Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How to Clean Up a Mess in 4 Easy Steps

My mom embroidered this picture for my grandparents back in 1980 for their anniversary. I love it so much.
I've shared several posts here at Fabric Mutt about my grandmother who passed away a few months ago. While I loved her very much, there was, sadly, a dark side to it all. Despite our many attempts over the years to change the situation, my grandmother was a hoarder. Who can say what really started it -- her childhood during the Depression, her obsession with antiques, her refusal to throw anything away. Whatever the cause, by the time we moved her into an assisted living apartment and were faced with the task of cleaning out her house, it was an absolute disaster.

The front bedroom in my grandmother's house -- after my sister had cleared a path down the center.
Grandma didn't live in a large home, but she managed to fill the two-bedroom house, basement, garage, and attached studio apartment/laundry room to the brim with decades worth of junk and treasure. There were layers of dust and grime, bug infestations, and even exploded cans of food hidden among the layers of objects and memories. It was enough to make us sit down and cry to look at it. My sister started working on the house last December, and just last week we finally finished going through it all. I wanted to share some advice for those of you who may face a similar situation in the years ahead (and I seriously hope you don't have to). Here are a few things we learned along the way...

My brother-in-law, sister, me, and my husband on that glorious last day of work.
1. Get help. Don't even think about tackling something like this by yourself. Find friends and family members you can trust who are willing to help you go through items. Do some research and choose a nearby estate sale group to assist you like the one we found. Realize that this is not a job that you can finish in a weekend; it takes time, patience, and much coordinating of schedules to get it done. Also be aware of your own limits. My mother knew that she would struggle emotionally with going through some of the items at the house. We worked out a system where other family members tackled those things so that she didn't have to.

Those blue rubber gloves were my best friends, even when holding treasures like these.
2. Use caution. A hoarder's house can be a very dangerous place, and you have to arm yourself accordingly to clean it out. We rented several dumpsters and had them emptied as often as necessary to deal with the mounds of garbage that needed to be removed from the property. All of us wore rubber gloves to protect our hands while we worked. When the dust levels got bad, we put on masks to spare our lungs -- especially important for my sister and husband who both have asthma. Be sure that everyone is up on their tetanus shots. My sister was stabbed by an old needle, and I had a run-in with a rusty circular saw blade. Keep first aid supplies close at hand in case you need them.

Anything looks gorgeous in jadite bowls, vaseline glass containers, and vintage measuring cups.
 3. Be picky. Have a goal in mind when you go through the house. Our plan was to remove important or meaningful family mementos (photos, letters, pieces of my mom's needlework, etc.), legal or financial documents, and money (my grandmother loved to hide it in odd places all around her house). Everything else was left for the estate people to go through. As we worked, we set aside any special items that we wanted to keep. I made a rule for myself that I wouldn't save anything unless I had a pretty good idea of where it was going when it came home with me. Most of the objects I kept will be living in my sewing room: original Ball jars, jadite and milk glass, a typewriter, silk maps that my grandfather carried with him during WWII, a few old wooden soda crates, and so on. I'll use most of them to hold sewing notions or decorate the walls.

My new fabric cabinet which once belonged to my great grandfather. It's topped with an old typewriter we found in the studio apartment behind the house. These are by far my two favorite items that I brought home with me.
4. Learn from the past. Anyone who's spent time cleaning the house of a hoarder will have a hard time wanting to ever bring anything into their house again that isn't a consumable item. All of us feel that this experience has taught us to make some better choices in our own homes about what we keep and discard. Now that we've finished going through my grandmother's house, my mom and I have been spending time purging our own home of items that can be thrown away or donated. Hoarding is a sickness, but it doesn't have to be contagious if we're willing to put a stop to it.

For the last decade of her life, my grandmother never left her house more than a handful of times. She couldn't leave her treasures unprotected, she said, and it broke our hearts to watch her become a prisoner within the walls of her own home. It could have all been so different. She could have been out spending time with her family, playing with her great grandchildren, and making some wonderful memories during her last years here on earth. Instead, she spent her days guarding dusty mounds of glass, paper, metal, and wood.

I have drawn my own line in the sand. It ends here. And may I add that this includes fabric hoarding. It's time to break it all out of the cabinet and start using it. What am I saving it for? Why not enjoy it while I can? I need to stop stashing and start sewing.

I'm reminded of an old quote by Jonathan Swift who said, "May you live all the days of your life."

How I pray that we do.

29 comments:

  1. I love that embroidery your mom did SO much!

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  2. Amen to that. What a great post, thanks Heidi. I've been on a mission to stop accumulating fabric for couple of months now and it feels great to actually see what I have and be able to find it - most of the time, anyway. I still have a long way to go :)

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  3. Beautiful post, Heidi. Well done all of you for having the dedication and desire to do something that can be so emotionally taxing. I'm sure the relief you all felt on that last day made all the hard work worthwhile.

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  4. Beautiful post and so sad, and you have learn a lot. Thanks for sharing this part of your life with us.

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  5. Good advice and your treasures are gorgeous!

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  6. We (my husband & I) are getting towards having to do this for his parents. We've tried to help a little here and there (they're still alive), but I think it will just be one big chore after my father-in-law dies. Thanks for the advice.

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  7. This was such a wonderful post to do, I know it had to be hard, but it sure does put things in perspective! My husband's grandfather handled things wonderfully after his wife of 60+ years died, he realized his days were numbered too, so he spent about a year after his wife died emptying his house, gifting things to the ones he wanted to have it, donating stuff and getting down to the bare minimum. After he passed away the family was left with very little to go through and that was truly such a gift.

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  8. This is a heart breaking post to read. My mother-in-law and her sister are both guilty of this. I admit, I get worried when my daughter, aged 7, can't seem to let go of anything, even after I've told her that it's garbage and to throw it away. While my mother-in-law is not as drastic as what you describe, and is really very clean, I know we're in for a long, hard job when it's time.

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  9. This is a lovingly and thoughtfully written post on a difficult subject.

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  10. Wow, what an eye opener! Thank you so much for sharing your story. It will surely help me cranking up my sewing machine and start working again.

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  11. Thank you for your post. My mother is a borderline hoarder. I recently spent a week with her (she lives in another state from me) and have resolved to never keep anything "just because". When I got home my house seemed so minimalist! I understand the precious family mementos, but the old newspapers and plastic milk bottles??!! When it is time for her to move it will be a long hard job for my sister and I.

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  12. Thanks for sharing such a heartfelt story. It sounds like you had a good support system for a difficult time. I do love the typewriter and the cabinet is perfect for appreciating the gorgeous fabric while it waits to be sewn. Good for you and thank you for sharing.

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  13. Thanks for your courage in sharing personal things. This gene runs in my family and I constantly check myself. Except for fabric of course. Luckily I have a small sewing room, at the front of the house. With no door.

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  14. Oh Heidi. That's so hard to deal with. I'm sorry for you all. It must have been really hard to go through all that stuff. Glad it's over for you

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  15. Thank you for sharing this. Both my grandmother and grandfather are hoarders, her issues are inside the house and his are in the garage and yard, and I know that we will be doing lots of cleaning when they pass away. About 10 years ago we moved them from a bigger house to a smaller house in hopes that would help contain the hoard and get some things cleaned out. It helped, but the new house has gotten bad again. I glad you guys were able to get it cleaned out; I imagine that this is something that lots of people our age deal with and it is difficult.

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  16. Thank you so much for your blog of today. We too have been there, but after my mom had her stroke, my dad was very diligent in cleaning out and keeping things to a minimum. I wish I could have been there to help you - even if just to support and bring the coffee for a few breaks in between. Again, thanks for sharing!

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  17. Oh Heidi, I can only imagine how hard that was on all of you. Thank you for sharing your story and giving us all a good reminder of what's important. Also, I love that you took some of your grandmother's treasures home to be adored by you. They will be a reminder of the wonderful woman she was, even with her faults :)

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  18. Wonderful post Heidi. I've been loving seeing all your findings on IG. So many treasures!
    I've been recently getting the urge to start clearing the house out, starting with the kids stuff! Though my fabric stash has gotten a touch out of hand, so maybe i should start there!

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  19. Excellent job and so true! My grandmother was a hoarder as well and her house looked just like that so I totally get what you went through! You are right though the "pattern" doesn't need to continue so that is my biggest goal this summer is to go through my entire house!!!!!

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  20. You came home with some wonderful treasures. Thanks you so much sharing this difficult subject. Congrats on a great finish!!

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  21. What a wonderful post! As difficult as that process must have been, it is wonderful that you could work through it together as a family. Congratulations on finally getting the clean-up done! Enjoy your family treasures. They are beautiful!!

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  22. I'm so happy to hear you kept some treasures it can be so easy to loose your history amongst all the trash. But there is always a balance between treasures and clutter.
    I love the idea of already having a place for it in mind before you allowed yourself to bring things home.
    My mother in law suffers with "accumulating" especially bargains so I am trying to help her de clutter now so she can enjoy her space while she still has it. I am truly lucky she knows it doesn't make her happy. She told me just the other day it mad her frustrated that she was sewing outside cause she had to not cause she wanted to. Fingers crossed we can get her back into an organised sewing space soon.

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  23. Heidi,
    What great advice. My mom just turned 95. Seven years ago we moved her out of the house in the country where she and my dad accumulated way too much 'stuff'. She is now in AZ in a very small modular home that she tries to fill continually, and I show up for visits to help my sister fight the battle with that. I have become more sensitive to the mindset of a hoarder. Last visit I lined up the nine lipsticks that were taking up space on the vanity of her tiny tiny bathroom. (as you can guess, not a whole lot of lipstick wearing going on at this point) Most with the consistency of a (very) old crayon. I pointed out which ones were good still, which ones were dry and yucky, and asked her to pick four that I could throw away. For the most part we try to make sure she keeps it under control and know that at some point it will be our job to sort. Take care, you guys did a great thing for your mom too.

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  25. Excellent & heart-warming post. Thank you for sharing and for your good advice.
    I must make your words about using fabric NOW rather than stashing it, into MY mantra!
    I'm glad that you found some treasures to take home with you to remember your grandmother and other loved ones at their best.
    God bless you and your family.

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  28. Guilty!!!
    excellent read....and reminder!!!!
    thank you!!!
    xo
    eva

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