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Lileks: Who is this dead Swede, and why is he so tidy?

October 7, 2018

They call it Swedish death cleaning: You approach your possessions as if you were charged with emptying out your house after you’ve died. No one wants to dig out a hoarder’s mess. I imagine someone announcing to my survivors: “The bad news is, he’s dead. The very bad news is, he’s not Swedish dead.”

I had some time to clean, because my wife was away, and I thought it would be great if she came home to a place that said “dead Swede.” She’d walk in and say, “What have you done?” “Well, I cleaned.”

“Where’s the furniture?”

“If we were dead,” I’d explain, “we wouldn’t need any furniture. And you have to admit that it really opens up the room.”

Then she would explain that I had taken the assignment to the extreme. You’re not supposed to think in terms of the living room sofa; you’re supposed to focus on things like shirts and books.

Shirts first, then. Do I need this orange shirt? Yes, it’s a Halloween staple. This white one has an unfashionable collar, but it might be good if I was painting something. I’d forgotten about this one, haven’t worn it in years. Must wear it tomorrow.

One hour later, the reject pile consisted of one pair of socks whose elastic had lost its purpose. In Swedish corpse terms, I had eliminated a pinkie finger.

On to the books. This would be easy. Years ago, facing bulging book shelves, I realized something sad: I don’t know what most of them are about. Oh, I can remember the general gist, but sometimes my synopsis would be like an unprepared high school student’s term paper:

“F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’ asks us to consider the night, and whether it can be tender. Do we mean tender like a bruise, or tender like a sentimental feeling? Fitzgerald, who was popular in the 1920s, was sentimental about the Jazz Age, as the ’20s were known because of the music, but the boom would come to an end with the Crash, leaving the economy bruised and dark as night.”

I will never read any of these again, I thought, and I purged a great portion of the library. I left mostly reference books, 98 percent of which I never consult, but someday I might.

Besides, whoever ends up cleaning out my stuff after I’m gone might want these. I noticed there was a series of books about advertising that was missing a volume. “What if the cleaner-outer loved the series and wanted to keep them?” I fretted. Amazon had it. I ordered it. I had now added to my stock of books.

In Swedish corpse terms, I had sewed the pinkie finger back on.

On to the things I collect. There’s a closet with odds and ends I’ve accumulated over the years, nothing that means anything to anyone.

There’s the spyglass I got from a comic book so I could pretend I was on an espionage mission against ants. There’s a pink plastic cup that contains my old Major Matt Mason action figure; his arms are outstretched, holding a pen-sized magnifying tube. The toy was the big Christmas gift of 1966, and I loved it.

And as for that pink plastic cup, the Welcome Wagon gave it to my mom in 1962 when we moved into the neighborhood. The only time she used it was to administer a horrid preparation of warm water and salt, her go-to gargle when you had a sore throat.

She’s gone, and I’m the only person in the world who’d attach any meaning to the cup whatsoever. But if she were here today, she’d remember Matt Mason, how it lit me up on Christmas when I ripped open the package.

Oh, there were many such items on the shelves, things that will instantly lose their meaning once I am gone. So what? Sweep it all in a box and give it to the antique store. It will save my family the inconvenience of having to swing past the Container Store on their way home from my funeral.

A few days before my wife got back, I went through the kitchen cabinets with no pity whatsoever. Hey, here’s paprika from when Hungary was Commie. Out. Soup that expired last week? Begone! Now we’re making progress. I had a full trash bag by the time I turned to the family room closet, where I found expired batteries, board games no one plays — sorry, Sorry, but it’s true — and art supplies from Daughter’s grade school era. Two trash bags!

I was on a roll, now. I attacked the drawers on the kitchen island. Middle-school class directories — out. Menus from defunct eateries, dried-up Sharpies, loose tacks, brittle rubber bands, all got the SDC treatment. When I was done, everything looked pristine and neat. Perhaps I hadn’t achieved Swedish death cleaning, but I had at least managed Mediterranean death cleaning, where they knock off after lunch for a nap.

When Wife came back, she was impressed. Twelve minutes later, she got a text from Daughter wanting to know the number on the UPS package sent to her in Denmark. It’s on the receipt, which was in the drawer.

“Ja,” I stammered. “It’s a some-vere.”

P.S.: I found it. I had to go through the trash, though. Good news: I found something else I’d thrown out that I really meant to keep. The elastic on those socks still has a little life in it.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks

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