I never understood my grandmother’s house. She owned way too many Christmas decorations, and every year we only put up about half of them. She likes to keep a shopping bag filled with plastic bags without ever using them, and I don’t think she’s ever thrown away an item of clothing, ever. So of course, it would be a joy to clean her closet out.
Back in the fall I had cleaned my mom’s closet, and my mom told my grandmother that I would be willing. I guess I was excited, because I like organizing things, and making things right. But the real reason as to why I wanted to do it was because a little part of me was hoping to change her mind about throwing away things she didn’t need. One thing I learned: Never expect to be able to change people.
On the car ride there, I always look out the window, because I know exactly what to expect. Every single store, every road sign. You can spot a silo from the highway if you look at just the right time. When I was little I knew we were almost there because there’s a horse pasture right before her house. And it’s comforting to know that they’re always there. To know that when it feels like so much is changing, there’s always something that stays the same, something that feels grounding.
She keeps her door locked, so I went in through the garage. On the walls of the garage there’s a sign with our family name on it, five folding chairs, an old green couch, and a small freezer. I don’t think anybody has used these things in years. As I open the door, it makes a small creaking noise against the pure silence. I walk into the kitchen, all the lights off, yet she still manages to keep her electric bill high with the heat blasting to 80 degrees year round. She didn’t hear me come in, I usually have to yell for her just to hear me say hello. I find her on the porch where she sits in a chair with three blankets thrown over the back. She’s wearing one pair of her many slippers, a sweater and a sweatshirt, and a blanket. Even though it’s winter, and 20 degrees out, I pull off my sweatshirt because it feels like summer in her heated room. On a small table next to her chair, there’s a pile of old newspapers, and mug filled with about 10 pens in it. I knew that she bought one of them in Las Vegas, she had told me one time. That’s why she kept it. “Okay, ready?” I watched her stand up, and slowly followed her down the hallway to her bedroom. I took a breath, rolled up my sleeves, and opened the closet door. Suddenly I felt overwhelmed. The closet was filled almost to the ceiling was boxes and shoes and belts hats that she bought in Disney World in the 80’s. Only some of the clothes were on hangers.
I looked over at my grandma, who was calmly sitting in a chair. I smiled, turned back to the closet, and pulled out a sweater.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a box filled with belts. “You don’t really wear these, can we donate them?” I asked, holding up the box of belts. “No, no, I’ll keep them. This is a nice belt,” she said, sorting through them. Maybe this wasn’t going to work. Even if I cleaned the whole closet, it wouldn’t feel complete until some things were thrown away. And so far she had just as many things as when we started.
After spending half an hour of sorting all of her clothes, I saw my grandmother leave the room. I didn’t take much notice. She came back a minute later, holding a bag. When she opened it, there were small pieces of lace, birthday cards, and one baby shoe. She asked me whose I thought it was. I pointed to myself. She shook her head and said, “It was mine.” She smiled, and held out the shoe to get a better look, almost as if she was proud of it. I could tell she was thinking about when she was little. That was more than 80 years ago, and to me having a shoe seemed like enough thing to spark memories. I’ve seen many pictures of her from when she was young, but maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot to her. Maybe a shoe isn’t enough. I watched carefully as she quickly put the shoe back in the bag.
I left her house that night still thinking about why she wouldn’t let things go. I knew there was probably some reason for her having trouble letting things go. My mom had told me when my grandmother was little her family didn’t have a lot of money, and that she just didn’t have a lot of things growing up. So it’s harder for her to give things up that have any meaning, even it it’s small. This all made sense, but I still didn’t understand what she was afraid of. Did she not want to forget those memories that no one else knew anymore? Was she afraid of change? I just didn’t get it.
The next morning I went to get a sweatshirt from my closet. I opened the door, and looked inside. I never realized how much old stuff I kept. On the top shelf there was a Tinker Bell sleeping bag that was too small for me, an old stuffed bear that I got on my First Communion, sandals that were 4 sizes too small, and all my old dance costumes from since I was 2. Every time I look at them I think about all the memories that I have with them.
I realized that day that maybe I wasn’t so different from my grandmother. I couldn’t change her views about throwing things away if I was the same way. I shouldn’t have been trying to change her until I could change myself. Mahatma Gandhi said: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I never understood that until that morning. To me, it means to not waste time trying to change others. To not pass judgement on others’ mistakes until you wouldn’t make that mistake yourself. After learning more about my grandmother, I learned how I really don’t know myself as much as I thought I did. And to be honest, I’m not a totally different person, figuring this out didn’t really change the way I act around people, but my closet is much cleaner, and I think about myself and others differently now. I think sometimes looking at other people helps to see yourself better.