I’m in a quiet, empty house in Newcastle – my Mum’s place. Mum’s in hospital, again, and Dad’s been gone for years, so the house is mine alone for the moment, for days at a stretch, to sit and reflect. It’s quiet, but it’s comforting, and it’s giving me the space to breathe it in and think about the changes taking place.
The furniture, and so many of the ornaments and bits and piece, are exactly the same as they were when Mum and Dad was first purchased them nearly 60 years ago. Most of it was assembled when Mum went out and purchased a whole household of furniture and decor in virtually one fell swoop, dividing her attention and cash between David Jones and ‘Goulds’; lounges, buffets, tables, lamps and even ornaments. Who does that? Some of the small stuff and the multitude of paintings have been added over the years. Some of it is heavy with dust, some tucked away, but almost all is still in remarkably good nick. And those red marble grapes and the trio of black vases still nestle together just as they did half a century ago on the buffet.
I’m sitting at the dining table. It’s the one from my childhood, and teenage years, and all the years after, because it’s the only one they/we ever had, the one from the ‘good room’. Although it wasn’t for daily use (the six of us squeezed around a small round one, also still here, for that), it was the table we sat around for many occasions and big events. That’s when the buffet would be cracked open and the Wedgewood and the heavy Stuart crystal glasses would be allowed to come out to grace the equally heavy lace cloth, and the laughs and red wine would flow. It’s also the table I studied fervently on for my HSC while Billy Joel played My Life on the radio somewhere, in the days when few of us had studies or desks in their rooms – they were too small for that, and often were shared by more than one person. But I must have been considered trustworthy with a pen by the time I was 17, though no doubt I’d have been under strict instructions to put a magazine under what I was writing on. I still say exactly the same thing to my (grown) kids, and now to my granddaughter as well. But it’s a discipline that protects the furniture, as the table’s most excellent condition attests.
Tonight I’ve put on a CD of music, classical of course, because that’s what always filled the house. Beethoven was the CD in the player, Beethoven’s 5th, so Dad would have been pleased.
Sometimes I sit in Dad’s big, black chair, and soak him in through the leather, and sometimes I swap to the yellow one on the other side of the room, the one Nana used to sit in on a Sunday afternoon long, long ago when the chair used to be turquoise, with her ramrod-straight back, and take in the world through her steely blue eyes.
This afternoon I curled up on the feathery heaven of the lounge, just as I did as a teen and later when I’d left home and would come back for the weekend, and took a long, luxurious nap. It’s ridiculously comfortable, and for a vertically-challenged person like myself, still offers plenty of scope for an adequate sleeping pose in the foetal position. If Mum was here, she’d have immediately puffed it up furiously the minute I’d got up and made it perfect again. One of her many, many obsessions is to keep the feathers pumped up just so. I never had the same discipline with the feather lounge we had once, and hence it was usually flat and never felt the same.
I don’t think she’ll come back here. She loves this place, with its original lead-light windows and dark, timber doors and picture railings. I’ve always found it dark and a bit oppressive, but I’ve worked out when I’m here alone, I can open up all the blinds and fling open the doors to let the breeze in, and it’s a house transformed. She’s often told me it’s her favourite house she’s ever lived in, so that’s all that matters, even if it is dark and musty under her watch. It’s a hard choice to make, to stay or go, and an even harder place to leave. It’s her home.
For some months I’ve been wearing a path out between capital cities – visiting Mum in various hospitals and talking to an endless array of doctors and medical staff, trying to peer into the future and investigating options as she battles various ailments and crises, and then goes back home to try it again with a bit more support added in. But it’s looking bleak in terms of staying here. The more I pry into papers and piles and poke into cupboards and potter about, the more obvious it is how tenuously she’s been hanging on – even though she’d say she was doing perfectly well. It’s a fine balance to know when to intervene, and it took a crisis for a catalyst.
Working through some of the paperwork is easy enough – though laborious; what’s rubbish and needs to be discarded is reasonably clear, as is what’s official and needs to be kept. But what about the myriad of stuff in between?
Delving into the cupboards means peeling back the layers of history. Not just her history, but the history of her generation before her, still buried in the bowels of the linen cupboard or revered in the musty aroma of an untouched bookcase. It’s daunting stuff, and it’s huge. Much is trash – bra receipts from a decade ago, for example, or doctors’ appointment cards from before that, but there are treasures. Like old photos or the first locks of baby hair. Or your Dad’s boarding pass he kept spirited away in his tall boy from his one and only European trip that that you took him on nearly 20 years ago. Ah, the sights we saw and the toilets we stopped at!
Even though it’s taking hours, and days, and weeks, I’m just chipping away at the edges. There’s hardly a dent inside, even though the bins keep going out full and the pile in the hall for charity is becoming a mountain.
And oh, the books, the books! And then there is the abundance of fake flowers, not to mention the piles of recent acquisitions from mail order catalogues. Soon I will have to enlist the support of the broader family, to sort, and discard, and clean, and no doubt horde some for the next generation. The pain of hanging on: I do recall I’ve written about that before.
There’s still so much to dislodge. For a chronic hoarder and a die-hard sentimentalist, it’s a recipe for agony.