A few days ago, I sat in a room in a nursing home with my mother, sorting through boxes of her belongings, from books on theology to a black lace merry widow corset.
When you move into one room, you’re quickly forced to shed about 95% of the belongings that have defined you, and your taste, your memories and history. If, as many of us do, we acquire and keep objects and clothes and shoes and accessories, we choose and keep them for a reason, maybe several.
Often reasons quite unknown to anyone else.
Everything I pulled out for our mutual decision making made me wonder — who is this woman?
At least she’s still alive and we had a chance to make those decisions, however wrenching, together.
I learned more about my Mom in those four hours than in the past, very private, four decades as we went through it all:
Those impossibly soft red leather Cossack-style boots? (That didn’t — damn! — fit me.) Bought in London. She once tucked a pack of cigarettes into the the top of one.
That black and white Marimekko print gown? Worn to the open house when she moved into her Toronto home 20 years ago.
The tie-dyed Indian cotton dress? She designed it while traveling there.
That corset? My mom was one confident hottie! I wish I had the nerve, and the figure, to rock a black lace Merry Widow…
The battered paperback book by Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian liberation theologist? Autographed to her. Good thing I hadn’t tossed it in our purging.
Not to mention love letters, recent ones, from Australia, New York and beyond. Good work, Mom!
I fly home to New York in two days, with a new, painful and acute sense of how much stuff I own, and how much if it I have to get rid of, now! I cannot imagine my sweetie having to go through it, box by box, trunk by trunk, and make any sense of it without me there: photos, letters, books.
Why am I clinging to it?
Am I still me without it?
Have you ever had to sort, purge and toss out a lot of your stuff? Or someone else’s?
Storage locker clean-up, scene two. Another six non-stop hours of going through boxes stacked to the ceiling. We’re almost done!
Next week we’ll have the remainders — which we have promised ourselves we will go through again soon and purge even further — into a space 5 by 7 by 10, at $100 a month, not the $250 a month we have been paying for a decade for a large room full of…
That means we’ve blown about $20,000, a sum that makes me embarrassed to even write it publicly, over the past decade on storing a bunch of things, none of which is worth even $2,000 apiece.
Some of it we have been very happy to re-discover, from the camo-colored Kevlar vest my partner wore while covering the aftermath of the Bosnian war as a photographer and my vintage paisley shawls and quilts to his kindergarten graduation certificate, signed by by mom, his teacher, who died in the 1980s.
I know now why so many of us put off going through our accumulated stuff. It’s tiring, boring, demands snap decisions and can be emotionally a little painful. I found dozens of photos of myself, younger, thinner, in jobs I loved, long-gone. My wedding invitation and album (divorced in 1994.) Photos of five ex’es, including the husband.
Although it was fun to see I’d kept a picture of Nigel, the impossibly blue-eyed Welsh engineer from Khartoum I met on a flight from Dublin to Bristol on Christmas Eve. We were both heading home to see our mothers — but sneaked away for a brief tour of Wales, covered in thick fog. It was one of those flings where you realize there’s a lot more there than you’d thought — and you have large continents and oceans between you. There was no Internet then or Skype, so I still have some of his postcards.
I am delighted to have re-discovered some childhood images, and to find several work-related items just at the moment I most need them.
It also feels good to lighten up. We’ll save $150 a month by renting a smaller space.
Too many recent obituaries, like that of screenwriter David Mills, working on the new HBO series Treme in New Orleans, who died last week on-set of a brain aneurysm — at the age of 48 — remind us death can claim us anytime, anywhere, whether or not you’ve written (or re-written) your will or cleaned out your basement, attic and/or storage locker(s.)
Too many friends of mine have found themselves overwhelmed physically and emotionally trying to clean out the accumulated detritus of a parent’s life and home. What matters? What’s important and to whom? What’s of any financial value — and then what? (My father, recently, finally asked me which of his artworks I really hope to inherit. Fingers crossed.)
A few tips to help you get started and stay the course:
1) take lots of packing tape 2) fresh, clean, new boxes into which to repack; small enough you can easily lift them 3) lots of blank paper and tape and a Sharpie to label every box with its specific contents and the date you closed it 4) tape measure 4) ladder 5) folding chair — it’s a long day and sitting really helps! 6) a camera to photograph anything of value you may want to sell on Ebay or craigslist or send to auction 7) food, water, a thermos of coffee — no leaving! 8) a radio 9) bandaids — paper cuts were common as we shoved tons of old paperwork into garbage bags 10) a box-cutter or small, sharp knife for opening boxes and cutting tape 11) bubble wrap to cushion delicate or breakable items you decide to keep — we encountered a lot of broken glass from several framed pictures, one of which cut my finger 12) Kleenex and paper towel; my allergy to dust and mold kicked in a little after going through so much stuff.
Then, a really good lunch or dinner out — some motivating treat or reward that doesn’t need to be stored!
There may be, as there was for us, some sharp words over why that battered frying pan or framed print are must-keepers as you jockey for every inch of remaining space. Teachable moment!
We have no kids or close younger relatives, so no one will want our memorabilia. To them — as it really is to us if we admit it — it’s just stuff.
We started this morning at 9:30 and simply gave up in weary surrender at 2:30, running to KFC for a little disgusting junk-food solace.
So much crap. Two career journos who like to read: photos, negatives, framed artwork, furniture and cookware he kept when he moved into my small apartment 10 years ago.
I did find some very dear treasures, from the cat hand puppet of my childhood to a photo of me in January 1994 on Ko Phi Phi, a remote island off of Southern Thailand to my sketchbook from 1998 with my watercolors of Melbourne and New Zealand’s Coromandel Peninsula. Then there were the engagement photos of me and my ex-husband and even the seating chart for our wedding dinner. Former beaux cropped up in numerous photos.
Some of it was sad and painful — lots of cards from and photos of the woman who was my closest friend for a decade, who dropped me forever after she married. I found tons of art supplies: pastels, sketchbooks, my colored pencils and watercolors. I loved seeing my paintings from Mexico — where I took an afternoon art class in Spanish in Coyoacan, a suburb of Mexico City. Serendipity turned up some materials that exactly fit my current needs, from a book on handling arthritis pain to a labor study from a week-long journalism fellowship in September 2001; I was on a suburban Maryland college campus on 9/11.
We also, eerily, found a color postcard of the World Trade Center — the day my partner was to move from his Brooklyn apartment into mine was 9/11. Instead, he edited photos for his newspaper job from his apartment and I spent the day in Maryland wondering if he was alive or dead.
My sweetie found a ton of memorabilia — like the color photo of him with Larry Hagman dressed as Santa Claus with Nancy Reagan, in a typically red suit, laughing behind the three of them. Or him posing with George H.W. Bush and Barbara. (White House annual holiday party, open to all members of the White House Press Corps.) A deeply mushy note from an ex? Torn to bits. Ouch!
He’s a Buddhist, but boy do we have a lot of crap. We barely got through half of it today so next Saturday is devoted to finishing the job. Out forever will go the four-foot high stereo speakers as we try to compress everything left into a much smaller, cheaper space. It makes me crazy to spend good money to store…junk. It’s not junk, but what is it? Memories. Stuff, for now, we’re not ready to toss entirely.
I’d flame it all, but I treasure my mother’s typewritten letters, photos and negatives and slides dating back decades and, yes, my bloody clips. His life, like mine, has been filled with adventure, sports, travel and some historic news photos, by him and by others. I adore the 1959 black and white photo he found of his Dad — a Baptist minister long-dead who I never met — complete with those wavy 1950s photo edges. In it, he’s wearing three pairs of eye-glasses at once.
I’d never pictured his Dad being goofy and playful so this is a new image, and one worth framing.
You think you’ve got a lot of junk in your home. (Jammed into storage lockers, shoved in the attic, garage, basement and closets.) I’m completely guilty of hanging on to too much stuff — although forgetting to keep track of a storage facility bill a few years back meant the loss of a whole room-full of it. Bit of a surgical strike that, losing all those memories of…of what? If you haven’t opened a box in years, can you really mourn whatever was in it? I’m still hanging onto a document I needed when I lived in Paris in 1982, the guitar I haven’t played in more than 20 years, books that taunt me, years unread, filling up my shelves, leftover sheets of copper from a project.
Song Dong, http://www.culturebase.net/artist.php?1290, a 43-year-old Chinese artist, decided to explore our obsession with hoarding, especially his Mom’s habit. Zhao Xiang Yuan lost her husband in 2002 and, devastated, began hoarding material goods in her small house to make up for his loss. But as the stuff piled up, Song wondered what it really meant. Would his mom be willing to part with every last bit of it — pots, cushions, belts, socks, handbags, baskets and four television sets — for an art exhibit? She would, and she did. Continue reading “Talk About Moving House…”→