old the labels were smudged beyond being readable. Plastic tubs of hardened cotton balls sidled up against samples of shampoo, conditioner and various other cosmetics most of which had shrivelled with age. Hardened tubes of toothpaste lay next to tired toothbrushes with browned and broken bristles. Vanity shelves were dotted with sticky lumps of unknown substances in various mouldy colours, like some exotic skin condition.
In the kitchen the bench tops were barely visible under the weight of jars, some empty, some crusted with the remnants of jams or mustards or other blobs of unfathomable material. Everything draped with dust and cobwebs long abandoned by their occupants. Under the sink stacks of square empty margarine containers, their lids angled drunkenly against them. More plastic toward the back, ice cream containers, take away food containers, milk bottles and glass jars of every description. Another cupboard full of decades old canned food, boxes of cereals invaded by weevils, jars perhaps filled with pickles or maybe olives, it was difficult to tell. The refrigerator was no better. Shelves of those margarine containers, not empty this time, each containing bits of leftovers from bygone meals. Half a rissole in one, a handful of French fries in another, some rice, a sad looking salad and a quarter of an apple all of which were either mouldy or beginning to grow interesting looking bacteria.
My mother’s bedroom with wardrobes filled with bent hangers and old, broken shoes stacked on each other. Pockets stuffed with tissues. Scraps of paper on every flat surface. Desk drawers crammed with hardened ink bottles, bent quills, cracked paint tubes and broken brushes. Useless cut offs of drawing boards mixed with scraps of greeting cards in various hues. Trimmings of wrapping paper, twisted lengths of ribbon, fraying ends of elastic, rubber bands melted together in small balls and an endless supply of dried up pens and leadless pencils.
My father’s bedroom crammed with books and carefully opened envelopes of junk mail. Drawers of paperclips, rubber bands, useless pens, pre-used stamps, rulers made of wood, plastic and paper, piles of receipts for purchases long forgotten. His wardrobe shelf neatly arranged with unworn clothes, still packed in their American labelling, unopened for fifty years. Mounds of paperwork, piles precisely placed on each other, mini leaning towers, adorned with thick layers of dust.
A house full of other people’s lives and leftovers.
Oh – and I did find the hidden love letters from an unknown young girl to my father, dated from the end of WW2.