Clearing House Illustration by Andrea Wan.

Clearing House

When our parents grow old, what do we do with the artifacts of their lives?

By Michael Harris Jan. 23, 2013

My boyfriend and I have seen the future. It looks like this: two guys sitting cross-legged in the middle of a creaky room, surrounded by forty-two dusty sherry glasses, a pile of crumpled newspaper and a tower of cardboard boxes marked “Salvation Army.” One of these guys takes a piece of his mother’s crockery out of the other guy’s hands and says, “Not yet.”

Holed up in the Greek end of Kitsilano, in Vancouver, my man and I have been clearing out his parents’ house—making room for our own lives in the home they bought for $18,000 in the 1960s, when they moved here from Athens. The home they raised their son in.

His parents never imagined that he’d invite another man to live with him here. They certainly never imagined that another man would help pack up their fancy glasses or cuddle with their son on the good floral-print sofa—which nobody was allowed to sit on—while watching old movies on VHS. And what would his mother, in her prime, have said about that new ring of water damage on the living room’s solid-teak table? What would she say about the kitten-scratched upholstery? Would she scowl as we rapidly undo a half-century’s worth of careful preservation? The floor gets scuffed or the rug gets stained and these signs of carelessness become fuel for self-condemnation. We aren’t suited to a life of doilies and slipcovers. And neither, anymore, is she. She sits, ravaged by Alzheimer’s, in her institutional home, and no longer has the luxury of caring about the state of her teak table. We couldn’t even manage to care about it for her.

And so it goes—for us, for our friends, for the country. We come downstairs each morning, feed the cats and stare at room after room of a ghost life. This scene is becoming familiar for more and more Canadians. Never before have there been so many people over the age of eighty in this country—1.2 million at the last census. Statistics Canada predicts that in a few years there will be more senior citizens here than children. Demographers tell us this trend will continue for decades. So, just as the previous generation was defined by the activism and celebration of youth, mine will be defined by its care for the elderly. It will be our unglamorous lot to settle accounts, sort through the leftovers—to clean up, as it were, after the party. By the time I enter the later years of my own life, a full quarter of Canada’s population will be over sixty-five years old. That’s an awful lot of cardboard boxes.

On day one of all this, we had ducked into the basement, past wooden shelves of canned preserves that will never be opened, to check out the crawl space. And there we found the steamer trunk. It was a grimy, beaten-up old thing, the kind of container that once carried people’s lives over from Europe. Dragged upstairs, its contents (all unused) started to tell a story: a frying pan with the label still on, a set of pea-green containers, eight tiny wine glasses, three pressed dresses from Woodward’s, two pairs of men’s socks and ten pairs of hose, still in their packaging. Why was it all untouched? Why abandoned there, wrapped in pages of a 1969 copy of the Vancouver Sun?

To find out, my forty-two-year-old boyfriend called his ninety-three-year-old dad in the retirement home. They spoke in Greek about bowel movements, their next visit, his mother’s Alzheimer’s and how the house must never, ever be sold. While they spoke, I lugged a few more vases (decorated with “antique” Greek tableaus) down to the new Vase Annex in the basement. To make room, I rearranged his mother’s sewing station, with its giant unworkable machinery and thousand spools of tangled threads.

Later I learned that the trunk is a genuine hope chest (though my boyfriend and I began to call it the “hopeless chest”). It belonged to a young woman, an acquaintance of his parents, who had collected all the things she needed for some future married life. But then she got herself pregnant while failing to collect a husband. She fled to Europe to have an abortion, promising to come back soon for the trunk. My boyfriend’s parents were thriving immigrants then, and they wanted to reach out and help this wayward, unwed girl. She never came back for her things.

They didn’t throw out her trunk, nor did they pack her intended life into cardboard boxes for the Salvation Army. They kept it all just as she’d left it, because she had said she would return.

But people never do return, not really. They get married, they move on to new lives and they grow, irrevocably, old. When my boyfriend’s father was brought back to the house on a visit, he sat (mostly blind, mostly deaf) on the sofa and clumsily stroked one of the cats. Standing, he started to rifle through papers in a drawer and nervously took to asking, “What’s this? Is this dealt with? What’s this?”

While his wife is now ignorant of her own past, he is forced to give things up. “It’s nothing,” said my boyfriend, taking his dad back to the sofa. “That’s nothing.” The things they’ve left are mostly junk to the modern eye, not particularly noble, or collectible, or precious. Just something you hold up for a moment before placing it in the box to give to charity.

I took a picture of the two of us with my iPhone, surrounded by stacks of cloudy crystal and framed pictures of unrecognizable saints. I emailed it to my mother: “Please start throwing things out.” While it’s easy enough for me to be ruthless with junk at my boyfriend’s house, I know I would be pitiful if I ever tried to clear the house that I grew up in. How do you hold a garage sale for your parents’ lives? How do you haggle with some early-bird shopper who wants to take your dad’s croquet set off your hands for a few bucks? I’d end up a class-one hoarder, surrounded by stacks of earthenware dishes and telling my boyfriend, “Not yet.”

Or I would for about a year or two. Ultimately, life finds ways to force a razing. (A job in another city, a needful sale of the house.) And then what does anyone hold onto? A picture or two. A favourite set of teacups. Maybe one of dad’s old jackets. But otherwise the flotsam is just that—debris from some other adventure. My boyfriend’s parents, after all, didn’t carry trappings from their parents across the ocean, except in haversacks of memory. They cut loose and sailed for a new world. They bought shiny things from big department stores and filled their home with a million choices of their own. They had an idea of a new life, and each seemingly random purchase from Woodward’s or the Bay became part of that larger picture. Almost every part of life has its objective correlative. Each daily act leaves behind some tool, some object now imbued with foggy meaning.

I should know; I’ve packed enough of them. We wrapped the plastic measuring cups, the cheap glassware from gas stations, the ridiculous gifts that may or may not have been cherished. We wrapped it all in pages of that day’s newspaper and fit it all into boxes, muttering, “What the hell is this? Why did they need this?” And still the house feels full, stuffed with a life that’s (to me) illegible and (to him) so heavy. Just the other day, when I tried to throw out a plastic container with “Greek Coffee” written on the side, my boyfriend stopped my hand and said, “What are you doing?” like I’d committed an act of treason.

We drove our first load down to the Salvation Army. A week’s work popped out of the car in a couple minutes. In the receiving area at the back of the store, a few nice old women tugged open boxes, pulled out napkin holders, figurines, creamers, and tagged them with prices. I peeked inside the shop and shuddered at row after row of sherry glasses. Where will it all go in five years, when the baby boomers, now senior boomers, begin downsizing, and their millions of hard-won purchases are orphaned and unwanted? Where will nostalgia force us to store the almost-okay brass lamps, the chipped platters, the twenty-year collections of National Geographic? When the thrift stores are finally gorged, where goes all the stuff, the stuff, the stuff?

My boyfriend and I have seen the future. Looking in on a room that will one day be the master bedroom, he tells me, “I want just a bed in here. Just a bed and nothing else.”

“Well, maybe some bookshelves, yeah?”

He gives me a look. “Just. A bed.”

Either way, I don’t imagine we’ll live here long. Someday the whole thing will be sold (likely, this time around, to an immigrant from Asia rather than Europe). A letter recently came in the mail announcing that the house, initially purchased for less than $20,000, had risen in value by $250,000 in just one year. The value, of course, is all in the land. The house itself is what they call a “tear-down.”