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  • Writer's pictureMary Balistreri

All the Stuff (Swedish Death Cleaning, Part I)

If you have not heard of Swedish Death Cleaning, it's a book (The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning by Margareta Magnusson) and a TV show. I watched two episodes of the show and it inspired me to act. The concept is to clean up all your stuff before you die so that your family and friends are not stuck with a big mess. On the television show, a designer, an organizer, and a psychologist (all from Sweden) are there to help. I have no Swedes to assist me. I am doing it all by myself.


I started with the basement. I know there are boxes down there containing taxes and financials from as far back as 2000. My brief, yet significant, start in purging through my old stuff brought new insights for me to share in this grief blog.


1. Why am I holding other onto people's stuff? After we moved my mother to assisted living due to her dementia several years ago, there were several separate rounds of cleaning out her apartment (she lived above my sister, Ann, in the house they purchased together). The need for clothes or other belongings necessitated the first few walk throughs and decision making. My sister, Chris, and I created piles for donation to charities like Goodwill, piles for things Audrey might need at her new home, and piles of stuff we ignored filled with the things that left us perplexed. Then COVID hit and any plans to finish the cleaning were put on hold. When we went back, our intention was to completely finish the job. We carefully set aside some items slated for specific individuals according to her will. I volunteered to take that box of well-identified stuff home with me along with all the photo albums, a few Christmas decorations and holiday earrings, and items I thought we might display when she passes into the next realm. Oh, and some of her mugs, and things my son had made for her, and... Chris focused particularly on an outfit for mom to wear after she passed. As I have mentioned in a previous blog, our mom was a superstar when it came to dressing, accessorizing, and manners. She either thought she was Princess Grace (Grace Kelly) or maybe Audrey Hepburn. My mom greatly admired Michelle Obama, "another great beauty", she said. We chose two beautiful dresses - one the epitome of the little black dress and the other a shimmery, yet tasteful, two-piece outfit she wore to the most recent wedding in the family. Tears came instantly for both of us, okay, more for Chris, but, you know, and we knew these were the right picks. We found some black pumps, and I volunteered to hold onto the outfits at my house until the time came. This year when my sister, Ann, died, Chris and I were back at it, helping clean out another household. This time our niece and nephew, Valery and Josh, were a vital part of the purging crew. At the outset, I immediately grabbed a few items which held great sentimental value to me. In particular, I took the book I made for her when she turned 50. Back then, I had solicited stories about Ann from family members, colleagues, and friends, and combined them with photos into a beautiful remembrance. So special. And, I happily snatched the photo album I made when we all lived together - Ann, mom, Val, Josh, and me. It was a red door about 15 inches tall, and when you opened the door, the pictures underneath were revealed. I remember when I first gave it to Ann, it had a tiny Christmas wreath on the front of the door. That part is gone, but the pictures of all of us opening presents under the light of the Christmas tree are intact. Then, I latched onto a few items to keep, you know, just in case a family member should want them later. A big box of Ann's Christmas decorations, her Christmas jewelry, a colorful pitcher I had given her, duplicate pictures of my son, her grandson. This was back in the day when we took our film to Walgreens to develop. I would order three sets of everything so I could frame the absolutely best pictures of Owen and give them to Ann and mom. Now, I have my own set, my mom's set, and Ann's. Owen in triplicate. So many strange feelings emerged during this purging. First I felt like I had invaded private space. We found poems my mom had written. Cool! And notes she wrote to herself over and over again to try to remember all of her children's names and their phone numbers. Among Ann's things were many romance novels - no surprise as there was a time when we both read them - and a journal with a similar theme she wrote about her own life. Should I really be seeing this? I have not read that book yet. What is the right thing to do with it? Does Miss Manners have a fix for this? My letter to her would be something like, Mary's letter to Miss Manners, August 2023:

Dear Miss Manners, My sister recently passed and I found a diary with stories about her sexual exploits among her things. What is the right etiquette regarding this saucy prose? Read it? Burn it? Toss it? or Publish it? Sincerely, In a fix of Swedish Death Cleaning and Feeling Confused. Next, anger rose up within me. Why did they keep all this stuff and just leave it for us to clean up? It is maddening. They should have left a road map or something with instructions.


Confusion then washed over me again. How am I supposed to know what should be saved? Right now, I feel a sprinkle of disloyalty when I consider getting rid of a purple blanket someone sent Ann during a rough patch in her life. It is loaded with words about hugs, "Warm hugs. Soft Hugs. Tender Hugs. Bear Hugs," and so on. My cat, Winter, sleeps on it at every opportunity, no doubt because it smells like Ann and Winter misses her. I don't want to disappoint Ann or the cat by getting rid of the blanket. What to do? What to do? Tis a predicament! Jumping back to my mom's things, I divided up all of my her old photos and made an envelope for each of my brothers and sisters containing the stuff about them. I plan to pass the memories along when mom departs this life. I also prepared one special envelope of photos of mom to use for her memorial service. What about her mugs? There are several, all gifted to her by me, I took home. Our house is exploding with coffee mugs, yet I can't part with a single one. Then, of course, there are my mother's roses. I salvaged them from the house right before it went up for sale and transplanted them to my garden. Now, the possibility of the plants failing to thrive fills me with guilt. What if I kill all eight of her roses? She no longer remembers her roses. The last time we talked about them, she said, "I can recall the flower. They are very regal, aren't they? And red?" So, she would not know if I messed up the rose bushes and they all passed away. Can a plant pass away? Confusion. So, all summer long, I doted on them, fed them, watered them, measured the acidity of the soil. Only time will tell. So, I hold on to other people's things at my house just in case. It is hard to let go. I realize it's hard to let go of the things because it's hard to let go of the people. Who will have the courage to throw away the photos, purple blanket, and mugs when I breathe no longer?

2. Love is all around. No need to waste it. I can have the town, why don't I take it? (hum the theme to the Mary Tyler Moore show when reading this heading) I never realized it until I started this Swedish thing, but people actually like me and love me. What a surprise this is! As a pleaser, this pleases me greatly. I have a collection of love letters from my husband. As I look back through the hundreds of cards - it seems I saved them all - from Steve since we met in 1996, I read phrases like, "because you're my wonderful wife," and, "I love you for eternity" and romantic stuff, too. He really loves me! Each time he gave me a card or wrote me a note, I enjoyed it and tucked it away in one of many boxes in the house. Seeing all of these missives collected together stirred some embers and joy deep within me. My Steve. sigh. I love him so.

And, other people love me, too! I received cards, flowers, thank you's, and kudos from more people than I can count, if I were the sort to count them. The cards I kept from friends and family hold so much emotion: humor, happiness, mutual admiration, and love. They are stylish, too. Check out the fancy shoes on the card from Wendy. And some are thought provoking: There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as thought everything is a miracle. - Albert Einstein We feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of that missing drop. - Mother Teresa. Nothing compares to a belly ache from laughing too hard with your best friends. - whoever wrote this card I received.


It is always a good thing and a hard thing to take your own advice. Mary Balistreri, Realization upon Swedish Death Cleaning

3. Journaling is not a new thing to me and neither is the content of the journals. As I dug into several boxes from the basement, I was hit by more than the stench of mildew.

Reading through my old journals (and only some of them are pictured), I realized most of the obstacles I face and have faced throughout my life are the same. The earliest bits of writing I found were penned thoughtfully in February 1991. The handwriting was so precise it seemed to be someone else's journal. But the more I read, the more I recognized the themes. It seems throughout life, we continue

to battle the obstacles of childhood. For me, those challenges include weight loss and dieting, feelings of abandonment, worry about being liked, putting other's needs before my own, believing in myself, loneliness, feeling like I don't belong anywhere, balancing work and family, setting boundaries. That sums it up briefly. The journals also proved to me how much improvement I made over the years. I am starting to like this Swedish Death Cleaning! I feel pretty accomplished. One of the things I wrote in 1991 was that my three greatest talents are: Writing, Singing, and Helping People. I wrote back then about my need to bring those talents into the light as much as possible. It is interesting how each of them shows up. The writing is pretty obvious in the blog and the business blog I write. In both cases, I am also helping people. As a coach, I shine the light to guide people to their destiny. I am only singing these days for my own pleasure and to entertain my husband. I still need to work on that one. After I wrote about it in 1991, though, I began auditioning to be part of musicals around town. I was sharing my voice back then. How about now? Those are still my talents. Am I sharing them with the world? Something more for me to ponder. It is always a good thing and a hard thing to take your own advice.


4. How do you know when to keep and when to purge? After the immense elation of the journals discovery, I crashed. I have hundreds of cards from people I love. Which should I keep? Who will want to read the love notes from my husband other than me after I kick the bucket? Do I hang onto them? And, if so, for how long? Will anyone be interested in seeing the cards I cherished? Should I send them back to the givers with a note of appreciation? "Thank you for this awesome card and sentiment you gave me back many years ago. I thought I should return it to you so that when I am deceased no one will have to try to figure out what to do with it. Love ya! Mary" What about other people's stuff? How long do I hold onto the pictures from my mother's house for my brothers and sisters? Why not give those out right now? How about Ann's beautiful pitcher and mom's mugs? I'm so confused by all of this.


And how about all of the photo albums of Owen's childhood and the thousands of pictures of him? Owen eating a French fry. Owen cooking on the stove while sitting on the sink. Owen building a fire in the back yard. I save these for Owen's future wife. I also am holding all of his favorite books from when he was a boy, his first and favorite clothes, many paintings and drawings... It sounds like a lot, but I did throw out his baby teeth last year. He helped me with that one. "Mom, what's in this box on your dresser," he asked me one day. "Oh, it's all of your baby teeth," I replied, opened the box, and proudly displayed the contents. "Isn't that kind of gross? Why would you keep my teeth? What are you going to do with them?" he crinkled up his nose while he laughed at me. He was right. Who would want to look at Owen's old baby teeth. So I tossed them. My major accomplishment in this Swedish Death Cleaning event was shredding the old Circlestage financials from 1995 through 2000. The basement now holds a few fewer boxes. Unfortunately, I am more confused than ever. The biggest question looms - When will I leave this Earth and fly off to become a spirit in the sky? That is the problem. One seldom knows the answer to that big question. I will keep slugging away at all of the stuff I accumulated, the stuff I have taken on, and the stuff that is swirling in my head as the grief continues to redefine me.


At the outset of this blog process, I wrote, "I have lost myself and found myself and felt intense emotional pain and digressed and progressed and lived." Yes. And so I continue. On to the attic.


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