A client once asked me why her house still felt “off,” after we decluttered her home. This was in 1988, so the words tidying, and KonMari, were way in the distant future. .
At the time, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant. We sat at her lovely dining room table, drinking coffee and eating the cookies we just made. Her house was clean, she had a place where she sat with her family, when they came. Everything was in order.
My client was an older woman, and we had spent a lot of time digging our way through paths of very treasured family belongings during the last 6 months or so. She had lived by herself since her husband’s passing 27 years before. Her son, Bob, had hired me as a live in caretaker; someone to make sure she was eating well, enjoying life and perhaps, to help tidy up her home.
Her “home” was a very large ranch style house with a huge basement that ran the entire length of the master suite wing. Yes, I said wing. Mrs. Thomas, or Granny, as she wanted me to call her, and a petite lady of 4’11”, had a bedroom/ bath combination that was bigger than my current house. It was also high on a hill, surrounded by 13-½ pristine acres of California countryside.
She was an absolute doll, and a fun lady who loved to make teddy bears. That was her main focus and joy. She also loved to read, walk in the garden, and visit with her family. She was 93 years old and had absolutely no interest in housekeeping, cooking, or opening her mail.
There were paths that led from room to room. You could reach all of the necessary things, like the refrigerator, stove, the couch, but just barely. When you walked the hardwood floors, your feet left marks in the dust as you went along. In case you are wondering, the answer is yes, she would have been eligible for a leading spot on “Hoarders.”
The room I was assigned to was a huge affair off of the kitchen. It had once been used for “staff.” It was nicely furnished but it hadn’t been cleaned in 20 some odd years, either. There were ghostly footprints there as well, and I was uneasy. I checked to see there were no clowns under the bed or in the closet. Occasionally a visiting family member might spend the night there. But usually, they would be running off the next day to stay the rest of their visit with Bob. Any caretakers the family had tried to hire for Granny, usually never made it past the living room before they turned around and left.
I’m not really sure why I did stay. The room gave me the creeps, we were alone on a hill, and the neighbors were far enough away that they wouldn’t hear any screaming if we got into trouble.
Maybe it was because she was so nice. Maybe it was because I didn’t want to leave her alone. I figured if she could handle it, then so could I.
The big question was how and where to start. This wasn’t a place where you could start decluttering with a pile of clothing. Everything was everywhere. We needed to establish a basic habitable living situation, for both of us. Granny didn’t see the issue, but after looking at cabinets full expired food, cleaning the kitchen and shopping for groceries was a top priority.
I was horrified by what she had been eating, and how she had been living. Her family had tried to help, but they stopped short of bodily carrying Granny out of her own home. Granny was stubborn. She was typical of most hoarders: very attached to everything that came in through the door and not willing even to let go of her trash.
I washed some cups and we found a spot to sit with some instant coffee. We talked. Not about cleaning, just about life. We talked about our lives and our families . We talked about our hobbies and what a pretty view she had from the patio.
Finally she looked at me and said “ Well, when are you going to tell me my house is a mess?”
I glanced around the room and said, “ I wasn’t going to, I thought you already knew that!”
Granny burst out laughing. “You’re right, you don’t have to tell me. I know it’s a disaster!”
“Well, I’m glad we cleared that up,” I said. “Would you like some more coffee?”
“ Not really,” she said. “I hate instant coffee.”
That was my first day with Granny. Yes, I stayed. I stayed for 3 years, actually. Yes, it took quite awhile, but we did get her place cleaned up.
We started in the kitchen. Granny sat in a chair and watched as I opened the first cabinet and started pulling out very round cans of evaporated milk.
“These are expired,” I said.
“I haven’t had them very long.”
“They look like they are going to explode!” I gave her my best disapproving look.
“Sometimes they are still good after the date,” she said.
“Not 10 years later!”
“Oh, are you sure? We used to can a lot when I was growing up and they always lasted ages!
I grunted at her and said, “ We are going to need to rent a dumpster.”
She fought me a little on that. But, bit by bit we got the kitchen and dining area in good shape. I say we, but basically it me cleaning and her sitting and pointing her cane in various directions.
We spent a lot of our time talking, especially that first month. I wanted her to get to the point where she trusted me and was not afraid that I would toss things that were precious to her.
When we got the dining room table cleared, she started talking about making teddy bears.
“You like to make teddy bears?” I asked.
She told me how she used to drag the sewing machine out to the dining room when her grand kids were young and make teddy bears and how now that she had great grandchildren, she wanted to do the same for them. But she didn’t know what supplies she still had or where they were. Or even if she knew how to make teddy bears anymore.
The more I listened to her, the more I realized that we had just come up with the key to getting her house and life back in order.
We had a vision. We would make teddy bears: 10 very special teddy bears for the 10 great grandkids to be made by Christmas. That was only 5 months, and a house full of clutter away.
It was a dream for Granny. But when she realized that there was a possibility to make that dream come true, she got excited. She forgot she was worried about letting things go. She forgot that she was afraid to change.
Granny began to remember how she used to live. How she loved having the family near her.
I began to dream too. If a 93 year old woman could make these changes, then anything was possible.
It sounds crazy even now when I think about it. Me and a 93 year old woman, decluttering a house and making teddy bears, in 5 months. Truthfully, I wasn’t even sure if we could do all of that in the time frame we set. It was a crazy, lofty goal.
But we did it. By Christmas, each of the kids had their own special teddies. There were even a couple left over. The house was clean. And for the first time in a long time Granny’s family from back east came to visit and actually stayed at the house.
So, when she asked me that question after the holidays, about her home feeling “off,” I was puzzled. The family had gone, and we were drinking coffee at the table (fresh brewed stuff…. that jar of horrible instant went out in the dumpster that first day). I mentally ticked off all of the goals we had accomplished. It seemed like we had hit all of the buttons.
I didn’t have an answer.
I looked at the polished floors and her books neatly stacked by her chair and lamp. The rugs were vacuumed. The couches were brushed clean. The beds were made. The windows were clean and the laundry done. There was plenty of room for Granny to get around with her walker.
It did feel a bit off, though.
“Is it too clean?” I asked.
Granny looked at me and made a face as if to tell me “Make up your mind, girl!”
So, I went down into the basement and brought out some of her family things. We dusted off her photo albums and put them on the coffee table. We got out some throw blankets and put them on the sofas.
“How is that?” I asked.
“ Better,” she said.
I brought in some potted geranium plants that were wintering in the garage, and cleaned them up. She put them on the table in the living room. They were bright red and she loved to look at them in the summer.
“Now?” I asked.
“Almost,” she said.
We both sat there thinking. I agreed, something was missing.
“ I know, just a minute!” I cried out. “Close your eyes and don’t you dare open them until I tell you!”
I ran to the sewing room and came back with two teddy bears left over from our marathon sewing drive, and a doll from the basement.
I sat them at the dining room table. “Okay, open!”
Granny looked at the toys and tears welled up in her eyes.