The idea was to simplify my life. Moving from a too large house to a smaller one with a lighter mortgage payment and fewer rooms, I thought, would scour my cluttered life clean. During the weeks leading up to the actual move -- just four blocks but a lifetime away -- I swept through rooms in a Zen-like state, discarding with ease, meditating on the absurdity of all that I had accumulated and hoarded over the past 11 years. Hundreds of books; unmarked videotapes; CDs that no sane person would listen to; clothing that had not been worn in at least five years, if ever; a staggering collection of ugly coffee mugs -- all went into the intended yard sale pile beneath the carport outside
Intense pleasure came from choosing which things to cast aside, and even more from choosing what to take, wiping the dust off, then methodically placing my family's treasures and necessities in boxes.
Fold the end flaps, fold the side flaps, secure with a tidy strip of packing tape, then another. Label with black Magic Marker.
Life acquired right angles, corners, boundaries.
As I packed, I grew more and more puzzled, embarrassed really, over the nature and sheer volume of my stash. My house told the story of the latest, and most difficult, era of my life. No time to think. No time to clean deeply. No time to even choose and institute a place to keep the hammer and screwdriver. When I couldn't find one, I bought another. All told, the yard sale pile ended up with 14 screwdrivers of various dimensions, some with the price tag still attached. When I wanted my kids to read Catcher in the Rye or The Autobiography of Malcolm X and couldn't find my copies in the overwhelming jumble of my library, I bought new ones. Two of each ended up in the yard sale pile.
Who needs 17 Easter baskets? How did we end up with dozens of T-shirts emblazoned with snappy logos and slogans, many still crisply folded and never washed or worn? Does anyone really use their electric breadmaker?
My friend Cate told me about her family's yard sale, once upon a time, when no one came and all the stuff ended up being hauled off to Goodwill or the dump. We laughed over our how our kids' trash had taken over our homes. I'll put up a big sign on the tree out front, I said. FREE! STAINED CLOTHING. BROKEN FURNITURE. CHIPPED DISHES.
The yard sale never happened. One night most of the massive pile of trash and treasure mysteriously disappeared from the carport, into the back of someone's pickup truck, no doubt. What little was left was hauled off to Goodwill or the dump. Finally, the cavernous rooms of our beautiful old Victorian house were empty. The wood floors glowed, friendly and warm. The ceiling perked up. The walls stood scarred and worn. The house seemed to breathe, relieved of the burden of our possessions.
Our new house awaited -- shiny and clean with the love and care of its former inhabitants, walls freshly painted in soothing colors, the rooms smaller than in our former home but spare and filled with nothing but light.
Unpacking brought even more chuckles. Yes, we got rid of our hideous coffee mug collection but we kept our entire refrigerator art and magnet collection -- yellowed report cards, curled photos speckled with milk splatters, Elvis at 16. We saved and brought with us the cat skull excavated from the rafters of our old garage, carefully wrapped in layers of toilet paper. We kept our GI Joe lunchbox, our collection of plastic people -- the Shell service station attendant, the bride and groom.
But it's not all junk. We saved the only souvenir of my father's childhood, a china pirate, all his paint washed off now. Ghostly and white, he stands in our new kitchen window.
Before the Goodwill truck arrived at the old place, I peeked one last time into the old trunk I had decided to give away. Buried deep in a bottom corner were my son's soft pink and white baby pajamas, the ones he was dressed in when he came from Korea to America. I snatched them up along with a tattered baby blanket and the miniature pink smocked dress my mother sewed for my newborn daughter a quarter-century ago, her coming home from the hospital dress. I hugged the treasures close and brought them home with me.
It's only stuff, but it's the stuff of our lives. And it's never simple.
-- This essay was first published in October, 2001.