It was the ant world that pushed me into cleaning out or more precisely ‘decluttering’ my father’s wardrobe. Those pernicious insects propelled me into doing what 18 months ago grief couldn’t. With repulsion, I watched ants scurrying along shelves and up the walls of the walk-in robe that Dad had once shared with our mother. Following their trail, we discovered nests under books, boxes of old mobile phones, in the crevices of Mum’s ski boots and probably a lot of other places we didn’t look.
These nests were all new since the February, nearly 2 years ago, when we had started to clean out the wardrobe after Mum’s unexpected death. Back then, my sisters were wandering around the house, dealing with their sorrow and needing to be kept occupied so Dad gently suggested they clean out Mum’s side of the wardrobe. It was only a few days after she had died and so, while I wrote a draft Eulogy, they sorted the clothes into three piles: ditch; give away and keep. It was a time to remember our mother and the occasions on which she had worn these clothes. It was also a way of dealing with saying goodbye.
My daughters were slightly disconcerted at the speed with which their aunts made these decisions. They kept dragging clothes from the pile and hiding them in a cedar chest for us to go through later.
Although she loved fashion, Mum wasn’t a slave to it but her clothes were an integral part of her personality and she bought well. Tall and slim, she wore her clothes with a touch of elegance and style. Mum had an innate sense of what would look good on her and rarely bought something that she later regretted. Growing up, we girls often raided her wardrobe searching for something different to wear.
Sensibly, my sisters realised that not all the clothes should be removed immediately as this would have left a very empty wardrobe for Dad to look at each time he got changed. Looking around the wardrobe as he and I tracked the ants I realised what a sense of Mum’s presence these clothes still carried. The fabrics have absorbed her smell and her perfumes.
Her blouses evoked the shape of her body as they hung from the soft padded coat hangers that she used. It is the magic of cloth that it has a memory and I could still see the creases at the elbow of the shirt that Mum had hung up to wear a second time. If I was considering a memento mori it would be one of my mother’s silk shirts that have started to fray at the edges and seams. I feel like that myself some days.
We looked at her shoes, none of which either I or my sisters and our children could fit. Mum had long slim feet and was justly proud of them. Now after a hot humid summer, mildew was forming on some of the shoes that hadn’t been worn for months.
I’ll share this task with you I said to Dad as I climbed a small step ladder to inspect the top shelf. This was where suitcases, carryon bags, satchels, pillows, rugs, etc had been placed. There were three carry-on bags and three large suitcases. I handed the first down to him which was light then reached for the second one, an early Samsonite, well-made but now superseded in design and materials. This needs to go I suggested pulling it off the shelf. Feeling the difference in the weight even he agreed that it might be surplus to requirements. Suitcases also have changed. Mum’s father had given her a crocodile skin suitcase when she first travelled to England in 1955 and she had kept it. It is a beautifully crafted piece of luggage and I cannot throw it out, despite knowing that none of us will use it when travelling. It is now the happy depository of our Christmas decorations.
‘We should declutter your shelves every couple of years,’ I suggested, looking at the wardrobe.
‘At 94, I think that’s a little ambitious,’ he responded.
The lower shelves were a clutter of half-read books, old and unused out of date diaries, wrapping paper and ribbons, and boxes. Boxes of old mobile phones both Mum’s and Dad’s dating back to their first Nokias. The backing on the old clamshell phone had melted the sides together. ‘I am keeping them just in case,’ Dad protested as I tossed them into the bin.
I gave him a scathing look. ‘Dad, you use a phone on which you can facetime my sisters and our children who are all interstate or overseas.’ Why do you want to go back to the dark age?’ I could feel my Mother whispering in my ear pointing out that she was not the hoarder in the household. ‘Keep going.’ I could hear her urging me.
We paused for a coffee then I departed with bags of lovely shoes and shirts for our local charity. Later that evening I found Dad distributing his clothes on the now empty racks. ‘I have found shirts I had forgotten I had,’ he said, proudly pointing to his shirts all hanging off quaint padded clothes hangers. ‘You know, I think your mother used to buy me a shirt whenever she bought her herself an expensive outfit as I have shirts I haven’t worn in years.’
Some of us just cannot see a clean empty shelf or space without filling it. Dad was always being accused of covering every horizontal surface in their home and I think Mum was justified as the next day, I caught him tying a rope around a wheeled pot plant stand on which he had precariously balanced a carton of wine. He declined my offer to help as he said it was the last carton from under the couches in the study where they had been stored for the past year.
‘You can’t have drunk it all so where are the rest of the cartons,’ I asked watching him shuffle down the hallway tugging his wine behind him.
I should have known. The once empty wardrobe shelves are now crammed with boxes of old files and cartons of wine. There was even a bottle opener. ‘Your mother loved her glass of wine and was happy to have a drink anywhere, anytime,’ Dad chuckled. ‘Do you think she’d approve?’
I have a feeling that it wasn’t thunder I heard overhead, but my mother stamping her feet, cross that she hadn’t thought of having a drink in her walk-in robe before he did.