Cleaning out a shared closet after a spouse's death is not mere housekeeping

(Jon Krause - For the Washington Post)
By Tracy Grant
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010

Houses start out as buildings, brick and mortar: Some with the good bones of graceful arches, leaded windows and wainscoting. Others with more cookie-cutter sensibilities of 12-by-12 bedrooms, center-hall staircases and basement rec rooms.

But at some point, if a house is any good at all, it ceases to be just a house.

Like a blood oath sworn by childhood friends, mortar mingles with memory and a home is forged. Paint color ceases to just be a hue and instead becomes the memory of the argument over the perfect shade of peach. The ragged chair in the den corner becomes the spot where on one winter afternoon a father and his two infant sons fell into a blissful, synchronized sleep. And a closet becomes if not a place inhabited by skeletons, then one inhabited by ghosts.

Closets are odd creatures. Watch any house-buying show on HGTV, and you'll hear the "closet conversation." In starter homes, newlywed husbands tease their brides that all their clothes will never fit in that closet. When the homebuyers are upscale, the closets can boast more square footage than some Manhattan apartments.

But talk to any adult child who has packed up a parent's closet after a move to an assisted living facility or a death, and you know why these small, painfully intimate spaces are the stuff of metaphor. Closets, like our lives, can be messy.

For almost exactly three years after my husband died, I left our closet untouched. There were a host of easy rationalizations. I didn't need the space. His clothes weren't bothering me; why should they bother anyone else? There were also loftier justifications. The week after he died, a dear friend offered to come over and help me go through the closet. It seemed as ludicrous to me as when the funeral director suggested that he take Bill's glasses and donate them to the Lion's Club. "But he needs his things," I wanted to scream.

I would come to refer to this as my Joan Didion moment. As she recounts in her memoir "The Year of Magical Thinking," she refused to give husband John Gregory Dunne's loafers away because if he came back, he would need his shoes. (There is solace, when you have lost your mind, in at least knowing that you are in such good company.)

Besides, I didn't want to do anything rash. A friend who had also lost her husband confided that she cleaned out his things very soon after his death and regretted it. In her haste, she had discarded items she wished she had saved for their daughters. Well, there, I told myself. I certainly wasn't going to be hasty. So the closet remained frozen in time.

But this winter, I decided to have our bedroom painted and carpeted. I also redecorated the largely unused sitting room adjacent to the master as a retreat for reading, and perhaps, for the serious writing that in fantasies I see as part of my second act. But this renovation project was tackled far more out of a sense of old-fashioned necessity than any quixotic crossing of an emotional threshold. The 20-year-old beige carpet had been rank for a while, and when the dog had a nose bleed on it several months ago, even my teenage sons began advising me that it had to go.

The room turned out more beautiful than I could have imagined, with walls the color of ocean foam and carpet the color of white sand beaches and seagrass. But the master closet remained cramped and cluttered, and now, annoyingly, was out of touch with the rest of the room.

This was as much a factor of my clothes taking up too much space as it was the presence of his. So when I set out to tackle the closet on a recent Saturday afternoon, I was really only going to weed out the never-going-to-wear-again items on my half of the closet. Except that I knew the time had come. I did not set out to displace the flannels, the polos and the khakis. I did not intend to move the Oxford shirts so heavily starched that one could imagine them as cadets standing at attention. Instead, I found my arms moving them without much intervention from my brain. There were moments that brought me back to reality. The tie with an uncharacteristic coffee stain on it was a silent testament to the moment when normalcy stopped and weekly trips to the dry cleaner were replaced by weekly trips to the oncologist.

Ultimately, I gave away far more of my clothes than his. Most of his simply got moved into another, out of sight, little-used closet. There are two 14-year-old boys who could wear those ties, I told myself. And it may be that a handful of the ties and a suit coat will get passed on. But it's also safe to assume that the dozens of flannel shirts in every variation of blue, black, red and green plaid will never be worn again.

I choose to applaud my moving of them to another closet instead of condemning my inability to move them all the way to Goodwill. Progress is progress no matter how small.

The master closet now sports my fall and winter clothes on one side; my spring and summer wardrobe on the other. My new closet, without his clothes, like my new life without him, is less full. But there is an order and sense of purpose to it that offers solace if not meaning. I understand now, three years in, that just because his clothes are no longer in our closet doesn't mean his spirit is no longer in our home.

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