So, before there was New York, there was Montana.
Earlier this month, my mom celebrated her 80th birthday, so all four kids and assorted spouses and kids drove or flew up for a celebratory dinner. One of my aunts, whom I hadn’t seen in years, even made a guest appearance.
The Metz is acclimating to her new life at Sassy Senior Residences, to the point where all she’s really complained about — to me, anyway — is the odd cheese they sprinkle atop her salad. (Me: “Does the salad have like dried cranberries or cherries, and some kind of nut like almonds or pecans? Then the cheese is gorgonzola. It’s a known thing; they serve it that way everywhere, not just to taunt you.”)
And now that she’s settling in to her new digs — a two-bedroom that’s nicer than any apartment I’ve ever rented, plus weekly maid service — it was time to tackle what most of the kids were dreading: emptying the house.
My sister TJ had already done an admirable job of selling the larger items, like bedroom sets, couches and recliners. And she and my other sister, TK, had packed up much of the kitchen items such as pots and pans, dishes and serveware. Even earlier, TJ had shipped me the only item that I had requested, which was this G-I-A-N-T roaster pan that I had coveted for years.
Mom, upon hearing that news: “So the only thing you wanted out of the whole house was the roaster pan? What are you going to roast?”
Me: “A baby.”
Mom: [15 seconds of confused silence].
Me: “I’m only joking.”
Mom: “Oh, whew!”
So I had a more sinister, surreptitious reason for staying a few extra days during the trip: I was the one who had been enlisted to throw things away.
TJ had greeted me at the airport with a giant Chevy 2500 HD pickup (pictured at the top of the post), and my job was to fill the bed — repeatedly — with trash bags full of items that weren’t worth trying to sell or donate. She knew I’d be good at separating the wheat from the chaff, without being weighed down by sentimentality. In fact, she was a little afraid of how good I was at it.
“You threw away a Bible?” she said, incredulously.
“There are like a half-dozen Bibles in this house,” I replied. “There were no notes in it, or family tree notations, it was just a copy of a book. Of which we have several more still hanging around.”
I think that people who grew up in the Depression years are hard-wired to never throw anything away, because you might need it someday. In the kitchen hallway alone I found:
- My dad’s pay stubs from 1992.
- A self-evaluation form that my third-grade teacher had me fill out and take home, which revealed several hints of the wry alacrity and observation that would further develop later on. Although Early Sam was better at brevity than Modern Sam is. (Q: “Do you always finish your work on time?” A: “Frankly, no.” Q: “How do you get along at recess?” A: “Just fine.”) I’m surprised I didn’t point out her typo — or scripto, I guess, since it was handwritten — in the question about recess.
- An unopened bottle of tonic water that had aged to the color of ginger ale (but still fizzed when I opened it to dump it down the sink and recycle the glass bottle).
- A magazine clipping that I had sent her when I had my photo taken at a restaurant opening in the early 2000s. (Where I ran into my ex-boyfriend for the first time since the breakup. That was awkward.)
- The mismatched Tupperware that The Metz had held onto for two years — still tied up in the bags I had put them in during my last clutter purge.
- Oh my God so many photographs. My mom had never been able to throw away a photo, so her “solution” was to put them in piles that she said she wanted to mail to other people, effectively placing the onus of disposal on them.
My dad wasn’t exempt from the hoarding, either: The garage was packed with things like the plug ends of extension cords that he had cut off and held onto, perhaps to solder them onto cords that one day he’d discover that needed a new end. A hundred half-full cans of sprays, paints, solvents, unguents, fluids and fuel-line deicers. A hundred leftover pieces of wood from old projects (or disassembled finished products). A battery-operated drill kit with everything … except the charger for the batteries.
And, oh, 150 or so canning jars. Some were in boxes, some were in the pantry, some were in the garage, some were in the kitchen. … “Who needs this many jars?” I asked my sister incredulously. “If you need to can this much food at one time, whatever disaster requires this quantity is going to kill you. Or you’d want to be dead, anyway.”
The photo above wasn’t taken at a badly lit antiques store. That’s my handiwork, after I cleared Dad’s garage shelves of their parts and cans, sprayed the shelves down with cleaner, lined them with paper towels, and then arranged them with jar after jar after jar for the upcoming garage sale. Go on, click on the photo: You’ll see that on some shelves the jars are even stacked atop each other.
“What are you doing?” my sister said. “Staging the sale,” I replied. “The small electrics are over here; the entertainment section with books and records is all here; kitchenware and gadgets are atop this long table [which I had fashioned out of sawhorses and leftover siding]; the tools are on the workbench, paired with accessories that might help them sell; the kids’ stuff is up front—and low, so they’ll be all, ‘I want, I want, I want!’ Look, the stuffed animals are actually at their eye level, and so are the toys and kids’ books.”
(Similarly, you may have noticed that the more valuable blue glass jars are stacked at the front of the display, and alongside them are the flat lids and other accessories. Whole rows of ring lids are hanging from large hooks.)
The trick is that you have to make stuff look like it’s worth buying — hang art on the walls with little price tags, gallery style, instead of stacking them up one after the other. Don’t make people dig in boxes to look at DVD boxes or books—line the titles up, store-style. I kept tripping over one of those wire shoe organizers that my mom had used in her bedroom closet, but in the garage it fit perfectly under the rolling clothing rack, and could display sneakers and sandals.
Consider this the warning shot across your bow, Laurelites: The sale is Oct. 5–6, and it looks amazing.
Oh, and we hauled two entire truckloads of stuff to the dumpsters. The first load’s bags were so heavy that they settled overnight, leading to a deceptively small payload. But the second was piled so high that straps were involved to prevent bags from falling out (and injuring someone). On the night of my mom’s dinner, I had to drive that truck into town laden with bags, so I parked it as far away from the restaurant as I could because I didn’t want her to see any reminder of her possessions, especially when it would have been so clear where they were headed, wrapped in black trash bags.
“The bowling trophies?” my brother asked, slightly pained, as he watched them sail, then sink to the bottom of the Dumpster. And I get it — that instant punch-in-the-gut reaction you get when you see something sentimental that’s destined for the dump. But so many times, sentimental value is the only value it has: If Mom had really wanted a bowling trophy, she would have included it among the legion of other possessions she made sure to bring with her to the new place, and nobody else is going to pay for a 35-year-old league bowling trophy.
It was easy for me to make those decisions; not so for my sister, who at times would be physically pained by the idea of getting rid of, say, photos. Eventually we reached a protocol where if I was coming up on something that might verge on sentimental-but-unsellable, I’d suggest she leave the area for a bit.
“Could you go inside and grab me a soda?” I’d ask. “And maybe not come back out for two or three minutes.” When she’d return, soda in hand, the area around me would be suspiciously empty and cleaned out, while a nearby trash bag would have doubled in size. “I don’t want to know what just happened,” she’d say, and I’d reply, smiling, “No, you most certainly do not.”
At the time, I was on a mission with a timetable, a living, breathing rummage-vs.-rubbish Destructicon. But the night I got back to Phoenix, I crawled into bed and started thinking about how much of a life I had just relegated to the $1-or-less rack, the local charity store or the trash bin. It took a while to regain perspective — that your possessions don’t always define your life.
The jars survived to be sold, though. Well, not all of them — in addition to the ones pictured above, my parents had amassed a large stash of old jelly, mayonnaise, pickle and other jars. They might have been good for, say, holding paint for crafts, or a stash of nails or screws, but jars with flat screw-top lids shouldn’t be reused for canning, because the seals aren’t safe.
I knew that fact already thanks to — what else? — a story I wrote. The PDF is below.
(Click on either page to bring up a full-size version in a new browser window.)
|WHAT SAM WORE: 9-24-12|
|The shirt: Center-seam polo by J.Lindeberg,
from Neiman Marcus Last Call, Potomac Mills, Va.
|The pants: Corduroy jeans, from Uniqlo, New York.|
|The shoes: Sneakers by Skechers, from Last Chance.|