Cleaning the Kitchen the Last Time

When my parents died in June and then December of 2017, they left a meager inheritance to my three nephews and me. The greatest bulk of that is their home, which we moved into when I was 10 in 1971.

My young parents, younger sister, and I lived in rented houses in Enoree and Woodruff, South Carolina before they bought the largest lot on the newly built Three Pines Country Club just north of Woodruff.

Scraping by and paying off the lot, my parents wrangled a local contractor to build their dream house in his spare time. The loan was more than they could handle and a bit less than a car loan for me much of my adult life.

The house they left behind was, then, the house I associate with my formative years, having lived there in some way into my early twenties. Even when newly married, I lived there briefly, and after I did move out, my three nephews all grew up in that house with my parents providing a great deal of their rearing.

So the four of us — and on Saturday my former brother-in-law as well — spent this past weekend doing the final herculean push to clean the yard and the house for selling.

We had begun this journey trying to account for all my parents’ stuff many months ago, and I have been wrestling with watching their life being reduced to so much trash.

There is, however, a finality to this past weekend. The yard has been rendered nearly barren (compared to the jungle my parents spawned), and the house is almost entirely emptied — much of that waiting in the driveway, a dumpster filled with lives now past.

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Throughout Saturday and Sunday, the task was overwhelming, physically demanding since it seemed that no matter what we hauled to the dumpster even more appeared to be hauled away.

But until late in the day Sunday, I had not found the experience the emotional hurdle that a best friend anticipated when he offered to help.

The unexpected, I suppose, must be unexpected.

I showed up Saturday after a morning cycling ride not really prepared for the day of work in the yard; my mind had convinced me that I would help inside. Once the scope and weight of the task at hand — having the house ready to sell by the end of the weekend — struck everyone, we were past midday Saturday and had resigned ourselves to the only way to finish was simply to throw everything remaining away.

So after working outside all day Saturday, I returned early Sunday morning with the same stubborn resolve to clean the inside of the house.

I began vacuuming the side porch, and although I was summoned out a few times to help the remaining loads to be packed into the dumpster, I then moved to each room of the house, vacuuming floors again and again.

A few hours after lunch and some unanticipated impromptu pest control, we could see the light at the end of the tunnel. Last on the list was scrubbing down the bathrooms and the kitchen.

I vacuumed the front rooms and kitchen, saving them for last since we were tracking through them during the day, and moved to cleaning counter tops in the two bathrooms, ending with the kitchen.

And then the unexpected.

As I wiped the counter and sink in the kitchen, my youth flooded over me, and I had to pause in order to restrain a powerful urge to cry.

One of the great joys of my life was simple. We were a breakfast-for-supper family, a treat we allowed ourselves a few times a month.

I grew up, in fact, thinking that French toast was mainly a vehicle for bacon — not a cross between breakfast and confections. French toast began in my mother’s kitchen with frying an enormous pile of bacon, the grease then recycled for cooking the pile of French toast as well as a side of scrambled eggs.

For most of my life, I ate French toast without syrup and butter — certainly no powdered sugar or syrupy fruit toppings.

But none of this is why I felt a sudden urge to cry.

I don’t recall when it began, but I was tasked in the family with cleaning up after supper. I washed the dishes and cleaned the entire kitchen, diligently.

My mother heaped praise on me for being so meticulous; it was something I did well, and gave me status in the family.

I still feel something soothing about the process of making the kitchen space tidy, clean.

Mid-afternoon yesterday, with Clorox wipes in hand and leaning against the kitchen sink, I felt suddenly heavy, as if I was holding up my entire life lived in that house. I was cleaning my mother’s kitchen for the last time.

Tears made it no farther than the edge of my eyes, blurring my contacts as I breathed against that weight of memory and loss. I gathered myself, wiped the sink, and then moved on to the bar where I had stood day after day in my brace for scoliosis to draw from comic books throughout my teens years.

“The bar is clean,” I told my nephews when they came into the kitchen, “but it is so stained and nicked, it doesn’t look like it.” They mentioned the oven hood, equally clean and terribly stained as well.

My oldest nephew had used the Magic Eraser on the bar, he said, but it still looked dirty.

Some things are indelible, I think, like the sudden realization you are cleaning the kitchen for the last time.

All of us are back at our separate lives today, and that dumpster filled to the rim awaits a truck that will carry all of my parents’ life turned trash to a landfill to be buried.

I left with my baptism certificate and the family dictionary, family names scribbled on the cover since the 1960s.

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At some point, too, this will be just trash. Someone else’s problem, maybe even something to fret over before tossing it into a dumpster.

Later in the day Sunday, my nephews took new flowers and a small urn of my mother’s ashes to my father’s grave. I didn’t go.

I had spent the weekend in a kind of graveyard already. I had grunted and sweated toward a sort of stasis that might allow someone else to own this house and land of my parents’ blood, sweat, and tears.

Nothing prepares you for the feelings that rush over you, cleaning the kitchen for the last time.

I am afraid I will never forget. I am afraid I will forget.

Written by

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education Furman University, taught high school English before moving to teacher education. https://radicalscholarship.wordpress.com/

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