Cleaning House

Both of our boys are out of the house and now in college and the time had finally come to deal with our other house.

Our other house is the one we moved away from when we moved to our present house and the one we moved to when we left New York City in 1997.

Of course, we brought most of our belongings with us from the old place. On top of all of our tables, chairs, lamps, beds, dishes, pots, pans, artwork, drawing tables, clothing, and sundry belongings there were even a few nice pieces of antique furniture which had been left by the previous tenants, so we brought those, too.

Arriving in our new town in New Jersey, one of the things I discovered that I really liked was that on certain days each year, people would place items which they no longer needed or wanted out by the curb and they were free for the taking by people like me. I began cruising around slowly in the old Pontiac picking through others’ castaways.

In this manner, I obtained even more possessions and brought them home and put them in my house. I picked up an old push mower, like the one I had watched the yard man use when I was a boy. Looking through a pile of books at the foot of someone’s driveway, I discovered an old postage stamp album with a bunch of old stamps in it. It was red and had an embossed Indian in full headdress on the cover. I was never much of a stamp collector, but I couldn’t resist. This stamp collection seemed to be the life’s work of some boy growing up in the days before World War Two. Perhaps he was sickly. He no doubt spent many a rainy afternoon in his room with that album. He may have taken it with him when he grew up and got a house of his own, where it sat for years on a shelf or was stored away in a trunk in the attic. Somehow, it will never be known exactly how, it wound up in a pile of old books at the foot of a driveway.

Of course I took that home.

Old worn out rakes and heavy wooden shovels also found their way from the curb into my garage, but they did no more work.

Aside from whatever possessions my wife and I owned, when my father died and then my mother a few years later, we found ourselves going through the contents of the house where they had lived most of their lives, and were faced with the task of making many decisions about what to keep, what to throw away, what to give away, what to donate and what to possibly sell.

My mother, who was nearly 86 when she died suddenly one night, had lived in that house since she was a ten-year-old girl. My father had grown up in the countryside before World War 1 in rural Georgia with a mindset that you don’t throw anything away because you might need it one day.

The house where they lived was the one in which I grew up and it was full of memories, even after my parents were no longer living there. A part of them and a part of me seemed to live on everywhere you looked.  A cracked rubber band saved in a drawer conjured up images of my father. A burned red wax candle found in another drawer reminded me of my mother during many of the hurricanes we endured in the 1950’s.

My father couldn’t go to work when there was a big storm and I liked being together with them in the house with the wind blowing outside and the candles burning and the rain pounding down on the metal roof. Everywhere I looked, there seemed to be a little part of us in every object they had, from a jar of nuts and bolts which represented my Dad, to a small spool of pale blue ribbon being the faint embodiment of  my mother. So naturally, I put things like that in a box and added them to my life.  

As our two boys grew up, their baby things were put away in a trunk and boxes of old toys made their way into the already full attic or basement. The garage, too was devoid of automobiles and served as additional storage space. I discovered a section of the attic under a spire that had empty space, but no floor. Some boards and several days later there was space there for those old boxes of comic books I had been dragging around with me for twenty years or so that just got older.  

Somehow, my wife and I managed to find a place amid all the clutter of our lives and other people’s lives to lay our heads at night or to sit during the day and work at a computer, or read a book, of which there were shelves and boxes full. “You can never have too many books”, I believed. And I knew one day, I would get around to reading them all, including that book I used to see on the shelf at my mother’s house by James Thurber.  

Over there in the corner of our bedroom was the chair my grandmother had been leaning on on New Year’s Eve 1950 when she fell and broke her hip. And in an adjoining room was the little Victorian Chair that had belonged to my father’s mother and down in the basement were two old rocking chairs from the mid 19th century that had belonged to someone in the family, I’m not sure exactly who.

In the living room was the chair that my mother was always sitting in when we came to visit, the same chair where she was sitting the last time I ever saw her, the day I kissed her goodbye and promised to return in a few months.

When I did come back there was only that chair.

Two days ago, having decided to sell the house it was time to make some hard decisions.

A lot of stuff was going to have to go. I spoke to a nice lady named Marie at South Orange Disposal and she cheerfully told me everything I needed to know about steel refuse containers then dutifully wrote down my credit card numbers. The next thing I knew they had delivered a 12-foot steel container to our driveway.

The bulkhead doors to the basement were flung open, the garage doors were thrown open, and things began to be thrown into it. Aside from various cans of paint, old spray cans of Raid, furniture polish and old rags, into the dumpster went the ventriloquist dummy, in its original box, which my mother had used to entertain customers at her place of business in the late 1950’s. Old 78 records to which, in 1942, my young parents and some of their friends had danced around the living room were tossed into that dumpster like so many old newspapers. And here was my old wooden sailboat with the red sail and there was the device made from blue metal which when placed underneath a basketball hoop caused a lttle bell to ring if the ball went through the hoop.

It was painful to see the table which used to sit next to my grandmother’s bed when she was an invalid get thrown out, but even more painful to keep it and have to look at it again.

Hundreds of old bottles that my boys and I had found on our many walks in the woods or pulled from the mud of a nearby dry riverbed were unceremoniously dashed against the steel sides and bottom of the container. Opening one box which had been hastily packed ten years earlier, following my mother’s death, brought me face to face with my toddler-self as an artist. Inside were the wooden blocks of scrap wood that my father had brought home from some construction project he visited. My father had seen them and thought of me and brought them home for me to play with. Instead I marked on them with crayons. Perhaps I was trying to make them some hue other than the dull brown. My Dad liked visiting construction sites, and had once even designed and built a small house.

He had used the proceeds from the sale of that house to start a family business which my mother operated successfully for 17 years. That laundry was the place where the ventriloquist dummy had made his debut and in fact where he had spent his entire career. He retired years later into a closet in the attic at the top of the stairs. Into the open mouth of the steel container all these items went– and many more which shall remain undescribed.

In the wee hours of the morning it started to rain and the rain fell steadily all through the night trickling over the rifles of  plastic soldiers and soaking the little stuffed bear with the red ribbon around his neck.

The next morning as I was drinking my coffee, outside, there was a sudden loud noise like someone hitting the side of an oil tank with a sledge hammer and a steel cable hauled it all up onto the bed of the truck and slowly drove it all away.

All except for the basketball hoop toy–the same one that rang a little bell when the ball went through the hoop.

It lay in the driveway. It had somehow fallen out of the giant steel container and had even been missed being run over by the truck. I picked it up. Its blue lever now reminded me of a tongue which seemed to stick out impudently at the departing truck.  As the truck rounded the corner I depressed the lever.

It went DING.

3 thoughts on “Cleaning House”

  1. When i retired and moved to Colorado to live with my sister, i first had to get rid of a *lot* of stuff that was crowded into my little house in Maine. Stuff i had been accumulating all my adult life. It was a painful process – particularly the books! Our things are part of our identity, they help say who we are, to others, to ourselves. When we let go of our things, we are letting go of part of our past, which is also part of ourselves. Downsizing reduces us to our memories, the loved ones we still have close at hand, and our present.

    Liked by 1 person

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