For better or worse, I am a natural organizer. I can sort and categorize, chop it up, rearrange, toss and recycle madly, easily. I can think like you think, then I can break it all up into something else. I don’t usually know at the outset how long it’s taken you to build up your layers, but at some point pretty early on, the tearing down is complete, in my head — long before I’ve touched the first pile.
It’s too late to be chronological about my summer project: I’ve already begun clearing out The House. It’s the house my spouse’s (we decided against “wife”) grandparents lived in when Gram died, the house she was born in. Her parents built and lived in it after they were married. I have turned the first pile (compost metaphor intended), and it is accurate to say that neither Gram nor her mother, Helen, threw anything away. How the menfolk managed to live in among, down, behind, or through all that saving is beyond me, but they did.
The process of untangling, while not the reverse of the process of tangling, I’m sure allows me to experience what it must have been like to live it while it was happening. How many days did I avoid walking through the parlor because the way was narrowed by the hulking presence and jutting handles of the back inversion-thingie? How many closet doors have I opened, only to quietly squeeze them shut again, whispering to a future emptiness to come help me when I get to it?
Everything, as a rule, must be gone through. Because alongside offers for free publications, magazines, file folders, empty ice cream cartons, a support hose, and a comb might also be the deed to a cemetery plot, or, today, a five dollar bill. Legend has it someone found a diamond ring in the pantry between the samovar and a Band-Aide tin with Helen’s passbook in it. There are those who believe The House cannot be emptied. I’ve been working there for maybe a month, and I’m still discovering places where stuff is hiding. The other day, just randomly, I found piles and plastic bags, and cardboard boxes full of whatever-it-was in a space that might have been a cupboard around behind a chimney, in the kitchen, that had not a door but a piece of wood covering it up. I stuffed them into trash bags without even asking. Like you would ignore spinach between someone’s teeth, or a nasty fart. Whatever treasure may have been pressed between styrofoam trays was probably too mouse eaten to matter.
I could go on, but, really, it’s too easy. It’s a writer’s paradise, a list-maker’s dream, a cataloger’s nirvana. What does emerge, though, like the image in a photo mosaic, is a kind of story of their lives, and each artifact comes with a string of questions that threaten my tenuous hold on “the facts.” How, for instance, did Helen’s perfectly preserved purse end up at the back of the top shelf in the front hall closet with nothing in it but her wallet, a 1967 dime, and a patient menu from the Mid Maine Hospital? And was there a logic that placed it there with two neatly wrapped parcels containing (I’m pretty sure) every Christmas card she received in 1966? Wacky alliances like this abound. Questions like, “Who is this is a picture of?” just pale.
I have vowed a hundred times over that when I die I will have nothing left. I will have already dispensed with my accumulations. In fact, I am constantly resisting the tide that wants to pull stuff into my life and constantly piling things up by the door to take out. I don’t want anyone pawing through my stuff after I’m gone. I want to control what’s left behind. Let’s face it, I want to be there when the box is pried open and explain it in my own words. I want to tell the story the way I want it told.
I am aware as I dismantle their mess that these people threw it together without a shred of self-consciousness. These were not to be bequeathed. These were their lives, their living, the things they did and thought about, and all too plainly now, the things they didn’t do and hoped for, for later. That being the case, I am humbled and awed at evidence of so much life crammed into physical space. I am sobered by the unintended consequences, both burdensome and beneficial, of living our lives. I am numbed by the meaninglessness and charmed by the minutiae, struck by the dailiness of it all. And as I have always had a weakness for people who wear their weakness on their sleeves, it’s okay to say that they certainly had their neuroses. Gram was obsessed with health. I think she thought she could get healthy by clipping articles about health and saving them in the bottoms of cookie tins. Don’t get Gram wrong: she didn’t eat sugar. She probably bought the tin at a yard sale. Still. Here I am recycling articles about jogging and peripheral neuropathy, and there she is, dead.
And, faced with the task of pushing a lot of stuff back out into the world, I am wondering, as in seriously questioning, if it has any usefulness left to it. Yes, there will be sales. Yes, there will be ads placed and ads answered. But, is there a market for it, are people poor enough to want this, wealthy enough to collect it? Who will I meet and what will I learn in doing this? Is there a jackpot item here? Have I thrown it out?
This isn’t the first time I find myself witness to the private lives of strangers. I am generally trusted and trustworthy, but also, let’s face it, a voyeur and avidly curious. I can usually walk the thin line by focusing on the task at hand and having a principle to work by that keeps my thinking from straying into the indecent. I have my own neuroses, of course, not least of which is this compulsion to clean up messes. I didn’t ask to be like this, and I think that is the point. Who we are is revealed to us through the actions we can muster in the face of our raw reactions and instincts. Not in our stuff, the notes we take, the things we file away, the records we keep. All the living associated with these pieces of paper has already happened. Now it’s my turn. I’m the living, and here I am, standing amid piles and piles of what’s left.
I think I am right where I’m supposed to be. We are a civilization on the brink of realizing that we are connected to each other and learning how to behave as if our lives depended on other people doing okay. We are at a time of standing witness to the consequences of our past actions, but only standing long enough to get it, then taking actions to remedy and create goodness in whatever ways we can, with whatever we are holding in our hands at the moment. That is the resourcefulness we learn from having to live in hard times, close to the bone. That’s what these people did, and that’s what I must do. I hope that whatever unconsciousness they suffered can be reborn in me as awareness. That evidence of their imperfection will lay the groundwork not only for celebrating who they were, but also for understanding who we all are. I feel blessed to be witness to both the ephemera and the ephemeral. I am holding them both in my hands today, and I am reveling in the richness and mystery all around me. And, I can’t wait to see what this house will look like empty.