The hardest work I've ever done is cleaning out my mother's house after she moved to an assisted-living home.
The second-hardest job I've ever completed is cleaning out our own basement.
My mother's house was filled with 40-plus years of keeping almost everything, including nearly half a ton of canceled checks and bank statements dating back to the 1950s. You never know, she would say, when you might need something like that.
My wife and I relied heavily on our older son's muscles to help with that cleanup job. We filled a large carport from floor to ceiling with large garbage bags. The town sent a full-sized dump truck to haul it all away.
My wife and I have been talking about dealing with our own basement for years. We have "organized" it and donated much of its contents several times over. And then the basement would fill up again. How does that happen?
When we moved into this house, where we've been 15 years, we had a Salvation Army crew haul away a big truckload of things we could live without. A couple of times since then we've had volunteers from the Southeast Hospital auxiliary haul away several pickup loads.
And still it accumulated.
We knew there were boxes in our basement that had been taped shut more than 40 years ago when we made our first move from Kansas City to Dallas. Since then we've endured 13 -- yes, 13 -- moves, including our last one 15 years ago. Each time we moved we culled through our possessions, trying to eliminate things we no longer needed or things with less sentimental value.
And every time we moved we sealed up more boxes not likely to be opened for a long, long time.
Our goal last week was to go through every box. Not most of the boxes. All of them.
And we did. We organized our accumulated life into four piles: Things to keep (again), things to sell, things to donate and things to trash.
The things to keep went into 35 large plastic see-through bins. All of them have been labeled for our own faltering memory banks, for our sons and for future archaeologists to puzzle over. Why did they keep this stuff?
The trash pile filled a large portion of our two-car garage awaiting a special haul-away service provided by the city's public works department.
Who knew, when we were married 46 years ago, that our life together would boil down to a public-works project?
As we dug through musty, dusty boxes, we relived our lives. They say a dying person sees his life unfold in a flash. When you clean out a basement, it unfolds much more slowly. You pause, holding in your hand a photograph or a book or a something special in your life. And you remember.
As you might expect, we laughed a lot during this process. And we cried. Who knew cardboard boxes could be such powerful emotion stimulators?
There were the shoe boxes filled with family photographs. Those were my mother's, who had no patience for filling albums. How many Thanksgiving afternoons did we sit at the dining room table after a huge meal and hand those photos around, telling the stories that went with them, learning about our ancestors, embellishing the good and laying bare the not-so-good.
Well, there it is now: our lives in 35 plastic bins awaiting the day when our sons will go down to the basement and decide what to do with all that stuff.
Reminder to sons: Nearly a third of those bins are filled with stuff you wouldn't throw away.
Joe Sullivan is the retired editor of the Southeast Missourian.