writing

A STORY-BASED APPROACH TO SWEDISH DEATH CLEANING 

This is my first blog post in a long time. I’m not even going to say how long because when one is a blogger one is meant to write and post things on a relatively regular and consistent basis. So, by definition, this makes me NOT-a-blogger. You’d think that during the pandemic I would have had time. Which I did, in all honesty, as there was a period of time when travel was banned and consular services overseas were closed…meaning I had no clients arriving. Hence, no work. So I gardened, did household chores and DIY projects, read books and ate too much. I could have been writing but it’s something I put off but am always—once I’ve done it—glad I did it. Basically I am a living embodiment of that quote that says, “I hate writing, but I love having written.” I feel that, though I also actually enjoy writing once I start. I suspect this is the case for most writers. It’s a matter of discipline, which I lack as well. 

I have so many ideas for posts floating around in my head, but again, mustn’t get lost in the planning. Judging from the plethora of quotes—from Goethe to George Bernard Shaw to Tony Roberts and Zig Ziglar—representing writers, philosophers, self-help gurus and business leaders that speak to the meaning of taking action, this is not an uncommon problem. So this is me, starting. I’m not going to commit to any sort of schedule yet. Let’s not get crazy.

As many of you know, my mum passed away after a short battle with an aggressive cancer in February of this year (2021) and I’m sure her life, our experiences and her death will be part of many posts to come.

My mum was opposed to clutter and regularly got rid of things as a matter of course. She couldn’t be more pleased when one of her items found a new home with a friend or a friend’s child or grandchild…or really anyone who could use it. When she sold the family home on Barmond Avenue and started the packing process, she’d leave unwanted items out on the curb and was always amazed and happy when things were picked up—usually within the hour! When she acquired new items from her travels or at a sale…it often meant the re-homing of something old. Which is also a practice adhered to by my longtime friends Kent and Gordon (@gordonhtaylor_vanc) who have literally THE most beautiful and tidiest home you’ve ever seen. Their daily life is art. My mum was a big fan of their taste and discipline. She was also a big fan of  ‘Swedish Death Cleaning’. It’s a thing—check it out on Google—it means that you declutter your life and home to lessen the burden on those left behind. I think it’s a great idea but I do think there should be some context for treasured belongings; hence the idea of ‘Story-based Swedish Death Cleaning’. 

My mum was not overly sentimental but did have some favourite pieces that we knew she wanted kept in the family. Unfortunately, by the time we knew that the cancer treatment was not going to be successful, she was quite ill and we didn’t want to waste time discussing all the other items during the few good hours she had daily.

However, being a practical and pragmatic person, my mum made sure that we had random discussions over the years about things that were meaningful to her and what we’d do with them after her death. She would be very pleased to know that her fine china (Rosenthal Romance) will go to Karis as well as the flatware—both were wedding gifts. Karis also benefitted from an almost fully-equipped home when she moved out including kitchenware and dishes to cleaning items (Miele vacuum) to linens and towels—all in great condition because my mum didn’t keep ratty old stuff or chipped dishes unlike me. I am still using everyday dishes I got for my wedding. They’re cracked and chipped and need to be replaced. I don’t know that I’m overly sentimental in this case…I think maybe just lazy (or busy to be honest). 

My brother kept a few items though he is an anti-hoarder much like my mum. I’m glad he wanted the wooden chest that my dad painstakingly refinished in the basement workshop, the soapstone carving and a few furniture items. Of course, I have a bunch more stuff because I’m more sentimental—not a hoarder, but definitely a keeper of many useless items which I am working my way through now. I have a sterling silver gravy boat, some china, jewelry, her favourite chair, her carpets and many other travel souvenirs as well as some radical 70s Tupperware that I just can’t get rid of.

My mum had a friend who passed years ago (one of her ladies group) who collected antique toast racks. After she died, her best friend chose one each for all of the ladies as a memento and my mum always talked about what a nice gesture she thought that was. Of course, in my mum’s situation, we didn’t have time to discuss what to give to whom so when my mum’s friends came to the apartment to help me pack, I also asked them to find some items that they’d like, that would remind them of my mum and it worked out so well. It gave me a lot of pleasure to know that her friends have items that remind them of her whenever they’re used or seen. 

Having her friends involved was also a great solution as there were some things that were meaningful to Christopher and I as family memories that we didn’t have space for or want particularly, but also didn’t want to sell. For example, my mum and dad bought a Robert Bateman numbered print of giraffes stampeding back in the 70s. It was a big deal as they bought it when they didn’t have much money but it doesn’t really fit in my house or Christopher’s so would likely have ended up in my basement—unseen by anyone because we couldn’t bring ourselves to sell it. My mum’s longtime friend Elsie (Mrs. Anderson) remembers when they bought it and how exciting it was—they were neighbours and came down the road to see it (and likely have a cup of tea). She was thrilled to hang it in her living room and it makes us happy to know that it is being enjoyed and appreciated. I think my mum and dad would be happy too. By the way, I know I’m an adult and can call her Elsie, but I just can’t. Her daughter Cheryl ended up working at the library when she was a teenager and my mum was her supervisor. She told Cheryl that she could call her ‘Lou’ now and not Mrs. Albanese…and I honestly think Cheryl just avoided addressing her directly the whole time she worked there, which is exactly what I would have done.

My mum and Mrs. Anderson at Christopher and Becky’s wedding 2005

Another situation is that you, as the children, don’t know the stories behind the items…because—surprise—your parents were people before they were parents and continued to be people whilst they were parents and have lives and experiences that we don’t always remember or know about in the first place. Which brings up another happy solution, (also pertaining to artwork) that I knew my mum got on a cruise. Of course, I couldn’t remember where the cruise went, when it was or who was with her. In my defense, she DID travel a lot! I was discussing the situation with the ladies whilst they were helping me pack and it turns out that Joanne (another longtime friend) was on the cruise with my mum and they went to the auction together AND that’s when she got the painting. Joanne has a similar piece and now has a matching pair in her living room. Again, I was so happy to give it to her knowing that she’d be reminded of my mum whenever she looks at it. 

So with some detective work and help from the ladies, I’ve managed to figure out where a lot of stuff came from that I didn’t previously know about…but there is so much more… a narrow marquise-cut peridot ring that I don’t know the origin of; some cool scarves that I think are from India; a set of bowls that look European but just as easily could be Moroccan. I plan to have a visit with the ‘travel ladies’ to hear some stories and to pass on mementos to them. And also the library ladies and various other friends…it’s been crazy busy but I will get to it before the end of the year. Please feel free to contact me….

So…found this mysterious peridot ring with my mum’s jewelry. No idea where it’s from…anyone? It’s not anyone’s birthstone 🤷🏻‍♀️

So the moral of the story is twofold; don’t keep a lot of junk and make the stuff you do keep meaningful…and do make sure that somewhere, somehow there is a list/spreadsheet, a conversation or a photo that will help the heirs know the history of your special items because it may be meaningful after your death.

Yes, when it’s all said and done, it’s all just stuff but I’ve found that it can bring a measure of comfort to have and use special items and to share items with friends and family. I enjoy the continuity of meaningful objects and the history of everyday items. It’s nice to have and use cherished items daily as a reminder of family and close friends who have passed on. I often use my mum’s stainless steel teapot. It’s not expensive but it reminds me of my childhood and how my mum and Elsie (Mrs. Anderson) used to have tea almost every day using her metal teapot from Ireland. My mum’s teapot isn’t from Ireland and it isn’t fancy but I enjoy using it. Cheryl (daughter of Mrs. Anderson) and I always tried to hang around at teatime and were promptly shooed away—which I totally understood when I became a mother!

Personally, I would be a terrible conduit for any sort of oral history as I can’t remember anything—apparently it’s menopause and not dementia…we’ll see. My mum knew everything and everyone. All the relatives, so many friends, former workmates, my old friends…and remembered everything. Sometimes I’m not even sure who my relatives are and how they’re related and my mum knows the birthdays of their stepchildren. I wish I’d listened more, asked more questions and wrote stuff down! My advice it to make the effort and write it down as it’s nice to have a sense of family history with a healthy balance between extreme Swedish Death Cleaning and being a hoarder.

My mum and I had a lot of fun putting together the Family Wall in her apartment. I DO know all these people…starting with my great grand parents on the right (apparently I look like her 🤷🏻‍♀️) then my mum at age seven then my dad…

The Mozart Effect and Other Mothering Failures

I chose this school because I liked the uniform. Jk.

Don’t you love the uniform? A big deciding factor for me….

As most of you know, the child is graduating and I’m overcome by a feeling of inadequacy as a mother. I’m not ready. I’ve not told her enough to face life on her own. I lament all those lost teaching opportunities that are forever gone to me, all the systems I should have instigated and mundane things I never insisted she do for herself. Why didn’t I give her an allowance and make her record it and save 10% and take her to the bank once a month to deposit it? All those chores I didn’t make her do because she was so busy with homework and dance? How will she function? I don’t think she knows how to clean a toilet unless my mum or one of her friends taught her. I wish I been vigilant with Baby Mozart…maybe she would have been a math genius if I had committed fully to the Mozart Effect? What about all that reading I never forced her to do? All those habits like daily meditation, goal setting, healthy eating, being tidy, flossing daily. Why did I ever let her watch television in the first place? Eat candy? Why did I ever get her a mobile phone? Should I have been doing extra workbooks with her all summer? Would she be a different person if I had?

It’s funny when they’re born and you have all these ideas of how you’re going to be a parent and how your child is going to respond. You have this illusion that if you do everything right, your child will do well, be well and have a happy and successful life. I made my own baby food, used natural detergent, breast-fed as long as possible, did all the baby activities like Gymboree©, Storytime and various mummy playgroups. I didn’t use any medication until she started teething and I had to resort to Tylenol as she was cutting four teeth in a two-week period. Before that I used naturopathic remedies and essential oils. Seriously. (N.B. I was trained in aromatherapy…don’t try this at home unless you really know what you’re doing.) I read to her all the time and didn’t allow TV or videos until she was three. There was no juice or candy allowed. Her clothes always matched. We listened to music—even the dreaded Baby Mozart, thought not every day. We played with educational toys and spent time in nature. She went to play-based preschool and on to private school—one that I chose (after extensive research) because they taught Philosophy and Japanese and had a great uniform.

However, despite my best efforts to create a little girl in my graven image but better, Karis grew up to be herself and not really like me. Just as they’re meant to do. I’m thankful she’s not like me for many reasons as I actually learn things from her (don’t tell her that as she’ll never let me forget it). Our kids are actually people, with their own ideas, wants, needs, desires and aspirations and there’s not really much you can do about it. Except celebrate, as that’s what they’re supposed to do. If you’ve helped create a thinking and conscious being, I think that’s probably a good thing; however, this whole parenting gig is a constant learning process and I’ve recently had a somewhat terrifying epiphany that it actually never ends. I think I subconsciously assumed that once I’d got her this far, the universe would take over and she’d magically become an adult and we’d have dinner parties, lunches and go to the spa once in a while but that overwhelming terror/love you feel for your offspring would mellow and become less intense. It appears that that will not be the case as I’ve realized my precious child will be going out in the world, without me to protect her, to grow up and become an adult. She’ll be living her life and I will be wondering where she is, who she’s with and when she’s going to be home. But she’ll be living in another country so I’m not sure how that’s going to work. I have actually become my father. I totally understand him now. I know why he didn’t sleep until I got home, even if I was in my 20s and had lived alone in a foreign country. It didn’t matter because I was under HIS roof and he went right back into dad mode as soon as he was given the opportunity. He used to give me $20 every time I left the house…I managed to train him out of this by the time I was 27. And married. I think he was relieved to pass me off to Chris so someone else could worry. Though I don’t think that stopped him. Until I had Karis, then he worried about her too. It’s an Italian thing. Don’t be thinking my mum didn’t worry. She did, but she’s much more practical and tended to get stuff done instead of being paralyzed by the unending and unresolvable existential angst over children that can’t be controlled anyway. The fact remains, I did survive. Learned stuff. Grew up and became a relatively productive adult, I’m sure despite my parents initial misgivings that I was a complete moron.

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My sense of impending doom is complicated by the fact that I’ve also realized that I haven’t taught Karis anything that is remotely useful. Neither, for that matter, has her education, but that is another story. All those little things that I simply do, that I haven’t told her about:
♥ How to buy a fresh avocado.
♥ How to suck the air out of freezer bags so your food stays fresh.
♥ Buying toilet paper when it’s on sale.
♥ Always pay your credit card on time.
♥ Don’t buy fish if it’s smelly.
♥ How to fold a fitted sheet (just mastered that recently myself).
♥ Choosing clothes that hang well.
♥ Finding meaning in our cold cruel world.
♥ Appreciating art (maybe I’ve done that one just a little).
♥ How much it really costs to have a pet.
♥ How to arrange food on plates.

This has caused me a lot of anxiety as I’m constantly adding items to the ongoing mental list of Things-I-Need-to-Tell-Karis-Before-She-Graduates-and-Moves-to- New- York. Of course, I then forget what’s on this list which causes me more anxiety. I’ve decided to channel this free-floating anxiety of mine into something useful, productive and tangible.

Earlier this year I was wondering aimlessly around Park Royal looking for Christmas gifts and I found myself in Urban Outfitters. An establishment I no longer support since I found out that they’ve been accused of stealing designs from small independent artists but anyway, they had this book called Adulting: How to be a Grownup in 468 Easy(ish) Steps by Kelly Williams Brown. This is a GREAT book and a GREAT IDEA for a book. I wish I had this book when I was a young adult. I’ve decided to write my own version of this book for my child. Seeing as she doesn’t like reading, I’m sure it’s an exercise in futility, but it’ll make me feel better. Maybe I’ll do an audiobook…though I suspect this is actually about me anyway and she’ll be fine with, or without, the book 😉

PS. My one real regret: I wish I had bought a copy of Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Place’s You’ll Go and have every teacher, coach and significant person sign it so I could give it to her at grad as a tangible record of her life thus far. I have to say, that endeavour would be more about me as it would indicate a level of pre-planning and organization that I aspire to even today and she’s not really into that kind of thing anyway. I did start writing letters to her on every birthday and keeping them in a box but I lost interest. Maybe I can fake it….