Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Victoria Strauss -- A Day in the Life

I usually stay away from personal stuff in this blog. But I'm currently in Alabama with my 81-year-old mom, helping my 89-year-old aunt pack up the big old historic home in which they both were born for my aunt's impending move to a retirement community--and my mind is pretty far from Writer Beware right now. So here's a snapshot of a more or less typical day.

Get up around 8:30, having been disturbed only twice in the night by the raccoon doing the tarantella in the chimney (it climbs up through the open stone fireplace in the dirt basement, which is where all the cooking was done in 1830, when the house was built). Transition from the temperate zone of the house (my bedroom) to the tropical zone (the rest of it). Eat breakfast in the kitchen, which is around 90 degrees because my aunt gets cold--but we can't eat in the dining room, which is slightly cooler, because the table is completely covered by an ever-changing collection of porcelain and silver, as my aunt tries to make up her mind which fraction of her vast possessions to take to the retirement community, and there's no room to put down a plate.

Move to the sun room--which is not sunny due to the fact that the curtains, which shut out most of the light, have been draped with blankets, to shut out even more light--to do some catching up on email. It's 80 degrees in here--not as bad as the kitchen, but I can't go back to the temperate zone because this is the only place I can piggyback on someone else's non-security-enabled wireless and get access to the Internet. Tap, tap, tap away at my computer, while listening to my aunt and my mom arguing in the office. My mom wants my aunt to throw out useless papers, of which there are enough in this house to furnish a Presidential library. My aunt doesn't want to. My mom gets frustrated. My aunt gets angry. It's all complicated by the fact that my aunt is getting quite deaf. Fun, fun, fun.

Around noon, go out for a run. Lovely sunny weather--around 58 degrees. Alabamians all bundled up in winter gear (I've lost count of the number of people I've heard complain about how cold it is). Me, the Massachusetts-ite, in capri tights and a sleeveless top. Freedom. Ahhhh.

Lunch in the 90-degree kitchen. My mom misses NYC, where she lives. My aunt, a Southerner to the bone, is skeptical about all aspects of the nawth. Then they start reminiscing about their childhoods, which is fun and interesting. But it's too hot, so I go off to do some drawer-mining. There are about 100 drawers in this house, and they are all stuffed full of, well, stuff. I'm hunting for things to throw away and things we can sell (money is pretty tight), but also scouting for important papers, which have been turning up in some exceedingly odd places, such as the drawer of the vanity in my aunt's bathroom (my aunt, by the way, has all her marbles and then some, but she's the most disorganized person I've ever known). I've managed to find documents pertaining to the renovation of the house in the 1980's and its subsequent placement on the National Historic Register (both important for the realtor we're planning to hire) and I've hidden them in my room so they won't vanish.

Later, run some errands. Dinner in the 90-degree kitchen--I'm a vegetarian and my aunt and mom are not, so I cook for myself. My mom tired and frustrated. My aunt sweet and cheerful. I clean up. Then, back to the sun room, to WATCH TV FOR DEAF PEOPLE! REALLY LOUD!! REALLY, REALLY LOUD!!! But I need to answer email, and it's better than the 90-degree kitchen.

Then bedtime, with my friend the raccoon. And ghostly knocking in the middle of the night. And peculiar noises as if people were banging planks together in the basement. But at least it's cool.

22 comments:

AC said...

Best of luck with the move--I know that's hard.

And welcome to Alabama! 58 degrees is, in fact, very cold for us ;)

Ann Victor said...

LOL! My 80 year old Dad watches TV the same way you aunt does: REALLY REALLY LOUD! And he refuses to wear the hearing aid we bought him. Love the sound of your raccoon though.

Strength to you! (especially in getting them to throw stuff away...)

Problem Child said...

Yes, welcome to Alabama. It went down into the 30's last night and I wanted to cry. It's only November!

Mary B said...

I hear you, Victoria! (but just barely, I've watched far too much TV FOR DEAF PEOPLE! LOUD! with my father).

And yes, I consider 58 degrees cold. Brrrr.

barrettmanor said...

This tale was all to familiar, having moved an elderly relative three times. The vast amount of stuff got smaller every time, but we still found papers in the oddest places. It sounds like you don't have to make this move in haste, which is a good thing, believe me.

Joylene Nowell Butler said...

You have my sympathies. My 92-year-old mother-in-law has been stockpiling since WW2. Every time we go to visit, my husband takes a load to the dump, but only after he convinces her he's stockpiling it or sending it off to the nearest Salvation Army.

The poor dear had cans of peaches that dated back to 1973. We haven't reached the 1980s yet.

Anyone born before 1930 has a different mindset. Can't really blame them.

ALC said...

Bless your heart, dear.

We Alabamians start to shiver when the temperature drops below 70. My husband is from Saginaw, MI. We moved back to my home state about 3 & a half years ago. He loves the town & the people, but he hates the heat.

So sorry about your troubles, dear. My great-grandmother passed away in February at the age of 99 & a half. We still haven't gone through all of her things yet and she was in a nursing home for 5 years.

It's interesting to see what that generation will keep. I remember that she was always a hoarder, too. I guess it has to do with living through the depression. Also, there was a time when being wasteful was considered sinful.

She was given perfume & perfume sets for birthdays & holidays that were still in their plastic, shrink-wrap sealers. Years worth of beautiful gifts of pajamas & clothing with tags still intact, socks & undergarments still in their original packages, she had tons of things that she'd save for a rainy day or for something important.

Does your aunt have any children or grandchildren? Are you the only one? Or, are you the only one who was able to come? Now would be a good time for her to divy up any family heirlooms that she might not have room for in the new place. Better to let HER decide who gets what than to wait for Uncle Sam to put in his two cents (& take a whole lot more in return) some time down the road (which he will do if [heaven forbid] she should end up in a nursing home - God willing she will be able to live in assisted living for the remainder of many, happy, long years!!!!).

Good luck!!!!!!

Georgie B said...

Good luck and thanks for that little slice of life that you shared with us today.

Victoria Strauss said...

My aunt doesn't have any kids. There are various cousins, and my uncle's brothers had kids, but none of them are interested in getting involved. So it's just my mom, me and my brother, and my husband and sister-in-law. I'm the one with the most flexible schedule, so that's why I'm down here now for this phase of the move (which includes not just preliminary packing and filling out the forms required by the retirement community, but putting the house on the market, getting the antiques appraised, and coming up with a plan for clearing out the house after my aunt is gone). In January, when my aunt actually moves, and February, when we clear the house, my brother and possibly my sister-in-law will be here too (my husband will be recovering from ankle surgery, and won't be ambulatory enough to help).

I do think living through the Depression has something to do with the accumulation of stuff. The real hoarder isn't my aunt--it was my uncle. We are finding all kinds of strange stuff. With my aunt, it's more that she can't bear to throw anything away. Plus, the shriveling family tree has resulted in the consolidation of possessions. There's four different families' possessions in this house.

My aunt is incredibly generous--anything I look at, she offers to give me. We're identifying stuff we want to keep in the family (my poor niece, who is the last twig on this branch of the family tree, will ultimately inherit EVERYTHING), and deciding who will take what. But we want to sell as much as we can, because we need to raise money. As much as I see the absurd side of it all, it's absolutely overwhelming, and I can't let myself think ahead or I'll get depressed. These are just the things in your life that you have to do.

Janet said...

I feel for you. My stepmother is a real packrat and I was really dreading the day I would have to go clear out the house. When my father passed away she decided it was too depressing to stay in the house and it was her brother who had to help her. (I live across the country.) I was soooooooo relieved.

Take it one day at a time or it will all seem too overwhelming. (I'm really good at giving this excellent advice, much less good at doing it myself.)

Anonymous said...

I feel your pain. We recently moved my parents from a 3300 sft house to a much smaller house and rented a nice big dumpster. Unfortunately, we also had to hide things under layers to keep my dad from extracting Items That Might Be Useful In The Future. Ahhh!!

Good luck to you.

Janet K.

Anonymous said...

Sorry you're having a difficult time, and I hope things become boring and comfortable for you soon.

That said, this was wonderfully written and a great pleasure to read. Thanks.

Harry C.

AnneB said...

Faced this once with my husband's parents, facing it any day with my own (age 91 and 90). Keep the dispatches coming; it will help your sanity and let us know We Are Not Alone!

Repeat after me: I will not act like this when I am 80. I won't. I won't.

sylvia_rachel said...

Ah, yes. Layers of packrattage and TV FOR DEAF PEOPLE! I know that one...

My parents (B"H) are all four of them alive and well and living in their own houses still, but we did this 10 years ago after my mother-in-law z"l passed away and again a few years later when my father-in-law moved into a retirement home. Because neither of them ever threw anything away. Ever. Because You Never Know.

There were 20-year-old boxes of cake mix and instant pudding. There were phone bills and hydro bills from the 1970s, carefully preserved in accordion files. There were crafting supplies dating back to my sister-in-law's childhood (she was born in 1958) and a copy of Julius Caesar my other sister-in-law read in high school (she was born in 1947). There were decades' worth of birthday and Christmas gifts, all unopened, either received by my MIL or purchased by her for some unknown recipient. Souvenirs from trips to Florida in the 1960s. My husband's childhood bowling trophies. An NHL-themed bedspread from the days of the first expansion teams.

And I haven't even mentioned the books.

Fortunately, we had lots of people helping. Unfortunately, no two of them (us) could agree on what to keep, what to throw out, where to donate, etc., etc.

Bon courage...

Victoria Strauss said...

I didn't expect, when I put this post online, the response it would generate--not just the comments here, but the many wonderful emails I've received from people who've been through the same thing, or who just want to express sympathy. I'm surprised and grateful. Thanks you all!

BuffySquirrel said...

Staying recently with my father, I went through the kitchen cupboards and threw out EVERYTHING that was past its sell by date.

I think under the complaining he was grateful, really. Umm.

c.a. Marks said...

Oh dear, other than all of that, welcome to Alabama. :-)

I like your blog and will add it to my other writing reads. Thanks for being here.

Janny said...

TV FOR DEAF PEOPLE is helped if said deaf people will put on some really nifty headphones....

Various places have them, and they're a godsend. If nothing else, perhaps you'll be able to persuade your aunt that using these will enable her to block out all the other really loud TVs from all the other deaf people in the retirement village who will have their TVs on so loud she can't hear HERS. Hey, it's a thought.

Seriously, I've bought a pair of these for our own use; neither my husband nor I is deaf, but we work totally different schedules and I tend to be awakened easily by sounds in the house. So when he comes home at midnight and wants to catch a little History Channel, he simply puts on the wireless infrared headphones, enjoys TV to his heart's content, and the rest of the house is whisper-quiet.

Far as the heat goes, unfortunately, you're on your own. They haven't invented individual headphones to adjust temperature yet. (sigh)

The idea of 58 degrees being "cold," however, does bring to mind an incident long ago in which I was living in Biloxi, MS, having come from Chicago. The landlady told us, "Oh, you people up north, you think you're the only place where it gets cold. Last winter it got down to 31 degrees here and all the pipes froze."

I said, "31 above or below?"

She said, "Above or below WHUHT?"

I just laughed.

:-)

Janny

Katharine Swan said...

Victoria, this may be stressful for you, but you sure turned it into a delightful blog post! I am visualizing you looking for paperwork in all the "exceedingly odd places" you can think of in this crazy old house, and it is a highly amusing image. :o)

I hope everything goes well. I'm actually jealous though so it's hard to feel too sympathetic -- what an adventure, what a chance to spend time with your mother and aunt and learn more about their childhoods! I didn't get that chance with my grandparents' house, because instead of letting anyone go through it my grandfather sold everything in his house -- including about half the family heirlooms -- before moving into a retirement home.

Packratting arguments aside, this sounds like a fantastic opportunity for you -- both to spend time with and learn more about your family, AND (judging by your funny blog post) possibly even fodder for future writing!

Victoria Strauss said...

Janny, your 31 above or below story reminds me of a wonderful (imgine a glyph for sarcasm) Christmas we spent with my husband's parents a number of years ago in Charleston, South Carolina. The day after we arrived there was a blizzard--yes, a real nor'easter-style blizzard, which dumped more than a foot of snow over the Charleston area. Of course, they don't really get snow there, and no one in Charleston owns a snow shovel, so basically the snow just has to sit there till it melts.

The city shut down. I mean everything was closed. Not even a coffee shop open for business. Meanwhile, tension in the house was running high--my husband and his mom had a very difficult relationship, and being housebound didn't help. It got so awful that the frozen, almost completely empty (except for snow, of course) streets of Charleston became more attractive than the warm dry house. We spent a lot of time tramping glumly around the city. We tramped so much, in fact, that we wound up in the newspaper. A reporter, looking for local color, spotted us leaning dispiritedly on the railings of the Battery and gazing out to sea, and snapped our picture.

Cue a horrifying Christmas dinner, with an undercooked turkey, brussels sprouts cooked to mush, and no dessert. (Well, there was dessert but my mother in law decided we didn't deserve it and ate it in her room. I'm not making that up.) My mother in law was inching ever closer to critical mass. My husband was threatening to call a cab, go to the airport, and sit there till the snow melted off the runways. I was keeping out of it, wondering how much worse things could get.

So the day after Christmas it gets warm. And half the pipes in Charleston, which had frozen...burst. How much worse could things get? Try no water pressure. Which meant no flushing. For...a...whole...day.

It got better after that.

ALC said...

Yikes!!!

Your family disfunction story makes me actually appreciate the various degrees of insanity in mine.

Thankfully, my in-laws are wonderful. They despised my husband's ex-girlfriend of many years. I'm sort of their hero.

It's MY family that keeps life interesting. (I love them, but yeeesh! Things can be trying.)

I like living close enough to visit every once in a while, but far enough away to have an excuse not to visit. :)

I'm so sorry about your poor husband's evil mom. I'm guessing he's probably one of the sweetest people in the world.

That's the way it always seems to happen, anyway.

Rocky FW said...

I laugh when the tempature gets down to 45 degrees here in Melbourne FL when people born in Florida put on big Jackets made for the Alaska Tundra. Born in Chicago. Lived there when the tempature was 02 degrees with 40 mile winds making the the wind chill factor 40 below zero. I think to myself, these Florida people just would not make it in Chicago or any of the places north of the Tenn Border.