My sister and I have spent the past several months clearing out mom and dad’s house to get it ready to put on the market. Forty years and three thousand square feet of memories, junk, and a few treasures.
My father was born in the late 1920s; my mother in the mid-’30s. My father was very handy and could build or fix anything. Which means you save everything. No telling when you might need it. My mother was born in the middle of the Great Depression. Which also means you save everything. No telling how you might re-purpose it.
The first couple of weekends of clearing I spent in one room. An upstairs bedroom filled with financial papers and other documents. Boxes stacked upon boxes half-way to the ceiling covered nearly every inch of the room. Bank statements and canceled checks dating back to the ’70s. Tax returns. Loan documents for houses and sailboats and cars; the loans paid off years or decades ago, the boats and cars, long since sold or traded. Bags filled with prescription drug receipts. Medical records. Utility bills. Labrador puppy AKC registrations. Kitty adoption certificates. School records, both for my parents, and their four children. Every greeting card ever received.
I plowed through the decades of records for days, putting them into the mountainous recycling or shredding piles. Occasionally, an old card or letter would catch my eye and I’d stop and read it, perhaps putting it into the sister-should-see-this-before-I-toss-it pile. I wondered fleetingly why I wasn’t feeling more sentimental. Why I didn’t feel the need to read all the cards and letters. Why I’d rather rush through the process and be done with it. I imagine some people might curl up with the boxes and bags of old greeting cards and letters and lovingly read each one. Instead, I felt an impatience. A resentment that they saved all this stuff, forcing us to sort through it. Forcing us to revisit my mother’s careful curation of our family history. Forcing us to do something she couldn’t bring herself to do.
“I’d rather die and leave you to deal with it,” she told me, shortly after dad died.
Eventually I finished with the “record room,” moving on to the rest of the house. Sorting through knick-knacks and dishes was an easier task. After multiple weekend trips back and forth to my mother’s home (five hours round-trip), what remained was a massive “sell” pile, scattered throughout the house. Last weekend, sell is what we did.
We’d advertised the sale for Friday and Saturday. In a stroke of bad luck, Houston was hit with terrible flooding early in the week, and my mother’s neighborhood was hit hard. Her home, and others on her street, were spared. By Friday, the water had receded and we decided to go forward with the advertised sale. My sister, being a garage sale expert and control freak, suggested we do the sale ourselves, instead of hiring an estate sale company. We did a bit of research on-line and priced the bigger pieces. Everything else, we staged as best we could with the idea of bartering on the fly.
Bartering turned out to be a lot of fun. Many of the garage-salers were Hispanic, so I got to spend the day practicing my Spanish. The Mexican men seemed to prefer negotiating with me over my sister. Because I did my best to speak Spanish with them. But also because I was more willing to negotiate. The highlight of my day was an old Mexican woman who wanted to buy a handful of stainless and wooden kitchen utensils.
“Tres dolares,” I told her.
A look of disappointment crossed her face, as she walked off to find her hija. Later I saw her in the living room without her spoons. I motioned to her, asking her in broken Spanish where her spoons were. She led me into the kitchen and pointed. I picked them up off the counter.
“Cuanto?” I asked her.
She opened her hand and showed me some coins.
“Si,” I said, handing her the spoons.
The abuela smiled broadly as she accepted the spoons in exchange for her handful of change. And then she kissed me on the cheek.
The second highlight of the day was when I sold a vintage Monopoly game to three little Mexican girls for a quarter. I threw in a puzzle for free. If they come back next weekend for round two of the sale, I’m liable to give them the whole closet full of old games and puzzles for un dolar.
Admittedly I brought home a few odds and ends throughout this process. Photographs, a vintage Henredon chest, china teacups, a turkey platter, an orange dude, an African carving, a carved cat with three mice, among other treasures. (Also, a live cat.) With each item added to my “keep” box, I promised myself I’d do a thorough decluttering at my place, once the house is sold.
Next weekend we continue with Round Two of the sale. We’re also scheduled to meet with the realtor on Saturday to prepare for the listing. So far, I’ve been remarkably unemotional, more concerned about dealing with the task at hand than getting bogged down in nostalgia. Luckily, my sister is of a similar mind, which has allowed things to go more smoothly than I imagined was possible.
As for the little live cat, the name that stuck is Lucy. Little Lucy is quickly ingratiating herself with the resident Three Black Cats. She’s having much better luck than Sophie-the-former-stray, who still will not come downstairs after three years. In contrast, as I write this, Lucy is napping on the sofa to the right of me. Sadie is having a bath on the sofa to the left of me. Earlier, Sally and Lucy sniffed noses. Granted, Sally followed up with a hiss. She can’t have the young’un getting grand ideas.