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Unpacking the Past in My Father's Storage Locker

Amid complicated sibling relationships and the stress of his care, I was reminded of our shared family history

By Tess Clarkson

With a key, my older brother opened the padlock on a storage unit on Highway K. The door screeched as he pushed it up. A dusty scent floated into the air. Cardboard boxes, blue plastic bins, some crates, a large Army locker and more boxes jammed the space. In the back corner, a clear plastic bin with my most precious belongings sat cocked on its side.

Scuffed up Irish dancing shoes and some irish medals. Next Avenue, sibling relationships, siblings, father
Unbeknownst to the author, her sister saved these and other mementos from her days as an Irish dancer  |  Credit: Tess Clarkson

There's my box!" I nearly cried. Years earlier, I'd packed it at my parents' house following Mom's death. After I returned home to New York, the box had never made it to my nearby sister's basement for safekeeping. 

"Glad you've got your stuff now," Joe said. He picked up the box and moved it to the side. 

Since returning to my home state, my oldest sibling hadn't helped me as I'd anticipated.

I was grateful for his help. For nearly three months since mid-November, I'd been on a leave of absence from my Wall Street lawyer life and in Missouri to care for our dad. What I'd expected would be days of keeping my 86-year-old father with dementia entertained and well-fed ended up being far more work than my job regulating financial markets. Dad's affairs were a disaster.

Looking around the storage unit, I suspected we'd find some of my oldest sibling's possessions. She'd lived with our parents for nearly five decades. I was the 42-year-old baby of the five of us born to our parents. My four siblings all lived in the St. Louis area, where we'd grown up. I was the only one who'd left, first to Chicago for college, then to Manhattan for law school. 

Since returning to my home state, my oldest sibling hadn't helped me as I'd anticipated. Before taking my leave, she'd agreed that I could stay at her home, from which I walked (and sometimes ran when it was too cold) to our other sibling's house to care for Dad.

A few weeks earlier, my oldest sibling had begun telling me, "You're living in my house for free," to which I'd respond, "No, it's costing me forty thousand dollars to care for our father." I wasn't getting my usual salary during my FMLA (Family Leave and Medical Act) leave of absence and still had New York City expenses. 

Sorting Through Boxes

Beneath the large bin Joe moved for me, I spotted a smaller one I recognized, but couldn't remember the contents. I removed the lid. Old baby dolls, ones that hadn't even meant much to me, laid inside. I moved one. "Eww!" I shouted, touching mouse droppings.

My sister-in-law picked up the bin. Walking it across the narrow hallway, she said, "I'll get rid of that for you. I'll start a trash pile." She set the container down on the concrete.

Bundled in a heavy coat, Dad sat "supervising" on one of his old kitchen chairs. Dad didn't know he even had a storage unit for which he'd been paying a monthly fee. Or he didn't remember.

He had sold his house seven months earlier, but hadn't lived in it full-time for years. Instead, he lived with another one of my siblings. He'd thought all of his belongings were in her basement. Or at least, that's what he'd told me.

Joe, his wife and I opened containers and determined what to do with the contents: keep or trash. It was as if someone had gotten tired of packing Dad's house and had dumped a load of his belongings from random sections, including the garage, into the storage unit.

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I hadn't been able to spend more than one weekend in St. Louis to clean Dad's house and certainly was paying for that now. I regretted not making time to return earlier to help and felt like the past few weeks were some type of karmic payback for getting to entertain Dad during his frequent visits to New York, instead of being in Missouri to take care of his affairs.

We sorted papers, photos, military mementos, plumbing bits and parts from help he gave to friends and family, and books. 

Hours into our work, my oldest sibling arrived. Without a word, she started inspecting the piles. 

Surprised By What Was Saved

I watched her pick up the bin of dolls and put them on a cart she'd borrowed from the storage facility office. My old dance trophies that I'd asked Dad to throw out 20 years ago had made their way to the storage unit, and I watched my oldest sibling load these on her cart, too.

"What are you doing?" I snapped, angry that now, weeks before I was leaving, she showed up to pick through my trash as we tried to help Dad.

She ignored me.

"What are you doing?" I asked her again. My anger intensified. I was exhausted from tackling Dad's legal, financial, medical and burial needs, and providing his day-to-day companionship. In the year since his last visit to me in Brooklyn, he'd declined a lot. I hadn't anticipated he'd need so much help. I hadn't anticipated doing so much for him by myself.

"None of your business," she replied and kept poking around piles. Dad sat reading a book.

"It is my business. Those are my dolls."

"Not now. You were throwing them away."

I glared at her. 

Did my sister hold onto mementos of my childhood because she couldn't fully embrace the present?

Joe laughed, his way to diffuse the tension. "At least, now we'll have less to move out of here,"  he said.

Hours later, after Joe, his wife and I emptied the storage unit, they drove me to my oldest sibling's house. Walking through her front door, I gasped. 

My trophies, dancing shoes and doll bin littered the entrance way. I'd be leaving this house in two weeks and planned on never returning, and yet my childhood treasures, awards from the many Irish dance competitions across North America to which my oldest sibling had taken me, would be in her home.

She had been the one to cheer me on year after year. She'd bought me my dream costume when my parents wouldn't. 

I sat down to remove my shoes, no longer angry. Instead, I felt such sadness. Did my sister hold onto mementos of my childhood because she couldn't fully embrace the present? Mom was dead. Dad was declining.

Our sibling relationships were fracturing. But in looking at those dolls and trophies, maybe she transported to a happy time when I loved her in the way small children can. Certainly, that's what I wanted to believe. 

Over the next weeks, my siblings, sister-in-law and I moved Dad into a beautiful older adult community with a regular happy hour, bowling and movies, which excited him.

The day I left to return home, I thought about having us drive past my parents' old house, but decided against it. I didn't need to stare at the past, especially now when Dad was in a new place and had a future for which to live.

Tess Clarkson is a former professional Irish dancer (“Riverdance” and “Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance”), who spent over a decade on Wall Street as a lawyer regulating financial markets. Now in Missouri, she’s working on a memoir. Her essays have appeared in The Washington PostHuffPostThe Independent and AARP’s The Girlfriend. Find her on Instagram (@tessclarkson7) and Twitter (@tess_clarkson). Read More

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