Over Labor Day weekend, my husband and I drove to Pittsburgh to help his parents unpack their boxes from Florida. People asked me why I was doing this, when I had just given them a week of time, helping them move from Florida in the first place. I did it because it needed doing.
My in-laws were suffering in their new home because they lacked the executive function to unpack the boxes themselves and were stuck in a state of unfrozenness that was preventing them from moving forward. They were fighting with each other and with their daughter’s family. So the entire extended family descended en masse to help them unpack.
When we arrived, the basement apartment was crowded and disorganized. It was clear that my father in law (FIL) had attempted to unpack, had opened boxes, gotten distracted, then opened other boxes. My mother in law’s (MIL) attachment to her belongings was contributing to the discouragement. She was too depressed to join family dinners upstairs and was regretting the move to Pittsburgh.
Even without a clear plan of attack, we each gravitated to an area of expertise. My Pittsburgh brother in law helped my FIL unpack and organize his desk. One of my husband’s sisters was the discarder in chief, going through the (gulp) 8-10 boxes of kitchen materials, sorting out three – count them three! – of those jar openers that look like pliers, several sets of measuring cups and spoons, a number of turkey lifters (some still in original packaging), etc., as well as six boxes of toiletries, some of which she placed in the bathroom, much to my MIL’s later confusion (“I think someone has been using my bathroom, there are all these things here that I don’t recognize” “Those are yours, we unpacked them for you.” “Oh, I don’t remember them.” “Then let’s get rid of them.” “Oh, no, don’t throw them away – they look like they would be good. I just don’t want to use them.” A conversation we repeated several times as she didn’t remember having it the first time.)
My other brother in law was on box patrol with varying degrees of help (or resistance) from the teenaged nephews. The teen nieces picked up packing materials and carried empty boxes outside, and washed dishes.
My husband and I rearranged furniture, kept people focused on the big priorities (always start by unpacking larger pieces of furniture before unpacking knick-knacks, because otherwise you won’t have any place to house the knick-knacks and will feel overwhelmed), and kept my MIL focused on smaller tasks so she wouldn’t notice how much of her hoard was not making it into her new space.
By the end of day one, order had been restored. We had located a number of things they had been worrying had been lost in the move. My FIL looked much more relaxed (like me, he cannot concentrate when his desk is a mess). When we went upstairs to make dinner, my MIL had actually left the chair where she had presided for the entire day, and was happily rearranging the million little things on her etageres to her liking. To see her take initiative to fuss about her things like that was worth it.
Day 2 we tackled their bedroom, settling my MIL on a chair in the corner to direct, we sorted through boxes of bedroom stuff and found places for it all. One huge rubber tub of “love letters” turned out to contain – much to our disappointment, expecting a romantic story – about two shoeboxes full of greeting cards my MIL had received from family and friends, and a two-lifetime’s supply of blank greeting cards and even postcards from trips they had taken decades before. I consolidated these with another three shoeboxes of blank greeting cards and consigned the brimming tub to “the storage room.” I’m also a collector of blank greeting cards, I don’t know why, but my collection hasn’t filled even one shoebox yet – although I’ve another 40 years to catch up with her.
After lunch, we began sorting through their art collection, finding space for their favorite pieces around their new apartment. We discovered that most of the art my MIL was happy to consign to storage because, although they had held prominent places in their previous homes, she had bought them for their colors, for instance, not realizing that the colors were fighting roosters, or whatever. We also convinced my FIL to let my sister in law “sell” the old, rickety, non-working treadmill that we were all worried he’d fall on one day, which opened up space for some of the furniture that had invaded the upstairs to return downstairs, and gave my MIL more space to display artwork and knick-knacks. Once the art was up, it started to look like a home again.
I was talking last night to my physical therapist (ankle, still) about how I had spent my Labor Day and he mentioned that his family was considering how to handle his grandparents, who it was becoming clear, couldn’t live alone any more. The family was worried that if they removed them from the home where they had lived for the past 30 years, they wouldn’t recognize the space and would lose whatever ability to function independently they had still had. I will say that getting my FIL’s office space set up and organized, helping my MIL organize the million little things she surrounds herself with, and hanging their art, transformed the apartment into their “space” – a space they recognized and could navigate without getting disoriented.
So now they are settled. And my husband came home with a half-dozen unopened cutting boards, a historic meat cleaver, an unused toaster oven (our old one had died), the soap and scrubbing pads, and a thing he thought was a vacuum sealer but turned out to be something else entirely, which I suspected from the dated packaging and the fact that it was “harvest gold” – a color that predates vacuum sealers, and which he relegated with disappointment (and to my relief) to the garbage bin a few nights later. I also came home with a new determination to get rid of our own unused appliances (rice cooker, electric cheese grater, desktop computer with monitor the size of Detroit) – a resolve that my husband grudgingly agrees to, having experienced a soupcon of the ramifications of his parents’ hoarding.
I must strike while the iron is hot!