A year and a half ago, my husband Jeff and I bought his parents’ house.
We had been house hunting for a number of months, had put in a few offers but were getting nowhere. Then, realizing she could help us, Jeff’s mother asked us if we’d be interested in her house. Jeff’s dad had died six months earlier, and she was quickly discovering the house was too big and too much for one person to manage.
After thinking long and hard about what we were getting ourselves into – as well as considering what it would be like for Jeff to own and live in his childhood home – we agreed and moved in.
Since we were almost “inheriting” the house in some weird way, we suddenly found ourselves the owners of much of what the house contained. Old clothes, unwanted sporting equipment and numerous pieces of artwork became ours to deal with. Cleaning out a garage filled with stuff was our new weekend project along with finding space for a boat, canoe and ATV.
For reasons I won’t go into in this blog post, we made quick work demolishing and renovating the bottom half of the house almost immediately after taking possession. That was over a year ago. Our basement is a beautiful, new, clean space that I love spending time in. Upstairs is a completely different story.
We could only renovate part of the house at once, so walking in our front door is a psychedelic time warp. You look down the stairs and see colourful walls, white trim and hardwood floors. You look up, and are assaulted by ancient carpeting, wallpaper and 60s-inspired light fixtures.
It is the most schizophrenic house you’ll ever visit, and the time has come to tackle the rest of the renovations.
Our two upstairs bedrooms have mainly served as storage over the past year. My stuff, Jeff’s stuff and the remaining items his mom didn’t want fill the space in disordered chaos. We’ve all tried to pretend the boxes don’t exist, but if we want to finish the house we know we need to deal with them.
Last weekend, I stopped procrastinating and started on my boxes. Initially it was fun sorting through my treasures. In some cases, I found items I thought I’d lost. My knickknacks and pictures gradually joined Jeff’s on shelves and walls as I opened box after box, and I have to admit it was a cool experience we enjoyed tackling together. The last remnants of our lives as separate, single people were being joined together in our first home as a married couple.
Gradually, I started to find sentimental items. The candlesticks from our wedding ceremony. A Barbie doll my grandpa bought before he died and asked my mother to save for me. A half-finished scarf I was knitting with my grandma’s help before she got sick. Why had I put these things in boxes? Didn’t I care about them?
To be completely honest, going through those boxes was hard. In fact, at times it was devastating. It might have been harder than it needed to be because I was also surrounded by items belonging to Jeff’s late father and aunt. Things the people we loved had deemed important enough to save were relegated to boxes, bins and dusty shelves.
My initial, lighthearted attempts to clear a few rooms and get them ready to paint took on new meaning to me as I sat on the floor with Jeff and cried about the people we had both lost. Nothing cuts a person as deeply as the loss of a loved one, and our house is filled with the echoes of important people no longer with us.
The funny thing about grief is that it can be a powerful motivator. Instead of allowing our sadness to swallow us, Jeff and I started making plans about how we can incorporate the items we found into the renovations. Old antiques will sit on special shelves, and important keepsakes will be framed and mounted on walls. Our goal is to fill our new space with reminders of those we’ve lost, in the perfect marriage of past, present and future.
It’s funny how the simplest thing can knock the wind out of you and kick you back into reality. That something as simple as unpacking a box can turn into a deep reminder of the past. It might sound silly, but this experience has inspired me to pause, remember my loves ones and, most importantly, pick up my pen and start writing again.
I’ve been struggling with the topic of my second novel for a few years now, but there, amongst the cluttered boxes, I found it staring me in the face…