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At Home with Marni Jameson: Clearing out parent's home stressful

It’s like having open heart surgery without anesthesia.
Published: March 1, 2014

Up there in the category with death and taxes is this inevitability: At some point everyone will likely have to clear out a parent’s home.

I’m not going to soften the blow. It’s like having open heart surgery without anesthesia.

“It falls into the ‘most stressful’ category,” said Peter Brenton, of Medford, Mass., who with his two older sisters cleared out their childhood home this past year, after their mother, and last living parent, died.

Having gone through this myself last year, as many of you read, I felt an instant rapport.

“Our parents weren’t classic hoarders,” said Brenton, who is 47 and among the most clear-headed people I have ever talked to. (When I learned he worked as an administrator in the nuclear engineering department at MIT, that made perfect sense.) “But they hung onto a lot of things they saw no reason to throw away.”

“Tell me about it!” I said. I think of the dozens of gift bags Mom had stashed, all the vases, from every floral arrangement she’d ever received.

“Financial papers and receipts that went back 30 years,” he said. “Wedding gifts they received in 1955, which they didn’t like and never opened; guns and ammunition.”

“Wait. Guns and ammunition?”

“I don’t have a gun license,” he said. “In Massachusetts it’s illegal for me to carry even a bullet. What was I supposed to do with this?”

His oldest sister, Anne Brenton Isenberg, said, “The memorabilia was the most excruciating. We opened box after box marked ‘miscellaneous.’ They would have black-and-white photos of people I hadn’t thought about in 50 years, along with birth announcements. Every box was like a time capsule.”

“My parents had the exact same boxes!” I said. “You open one and fall into the Black Hole of Calcutta.”

Because every family moves through the process differently, some better than others, I’m always curious. The Brenton siblings began last spring, and dedicated most Sundays to the task.

“As the executor, Peter felt the weight of the job,” said Isenberg, who’s 55. “He was the practical one and kept pushing. My sister and I would have let things sit for a year.”

Brenton said, “Sometimes I had to be more firm than was polite.”

The first two Sundays, they filled two Dumpsters. That was the easy part. “Here’s where it got sensitive,” Brenton said. “Most Sundays we worked six to seven hours, except when we got in a stupid fight.”

The day they spent sticking their names on items they wanted “ended in a horrible argument,” he said. “None of us was blameless.”

Isenberg said, “I love my siblings, but we had to pull away.”

Brenton said, “We fought not over any thing, but because of the emotional weight of sorting through it all. We all had this huge burden.”

They made a rule: Nothing would leave the house without all three agreeing.

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