Lots of people have two-car garages. My mother had a two-couch garage: two couches, a gigantic conference table, three bookcases with books, three living room chairs, a rocking chair, a coffee table, a desk, a cedar hope chest containing her wedding dress and her wedding cake topper, about 50 loaded moving boxes, and about 50 junk-filled garbage bags. That’s what I said, garbage bags. (Picture the garbage-strike airport scene in The Fifth Element.)
Yes, the garage in the last house my mother lived in was a remarkable mess for twenty years despite the fact that I and others worked to clear it out—for twenty years. Even though I have a reputation in my family as an effective house restorer, having once transformed my grandmother’s house from clutter to clear in four days, the project of my mother’s garage was one of my colossal failures.
My mother wasn’t a typical hoarder. She didn’t lust to add to her store of stuff. Instead, she never wanted to throw anything away since she might need or want it later. She was also an Olympic-champion-level procrastinator when it came to organizing, and an immovable roadblock to those who tried to help her. I’d ask, “May I throw out this old pocketbook? It’s mildewed and the clasp is broken.” She’d say, “Why do you always want to get rid of my nice things?”
My mother’s garage was huge—larger than needed for two SUV’s, and it had an inner storage room besides—but most of the twenty years she owned it, only two narrow paths through the tall forest of boxes and bags were navigable.
My mother often expressed her wish to have this space clear. She had many times criticized her own mother for clutter and didn’t want to be hypocritically guilty of the same sin. “I’m going to clean out that garage one of these days,” I heard her say dozens of times. So to begin the process, I peeked inside as many boxes as I could reach and labeled the contents. But then months elapsed with no progress. When I offered to deal with the boxes myself, she said, “No, nah anh. I need to sort everything myself so you don’t throw away something I might need.” When I asked her if she wanted to go through a box or two with my help, she’d say, “Not today. You’re only home for a short time, and I don’t want you working the whole time. What would you like to do for fun?”
After a couple of years of this same scene playing over and over, I became a ninja trash assassin. With the theme music to Mission Impossible humming in my head, I began stealthily going through boxes and bags when my mother was asleep, or watching TV, or reading a book. Often she’d ask, “What have you been doing?” and I’d lie, “Just walking around,” or “I’ve been resting in the rocking chair.” “You’re not working in the garage, are you?” she’d ask. “No, of course not,” I reassured her. “I’m having fun.” Many times I would sneak a junk bag back to my guest bedroom and sort through it late at night or early in the morning with the door closed. Once done, I’d check the coast. When it was clear, I’d glide noiselessly out to the outside garbage bin with all the trash; then little by little I’d furtively ferry what was worth saving to its rightful place. Mission accomplished. One down. Only 99 to go.
At this point I should explain about all the garbage bags. Some were 33-gallon black garbage bags but most were white 13-gallon tall kitchen bags with tie handles. My mother’s kitchen table would pile up with all manner of miscellany until she decided it had to be cleared, probably because of an impending visit from guests. She raked whatever was on the table—everything—into a trash bag, tied the handles, and asked my youngest brother to take it out to the garage, which he did. Between my visits, several bags would be added to the garage stockpile. So if I didn’t deal—in necessarily slow stealth mode—with 5-10 bags every visit, I lost ground. Have you ever noticed that if you add a “b” to the middle of “garage” it spells “garbage”? Well, my mother kept adding b’s (bags) to the middle of her garage.
Each bag contained all types of paper goods, unused but ruined by being bent, wrinkled, and roach-stained: typing paper, stationery, all sizes of envelopes, file folders (to help her get organized), and unsent special occasion cards. Each bag also held catalogs, newspapers, unopened junk mail, many letters (since she saved every one of the hundreds she received), photographs, bills (both paid and unpaid), payment notices from Medicare and Blue Cross/Blue Shield, outdated bank statements, old grocery lists, filled-out but unsent order forms, a few paperback romance novels, a partly filled out crossword puzzle book, one or two Scotch tape dispensers, 5-10 Hall’s mentholyptus lozenges, at least one disposable lighter, matches, loose cigarettes, 3-4 used emery boards, bobby pins, pencils, leaky pens, dried-up magic markers, change worth $1-3, sometimes currency, and always a seemingly endless flow of individual plastic vials of artificial tears.
Occasionally, a bag had a torn scrap of paper taped to it with a note in my mother’s handwriting that said, “Needs to be sorted.” That always made me laugh.
Besides using them for storage containers and for actual garbage, my mother also used trash bags as overnight-trip luggage. That fact accounts for how my oldest brother once threw away his own birthday gifts—packed inside a trash bag. He asked twice if the bag held garbage and was both times told “yes,” so he disposed of the bag in the outside bin.
One summer the whole family conspired to advance the clearing project by convincing my mother to hold a garage sale. She complained, but she did let us sell a lot of stuff and allowed us to donate what didn’t sell to the Salvation Army. After the sale, my mother asked,”Where’s my griddle?” I was stunned. That griddle had been in a box for 15 years, and I had in fact found it. A leg was broken off, and the griddle surface was so horribly scratched that clearly it never should have been packed. Though the griddle was not usable in a traditional way, it did enable my mother to grill me for five minutes. How could she possibly even remember it, much less care about it?
The last time I saw my mother’s garage was three months after she died. It was completely clear—well, almost. There was just one roll of leftover carpeting. My oldest brother asked me if we should discard it or save it for the next tenants. I didn’t hesitate. “Let’s toss it,” I said. “Mother always wanted a totally clear garage—and if we left this carpet, she’d call us on it. We worked for 20 years on the mess in this garage. Let’s get rid of this last remnant.”
I hope my mother knows she finally got her wish.
(Another essay about my mother—about her cooking—is available by clicking HERE.)