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cleaning out a dead woman’s home in DC

September 23, 2010

ill never forget when cormier asked me to clear out the apartment of a old black woman who had died. and just all her stuff was still in there like she just went on vacation. she was married, but most of the stuff seemed to belong to only her. she had a son but i guess he didn’t want any of her stuff. The house had to be cleared out and her family wouldn’t do it, according to Cormier, so the job came to me. I cleared out her filing cabinet with all her important documents: newspaper clippings from vietnam war & civil rights movement, articles she wrote in her college newspaper, photographs of her at a feminist summit in scandinavia. She was something of a women’s rights activist, it seemed. The whole project made me feel melancholy – all of these things which were fascinating enough to a stranger, but should have been treasured by her family – being tossed into large black trash bags destined for the dumpsters in the alley. Cormier saved some of the newspaper clippings and front pages, but the old photographs, articles, awards, and letters were all thrown away. The most disturbing part came as I cleaned out her kitchen, her cabinets still holding cans of beans and corn, dishes, cups, and jars still stored. On the bottom of one shelf were old jars and bowls, lifting one bowl up revealed a hidden cache of mini-liquor bottles and a bottle of super glue…the feeling of embarassment I had felt during the whole project was amplified – this woman’s pride and shame were both revealed to me through her abandoned posessions. I was an invader – I was violating her privacy, even if she was dead. And just as I had speculated about her accomplishments and passions as I cleared out her files, I speculated about her frustrations and shame as I cleared out that stash. The mini-bottles of liquor and super glue seemed pathetic because they were hidden away. The super glue would have seemed completely innocuous in any other part of the house, but hidden away with the liquor suggested it intended for other purposes. The discovery didn’t overshadow the other things I had seen, but just affected me emotionally as I was unwillingly shown something neither I nor the dead woman wanted me to see. It took 5 hours to throw away most of the stuff left in the apartment and I returned home feeling depressed.

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