The window from the funeral home looks out on a mural across the street. It depicts a bustling beach, filled with swimmers and sun bathers, the image a snapshot in time from the memories of this town.
There was no such swimming or sunbathing in town limits by the time I arrived here. The practice was rare even when my parents might have first taken advantage. The story, as they told it when I was young anyway, was that there was too much bird poop in Silver Lake and Bailey Lake, the adjacent ponds pictured in the mural.
Hence, no swimming. Though feeding bits of bread to the ducks at the lake is an occasional childhood pastime I do remember quite well.
I’m considering the mural as I reckon with the unimaginable. We’re here to plan my father’s funeral. He passed away unexpectedly a few days earlier.
I’m reasonably well versed in this part of the process, having been through it multiple times, in this same room, for other family members and dear friends gone too soon. It’s something else, something unfamiliar, that’s weighing heavy on my mind and has me thinking about those swimmers and the memories of this town.
I know we’ll have to clear out my dad’s house, and I can’t bear the thought. It’s my childhood home, the first home I ever knew, where I’ve spent more than half of my years on this earth.
It’s been 15 years since I moved away, but no matter how much time passed or how far I traveled, this place never stopped being a refuge, a place to retreat from the storms of life and renew a tired mind or strained spirit.
My grandparents and their family homes on the country roads of northern Minnesota had been gone for a while, and now my dad’s small-town residence would be too.
What would be left of my relationship with this place, my connection to my roots—what would be left of my refuge—when the house was gone?
My sister and I agree we’ll wait a few months for the northern winter to pass before diving into this task in earnest, so the weight is held at a bay for a moment. But no matter when we returned to do it, it’s too soon, too early in our lives to be facing this, I know we’d also have agreed.
In the meantime, I make occasional weekend trips from my home in Minneapolis to pick up some essential keepsakes, lightening future burdens one small carload at a time. These small efforts to chip away at the task don’t cut too deep. It’s manageable but it’s far from practical or sustainable in terms of the broader undertaking and getting the job done.
Perhaps that’s the point. The only part scarier to me than the overwhelming scope of this project is the prospect of it being over and done.
But time ticks on and we eventually arrive back in northern Minnesota to see to that outcome. It’s late March and the northern Minnesota winter has not passed, in classic form, but we’re here to honor our plans nonetheless.
It’s an audacious bit of alchemy, this job. My dad first moved into this house in 1976, and he remained for 46 years until his final moments. It saw him through so many chapters of life; here he was a young bachelor, a newlywed, a new parent, a divorced dad, a second-chance husband and stepdad, a widower, and a retired old man about town. How do you take all that life, filling to the brim these four walls, and pack it down into a few boxes, a few bins, a few cars, fit to be moved along for remembrance or reuse?
One of my professors once told me the hardest part about growth and change—in both a social and individual context—is knowing what to hold onto and what to let go of. I feel that lesson more deeply than ever now. That’s what we’re doing here, and that’s why I’ve been so scared. You can’t hold onto it all. This is letting go.
When the process really starts, you won’t know where to begin. But if you’re lucky, you’ll have help. One of our many helpers, an aunt, suggests that it always makes the most sense to start with the walls. And so, our team goes to work on that task.
It’s like pulling off so many band-aids. These are the things that most imbue a house with the personality and humanity of those who lived there—the family photos, art, and décor preserving many a milestone, memory, and shared experience. Removing them stings something fierce and doesn’t come easy. But the pace picks up and as they peel off you become accustomed to the pain.
In most homes I imagine this task could be done within a day. Not so here, where it proves to be a multi-person, multi-day job thanks to my dad’s enthusiasm for covering rooms wall-to-wall, every inch a means of expression. He also had a penchant for really nailing things in decisively — or even painting custom pieces of art onto the walls — and why not when you had no intention of leaving and so many of them should stay put for decades. At least a couple times I am ready to give up, resolving to resign the contest and explain to outside parties that this was simply part of the fabric of the house now. Apologies, nothing to be done about it, these band-aids ain’t coming off.
But it’s eventually a challenge answered and overcome. A much harder challenge to figure is where the heck everything goes once it’s taken down, removed from walls, shelves, drawers and more.
You’ll start a box early on, a place to deposit any items that catch your eye or merit inheriting. All your helpers will start boxes and piles too, and the question will be asked many times, in many directions: “Do you want this?” Straightforward answers become only more fleeting as time goes on, and after a certain point many items, from random fridge magnets to a never-used pastry and pizza roller, can only elicit a shrug, sigh, or laugh.
That same professor of mine counseled the practice of “listening for the meaning underneath the words,” and his wisdom again holds some relevance here. Many times the words, “Oh, you’ve gotta take this!” are sent in my direction. After a while, I begin to think I can discern two distinct versions of this phrase. One means exactly what you’ve read there and can be taken at face value. The other can be translated to mean something along the lines of, “If you don’t want this, I might like to take it.”
No one can be blamed for practicing a delicate form of diplomacy in this project. Yet, contrary to what you might expect, there is little drama or conflict to be found in these exchanges. The trickier matter is what to do with all the items that have no claims, the things that find no box or pile and have no immediate inheritance.
What needs to be donated or given away? What needs to be sold or set aside? What is headed straight to the large roll-off dumpster bin you’ve procured for the week? The seeds of drama and difficulty have much more room to grow in that ground.
I tell myself my prime directive is to see to it that everything finds a meaningful second life, that the passing on of these items is treated with the same care and dignity as the passing of the person who owned them. It’s an idealistic notion. Naïve, without a doubt. The roll-off dumpster’s presence proves that summarily.
The base fare of having ample help is that things will escape your control quickly, and each helper may be working from separate directives, noble in their own way, even if you can’t see that at first glance.
A more realistic prime directive would probably look something like this: arriving at the end of the week with the job done, the house cleared out, come what may.
Fresh off the job of clearing a pair of bookshelves, done just so, I make the rounds to see how everyone else is doing. It’s jarring to see the progress, particularly where the pace of others has far exceeded your own. It hurts to see items stacked in a corner, beside a dumpster, or in a trash bin. I wonder if the culprits gave these items the same consideration I gave the books, having crafted a careful taxonomy for separating stacks of sports writing, spiritual reflection, local history, and coffee-table photography.
There’s no way they could, of course. If the wall coverings were band-aids, this is the bitter pill, the medicine that must go down. The attachment I have to this place compels me to consider every item, to linger. There’s a hard limit on the value of that approach, to both the job at hand and your own mental health. You need others who are not attached, who aren’t forced to linger, people for whom these are just things, not vessels for countless childhood memories and some concept of family legacy.
My brother-in-law, who is with us for the entirety of the project, is our best asset in this regard. Where my sister and I are bound to tackle any task with the highest levels of precision, he is the blunt instrument, able to barrel forward and break through with little exception.
It’s important to remember, no matter how you go about it, this job will get messy. There will be things, if you could do them over again, that you’d approach differently or handle better. Items you might have kept or passed on instead, people you might have looped in or directed elsewhere. You do the best you can in the moment, and you live with it.
Money is the furthest thing from our minds in all this. My dad was a magnanimous man, his generous gifts to our church and other local groups making him some kind of homespun philanthropist tucked away in this quiet corner of northern Minnesota.
The mail that’s stacked up on the kitchen counter is testament to that, made up almost entirely of fundraising letters from all manner of nonprofit mainstays — the American Heart Association, the March of Dimes, St. Jude’s, and so forth — and my sister remarks that his checkbook mirrors this, most lines on the ledger showing donations to these groups and more.
Yet my dad was without question a humble, working-class guy, and ours was a humble, working-class neighborhood. So, we resolve to donate as much as we can. As with every step in this process, it proves harder and messier than we expected.
In my heyday, there were at least three thriving thrift stores and various other charities in town. Today, we’re told they’ve either closed, downsized, or otherwise narrowed the scope of their donation protocols, due to staffing challenges or other such markers of the economic moment.
As a result, our average donation drop-off requires an hour-long round trip. We drive in multiple directions to other small towns in the region, always starting early to get as much through the doors as possible, before the intake staff reaches capacity for the day and turns us away. We make multiple calls, to hospitals, nursing homes, nonprofits and more, to find other willing and worthwhile destinations for various categories of cargo.
Along the way, something odd happens to speed the process, and the exact sequence of how it unfolded eludes me in hindsight. The closest explanation I can muster emerges from the convergence of two chance occurrences. We invite some of my dad’s friends to come by and peruse his vast collection of sports memorabilia, inviting them to take any items that might be meaningful to them. Around the same time, my brother-in-law begins putting items on the street corner, perhaps fatigued by the difficulties of making yet another donation run.
Before long, we’re party to a veritable bonanza. It starts simply enough, with regular passers-by grabbing items from the corner, but only escalates from there. The house fills up with people, some familiar, others less so, as I showcase sports mementos and my sister draws attention to furniture and home goods. I help carry to houses across the alley or down the block multiple big-ticket items, including those bookshelves I cleared earlier and an antique wooden dresser my dad painted Minnesota Viking purple and gold (one of many items to have received this treatment). We become the proprietors of an impromptu estate sale, no planning, advertising, or transactional rigor required.
By the end of the day, the shopping has expanded to the roll-off dumpster, as it becomes a common sight to see folks climbing the side of the bin and grabbing an item or two from within, even long after we’ve wrapped up our work each day.
I’m not sure how to feel about it all in the moment, unable to muster much of a reaction given mounting physical and emotional exhaustion. I make no judgments of the “dumpster divers,” applying that term here strictly for its exactness and putting aside its inherently pejorative valence; in fact, I have nothing but gratitude for them, as accomplices to my lofty notions and that prime directive of mine.
The moments that stick most in my mind and make me feel good involve families. The customized purple and gold dresser is taken by a single mom for use in their child’s bedroom, because where else might such a gaudy thing belong? The bookshelves go to a young couple with a small son and a baby in a stroller. While we’re at it, I encourage the son to take a stuffed jackalope he’s admiring in a bin full of toys; it was a souvenir from the last trip my dad and I took together, a road trip through the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota.
I can’t preserve the life I once had here, but it’s a small comfort to see it reflected in others and to pay it forward in some fashion.
Aided by the collective zeal of the neighborhood, we start to see a light at the end of the tunnel. My brother-in-law reassures us, wagering that we’re on or ahead of schedule most of the way.
The house becomes relatively empty and unlivable within a day or two. With no Wi-Fi and little furniture beyond the essentials, the Redbox at the gas station down the street becomes my steady companion while my brother-in-law compares the emerging experience to camping without the outdoors. I doze off during a different movie each night, and while most of my selections reflect light genre fare, I can tell you a dad dies at the beginning or end of most of them. Again, I am too tired to give it much thought.
When you see a place stripped down to the bone like this, when you’re tasked with taking all its pieces and shuttling them off, the adage that something is greater or less than “the sum of its parts” is seen with a new kind of clarity. You’re in deep enough to do the mental math, and in this case, I’m convinced: this place was greater than the sum of its parts, more than just about anything could be.
But the relative worth of things is tricky. One man’s trash and all that. We meet with a local realtor and settle on a listing price for the home. These facts are true no matter how you do the math and regardless of what fancy turns of phrase you apply to them: If this home were in my Zip code, it would be worth at least twice what we’re asking for it. If it were in my sister’s, that multiplier would probably be three or four times, if not more. If we set out to build this same home in this exact location today, it would cost much more than the price we can ask now.
It is literally worth less than the sum of its parts. You can check the receipts and forget the mental math.
It’s a sobering statement, but an inescapable one, a product of forces much bigger than one housing lot. More accurately, it’s a statement on the supposed worth of this small town and rural region, not an individual property, and those same forces had a hand in pushing out people like my sister and me.
At various points throughout my life, I looked upon this town with scorn or dissatisfaction. Not an overriding amount of it, mind you, more of a gentle undercurrent. The point is, I haven’t always held this place in highest esteem or assigned it much worth myself, so I share some amount of responsibility for where we stand now.
It’s funny but not entirely unexpected, as I drive around town on our final day, making a few last drop offs, that I feel nothing but love, affection, and warmth toward this place. Where I once might have viewed its murals — the nostalgic mid-century beach painting being one of many recent works like it — as regressive and cloying, evidence of a town shackled to its past and incapable of imagining a brighter future, I now understand them in a way I never could have before. I long for the schemes and daydreams I once harbored about things that would bring me back here — hypothetical part-time teaching jobs, miscellaneous side-hustles, or extended visits to care for my dad in his twilight years. But they are all in the past now. And pretty soon, all that may be left of this place, for me, is the memories I have of it.
They’re pretty good memories, ones worth celebrating, and holding onto. I’ve written a number of stories about them, murals of my own making. This may be the last one I share, for a good while anyway.
Until then, it was a heck of a place to grow up and a happy place to return to — always a soft place to land. In saying goodbye, I feel fortunate to have seen it so clearly again, and to be reminded, it will remain that for whoever calls this house, and this town, home next.