The Universal Notebook: The stuff of life
This summer my two brothers and I have been slowly disposing of our parents’ worldly possessions. Mom and Dad are now living together in a nursing home, where a lifetime’s accumulation of material objects cannot follow.
Both of my parents grew up in Portland (Deering High ’40 and ’42), but they have moved around so much that I am amazed at the amount of stuff they managed to drag along with them. You’d think that having lived together in Brunswick (Bowdoin '49), Waterville (’50), Mechanic Falls (’51), San Diego (Navy, ’51-’52), Lewiston (’53), Auburn (’54), three places in Groton, Mass. (’55-’58), Pawtucket, R.I. (’58-’60), six different houses in Westbrook (including a mobile home) since 1960 (with brief stays in an apartment in Portland and a condo in Falmouth) that they would have managed to lighten their load along the way.
Even though they had only been living on one floor of their duplex apartment for the past three years, the cupboards, drawers, closets, and basement were jammed with stuff that now has to find its way to a new home or the dump. It’s been a gradual process, because for several months we weren’t sure whether they might be coming home.
First I removed their important papers (wills, military records, birth certificates, etc.) and stored them in a strong box under my desk. Then I systematically disposed of perishable food, staples, clothing, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, photographs, paintings, silverware, dishes and glassware, jewelry, sundries and notions. By the time we rented a 16-foot van last week there were just a few pieces of large furniture left to move – two couches, two desks, three chairs, a hutch, a maple bureau, an old unused computer monitor, and a king-size bed. We kept a couch, a desk, the hutch, and the bureau. The rest went to the dump.
As the first-born of my generation, I seem to have become the default keeper of the family archive. Two new clear plastic tubs filled with vintage photographs are stacked in my dining room, ready to join the cardboard boxes in the cellar containing my grandfather Beem’s war records and memorabilia. Everything else is already down in the basement waiting for my kids and my brothers’ kids to decide what of Grammy’s and Grampy’s they might want.
There’s a lot of sentimental value in family photographs that go all the way back to about 1910, but there’s not much of any real monetary value. My Nana Gibson’s mink stole is in beautiful condition, but no one wears furs anymore, none of our kids want it, and the vintage clothing store already has six just like it on consignment for a mere hundred bucks or so.
Mom and Dad seem to have been enjoying the bits and pieces of their pasts that I’ve been bringing them – mostly photo albums and yearbooks. They have a photograph of Dad in his Maine Maritime Academy cadet uniform and Mom as a Westbrook Junior College coed on the shelf in their room, along with photographs of their parents, their children, their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren.
Their home is now empty except for a dozen or so boxes filled with an assortment of junk. I’m on my way over there now to sort through what remains because things such as birth certificates and gold watches have turned up in boxes of yarn, sewing supplies, picture frames, art supplies and costume jewelry.
I’ve had pretty good luck just leaving useful items such as irons and ironing boards, bookshelves, flowerpots, and lamps out on the street for neighbors to adopt. Still, I must have hauled a dozen huge construction trash bags to the dump filled with the forgotten and the unwanted.
This whole process of sorting through and disposing of the stuff of life has made me want to tackle the tons of treasures and trash in my own drawers, cupboards, closets and cellar. I don’t envy the person who’ll have to clean up after me, but with any luck at all I’ll manage to dispose of my past before that becomes necessary.