As promised, I am posting here the transcription of my mother's unpublished story about clearing out the old family home in Milwaukee. Some names have been changed (by her). This was originally written as a "homework" assignment for the Off Campus Writer's Workshop (est. 1946) in Winnetka, Illinois and was reviewed by author Len Hilts.
"Aunt May is acting strangely," my mother said. "She sings, laughs, and piles blankets on herself. I think it's mental."
"Have you call the doctor?" I asked.
"You know she doesn't like doctors."
"I'll be there tomorrow morning."
As I packed my bag for the trip to Milwaukee, I wondered how I'd proceed. I had worried about such a situation long before mother and my maiden aunt reached their 80s. Now I had to travel the unknown road alone – without a map. And there was no room for sentiment.
So the next morning I bade goodbye to my husband and two children. "It's just possible I may be bringing Grandma home with me," I said, as I boarded the early train.
When I arrived at the old family home, Aunt May grabbed me and hung on like a frightened child. I didn't want to cause her unhappiness, but I knew there was no choice. I called the doctor.
He arrived a short time later, examined Aunt May, and said to me, "get her to the hospital right away. I'll make arrangements to get her into a nursing home later. And you," he turned to Mother, "go home with your daughter."
I said a little prayer of thanks: my aunt's hospitalization insurance, that I had insisted upon her taking out, had been in effect for one month to the day.
With the help of a relative, we got Mother's and Aunt May's bags packed, Aunt May to the hospital, and Mother and me to the railroad station for our trip home, in a Chicago suburb.
Mother quickly adapted to her new surroundings and was made welcome by family and friends. She was very happy. Now I could to get going on the nitty-gritty.
Word from the doctor indicated that Aunt May would have to spend the rest of her life in a nursing home. Therefore I would, of course, have to sell the Milwaukee house and almost everything in it. But I had no authority to sell anything. The house and most of its furnishings belonged to Aunt May.
First item on the agenda: get guardianship of Aunt May. This I did through the help of my attorney-cousin, Bob. "I'll do my best to speed it through," he said.
On my next trip to Milwaukee I consulted a real estate agent mother knew and asked him to handle the sale of the house for me. "Do you want to dream or be a realistic?" He asked after he had looked it over.
"I can't afford to dream," I replied. "I need the money to pay medical and nursing home bills for my aunt."
So he quoted a price – 'way below what I could have got for such a house on the North Shore – and I agreed to it. Since I had no idea how much insurance Aunt May carried on the house I told him to buy enough to cover, and to include theft and vandalism, as the place was going to remain vacant for a while.
There were numerous things I had to do before anything could be sold. Such details as mail and newspaper deliveries, arrangements for snow shoveling, changing of bank accounts, and endless minutia required hours of concerted effort. Some things I could do from home, but most had to be done in Milwaukee.
Then came the contents. I had tried taking Mother up with me to make decisions regarding her personal property, but she became too emotional to be of any help, and I realized I'd have to handle things all alone.
Well, not quite alone, as a friend from Chicago went up with me on two occasions. I don't know what I would have done without Dotty. She helped me take things down from the attic, cleaned the silverware, washed dishes, prepared things for sale. Much that I would have thrown away she eagerly took for a resale shop she was interested in.
For her endless work that relieved me of so much I thank both her and my Guardian Angel.
There wasn't a box, bag, envelope, or any other container that did not require opening and a decision made as to its contents. Money I found in many places, including an old sock in Aunt May's dresser drawer. In the attic was a box of about 400 pennies. (After taking out the Eagles and Indian-heads I sold the rest to an interested neighbor.) What in the world Aunt May was doing with a pistol I'm sure I don't know, but I found it on the top shelf of her closet. (Bob took that off my hands; he said it was frozen beyond repair.) Her diamond ring was in a little envelope in a dresser drawer.
And old clothes! The attic was full of them. I hated to throw them out, but I didn't know what else to do. Then I remembered: before I was married I had been involved in dramatic activities and got to know the local costumer quite well. I called him, and he came over and looked at everything I had to offer. In the attic he discovered other items he could use. He was delighted and paid me well for everything he took.
My Guardian Angel was still at work.
The Yellow Pages of the phone directory revealed several used book dealers. I called them and found one who was interested in Civil War books. He came over and brought several; my grandfather had been a Union Army volunteer. Others came and took a few books here, a few there. Then one man bought all the rest for a ridiculously low sum. But I had to get rid of them.
I almost wept when the little girl from next-door came in and bought my grandmother's marvelous old treadle Singer sewing machine, in many ways far superior to new machines of the day. And she paid only five dollars for it.
I am eternally grateful to the many friends who entertained me at dinner and helped me in various ways. "Why don't you get to Mr. Dobson, the antique dealer, to take over for you?" One of them asked me. "He sells households of furnishings all the time."
So I called him. After he had looked through the entire house he said he wasn't interested. But Gertrude, his assistant, upon learning of his refusal, came over the next day and went through the house including the full – and I do mean FULL – attic and basement. She shook her head sadly and said, "You need help. And I'm going to help you."
I thanked my Guardian Angel again.
Perhaps she and I could put on a house sale, Gertrude suggested. I dreaded the prospect of that, but agreed to it. I felt I had a no alternative. It turned out in the end that she found a man, Mr. Edwards, who was willing to manage the whole affair for me.
He came and looked over what I had to offer. He bought a number of items on the spot. Then he said, "There are two ways of handling this. Either I'll take one third of what we get, and you clean up the house, or we split it down in the middle, and I'll take care of everything." Needless to say, I chose the latter arrangement. "But first," he added, "you take whatever you want for yourself and sell things as you can. You will be able to get more for them than I can. Then let me know when you're ready and I'll take over."
This time I really thanked my Guardian Angel.
Weeks turned to months, and I was still making biweekly trips to Milwaukee. And the snow fell whenever it had a mind to. On one occasion it was coming down so thick and fast that, even though I shoveled off the porch at seven in the morning, two hours later, when I wanted to leave for home, I had to do it all over again. To protect myself from the weather I decided to forgo normal dress for the trip, found an old pair of Dad's trousers, put them on over my dress, and, looking like a tramp, walked a block to the bus line. I saw some buses moving, but not in my direction; they never seemed to come back. I spotted a cab and, with several other people, hailed it. We were well packed in by the time we got downtown. I went farther than any of the others, but I'm sure we all paid the same fair. (That driver must have made a bundle that day.)
In spite of the drawbacks of the weather, I swear my guardian angel was looking out for me.
The time came and when I was satisfied that I had taken care of everything I could; I left of the rest in the hands of Mr. Edwards. Finally, on May 12, along with my attorney cousin, I went to the closing of the sale of the property. It had been four months since that nightmare began.
My guardian angel could do now rest for a while.