With all of our moving, Corey and I thought we had been very good about not being total pack rats. Even if we had not been vagabonds, all it took was one look at my childhood home to know that I never wanted to be a pack rat. My mother grew up very poor, and has always had the "Great Depression" mentality of keeping every.single.thing. because one never knows when it will be needed again.
When I was growing up, the main living area of our home was immaculately clean. It was so neat and tidy that my mother would regularly have me make and remake and remake my bed over and over and over again until it met her exacting standards. The pack ratting and hoarding was limited to our partially finished basement. My father had made very deep shelves that housed hundreds of canned goods and packaged foods that could have fed an army. I figured out at a young age that people who don't have much to eat when they are young become obsessed with having enough when they are adults. Especially if they are really poor adults.
My mother was also a collector of some really strange stuff. At one point, she had every issue of National Geographic. She collected the December issues of every women's magazine she could get her hands on. My father also got in on the collection fun by collecting books and built up a rather impressive library in our basement--mostly of his college text books that would never be pulled off the shelves and opened again. When Mom would start a hobby, she would go into it with great gusto. The basement was full of fabrics, artificial flowers, yarns, embroidery floss, unpainted ceramics. There were piles of ribbons and wrapping paper that were neatly removed from Christmas boxes. We didn't really rip open presents the way most people do.
As I got older, the overflow of stuff moved upstairs. My grandmother moved into her own apartment when I was 12 or so. Instead of getting to move out of my sister's room and reclaiming my bedroom, it became the, "ironing room." Over the years, it filled up with piles of clothing, bedding, laundry baskets and the like. The basement became even more packed with stuff. It doesn't take much time to fill up a space when one saves every single box that comes into the home. Every night after dinner, my mother would send me downstairs to get the perfect plastic cottage cheese container and lid for leftovers. Or maybe it was a margarine container. I just remember the perfect towers of containers with corresponding lids, and dreading the prospect of having to go downstairs a second or third time because I didn't grab a properly sized container.
After my sister and I moved out of the house, it became worse and worse. It got to the point to where there were rooms that could not be entered. By this time, my mother had lost interest in housekeeping, so the house was a disaster.
When my father died and my mother became more and more sick, my sister and I begged her to sell the house. It took forever, but she sold the house, and sold the majority of its contents in a series of at least a dozen garage sales. She demanded top dollar for her items that reeked of cigarette smoke, age and lack of use. My sister and I were completely frustrated with the process. There were many visits where I would take things out of the house when she wasn't looking and throw them away.
At the time, I didn't give her nearly enough credit for parting with these things. This was a woman who had lived in her home for 35 years. Her home and these things were all she had. All I saw was a bunch of crap that my sister and I were going to have to deal with if she died. It was with much relief that she moved into a 600 sq.ft. apartment, where her existing overflowing crap is limited to just that space.
While she was going through the process of selling everything, my mother asked me to take some things like family photographs, a few pieces of furniture, some dishes and knickknacks. I complied because I knew I had room for the items because we had just bought a house and I understood that she didn't want family photos thrown in the trash. In the coming months, I would bring things back with me to New Jersey. She would ship items to me that had to sit in the garage to air out for a week because the packing peanuts smelled like cigarette smoke. Once the smell was gone, I would put everything in the basement.
When we moved to Cincinnati, I didn't open many boxes that had come from our New Jersey basement. It was a good thing since we only lived there for 15 months. Our house was much smaller in Belthehem, but it had a decent basement, so the boxes I hadn't opened in Cincinnati remained unopened in Pennsylvania.
We're back to having a larger house, but this time there is no basement. Boxes I could forget about no longer had a good place to go. I told the movers to put all of the boxes in our spare bedroom walk-in.
Yesterday, I made my way into the spare bedroom and started to open these boxes. I had no idea just how much stuff was in that closet. There are boxes of depression glass and milk glass candy dishes. They instantly reminded me of the holidays, when these bowls were filled with peanuts and starlight mints that stuck together after a few weeks of humid weather. I found silver tea sets for tea parties we don't have, and silver gravy boats and ladels for all of the gravy we don't eat. I found the box of all of the sympathy cards that my mother got after my father died. I am not sure what the appropriate amount of time is to keep items such as this. I threw all of them away, except for the sympathy letter from Dick Cheney (really) because that was just plain funny.
I was suprised to realize that I had boxes of our own memories that I hadn't dealt with in years. I haven't put a single photograph of my children into a photo album. Instead, they are mixed up and gathering dust in shoe boxes without lids with their edges curling. We still have an urn with the ashes of our first dog! I've never scattered them because I haven't been convinced that we would stay somewhere forever. I found a keepsake that I shouldn't even have--I don't even KNOW what to do with that! I also decided that collecting old trunks is not a very practical or fulfilling hobby if one doesn't actually refurbish them to be useable for storage.
I made a pretty good dent in the closet, but I found myself getting fairly choked up from time to time, mostly because of the photos. Seeing my father and mother during happier times made my heart ache. I found photos of my old college roommate, Steven. I found out that he had died a couple of months ago after a long illness. Seeing him being so silly in the photos of us together, riding a camel at the zoo made me profoundly sad.
I will be spending the coming weeks making some hard decisions about this stuff. I've joined Freecycle, got an Ebay account, contacted a consignment shop, and will probably scan the majority of the photos. I figure that I will sneak the proceeds into my mom's check book when she isn't looking. I'm not going to scatter McBain's ashes yet. Maybe I will once we have lived here more than two years and I feel comfortable that we will stay. Everything else can eventually go.