cleaning the house, tending the weeds.

June 19, 2017 · 45 comments

We have been living here for thirteen years. It sometimes seems like we just moved in; other times it feels like we’ve been here forever. Four books written by me, hundreds of books designed by Susan, roughly eighty books edited by me. Three dogs, seven cats, although thankfully not all at once. Over the years, we have lost all of Susan’s aunts (there were five when I joined the family in 2000, out of a total of eleven siblings), her Uncle Bob, her mother, my father, who passed two years before we arrived here from Litchfield, and my cousin Harris, who died in 2008. Between our younger cousins, nine babies have been born, four on my side; we have met all but one of them, a handsome blond boy who was named for my father. Early on in our time here, we considered having children of our own, and for reasons both biological and not, we didn’t.

In the evenings, we look across the table at each other; we have gotten a little heavier and a bit grayer. We earnestly, often frenetically, try different diets: Mediterranean, Whole 30, Paleo. We drink less: only on the weekend, or Saturday night, or Friday and Saturday night. Sometimes we succeed; sometimes we don’t. We have accumulated: too many pounds, too much stuff, too many things. We have skinny jeans, fat jeans, the hiking clothes we never wear because we never go hiking, six pair of golf shoes, two sets of clubs, (piles and piles of) books, small appliances (a soda maker, a spiralizer), half a dozen sets of wedding china for twelve from the aforementioned aunts, two sets of silver, thirty-two knives that used to hang off a magnetic strip under the pot rack that holds a dozen or so pans from my life as a professional food person (whatever that means), twenty-seven red-striped cotton Ikea towels that we have stockpiled over a decade, handmade patchouli goat-milk soaps that spawn like bunnies under the bathroom sink, a plastic crate of expired medications for long-healed illnesses, old computer equipment including three non-working printers, my father’s SX-70 cameras for which film is no longer available, my uncle’s pristine Yashica-Mat twin-lens reflex for which film is available, a 1927 Underwood typewriter originally belonging to Susan’s Uncle George, a 1939 Remington Noiseless that had been my Uncle Marvin’s high school graduation gift from his parents and passed along to me by one of his daughters, to whom I no longer speak.

There have been thousands of meals cooked in a kitchen that is still a work in progress. Hundreds of bottles of wine have been consumed, ranging from expensive Bordeaux opened for a birthday celebration to the cheap plonk that my grandmother would have Germanized as pishwasser. I remember only a handful of the good ones; they have retained their importance by connection to an event or to the people with whom we drank them. For years, we saved the corks in a massive green glass jar, as if someday, in our dotage, we might sit down of a quiet evening and review them the way one might look through a photo album: This was the Bandol that we had with Lisa. This was the Brunello that we drank with Porter. This was the Sauternes that we had with Gale. Recently, we discarded the jar and its contents when we realized that the memories were more important than the corks, which were just another thing to keep, although at one point, we did consider making a trivet from the better ones.

We have an issue with things in this house; I attribute it in part to being adult-only-children-without-children (AOCWC), and to the fact that over the last few years we have lost so many people that it sometimes feels incomprehensible.

A small, personal holocaust, a friend of mine once said. You woke up and they were suddenly gone, taken away in the middle of the night.  And so, without siblings in whose faces we might see our pasts, and without children who reflect back to us ourselves and our future, we cling to the representational, the inanimate, the stuff to which we attach memory and meaning.

But there comes a point when this detritus of life begins to pile up; it becomes dangerous. The accretion of things makes it impossible to walk a straight line, to put anything away, to see anything else but history.

Did you just move in, a contractor asked me the other day when he had to check our water tank. When I told him how long we were here, he seemed alarmed.

To be clear: we do not have a Collyer Brothers problem. But when I went downstairs to our basement a few nights ago to get something out of our freezer and found myself face to face with a small, gray nylon sack — the sort a rock climber might use for chalk; I’d never seen it before — filled with ancient pottery chips purloined by Susan’s ex on a southwestern camping trip twenty-five years ago, my heart stopped. A familiar, cold clamp of anxiety seized the back of my neck: I could instantly recall how I felt when this woman threatened our relationship when it was in its infancy. I could actually feel my slightly nauseous response to the every-Saturday-night-at-eight phone calls from long ago; the moments when I’d see her name come up in my email with a coy Hello darlin’ in the subject line; the promise to me that she would never, ever leave us alone, even though she and Susan had broken up years earlier.

It’s just a thing, Susan said, when she saw my face. I’ll get rid of it. 

But why do you even have it, I asked. Why is it still here?

Susan pointed around the basement.

Why is any of this stuff still here?

There was my father’s blue metal screen on which he last showed home movies at our house party in 1971, before he knew that his best friend, drinking Scotch in the kitchen with my mother and a neighbor, was driving me alone to an abandoned park every day after school; there was a dust-caked, roll-top cassette case, holding the Memorex tapes of upstate New York shamanic healings that my ex and I made for each other in the 80s; there was a Jack Kramer Pro Staff wooden tennis racquet with a peeling pink gauze grip that, when I picked it up and inhaled, smelled like sweat and Dentyne and the hot clay I kicked up on the courts at Milton Academy, where I played the summer I was sixteen.

Piles of shopping bags sit everywhere: here are framed photographs of my father’s family, that lined the entry way to my studio apartment in Manhattan, where I lived for nine years. When you walked into the foyer, they were the first things you saw: This is my family, the wall said. This is my blood. I am not alone. Stacks of Susan’s family photos are piled up on our old couch between the oil burner and the washing machine: the aunts are still alive in those pictures — Ethel in her white mink stole on the 1962 Atlantic cruise where Arthur Miller apparently made a play for her; Phyllis in her kitchen, a calendar in Polish hanging over her shoulder; devoutly religious Millie and George at the Connecticut shore in 1937, wildly, carnally, in love. If they are here with us, surely, then, they must still be alive. My college lacrosse stick rests alone on a shelf; I pick it up and cradle it in my arms and it’s 1982. I am nineteen and my father is not yet sixty, and Harris is eight years old. My cousins, alive, dead, no longer in communication, are here with me. Susan’s aunts are here with her.

As long as we have the stuff — the photographs, the tapes, the bits of ancient pottery, the corks — time is anchored in place. Or so it seems.

A few weeks ago, we had the entire interior of the house painted. Susan loves color. When I first moved to her house in the country, every room was a different shade of pastel: peach, green, yellow, like a basket of Easter eggs. When we moved in here, she painted individual rooms herself: butternut squash for the kitchen, the guest room a wrought iron gray, the bathroom a weird taupe that never worked with the pea green 1970s tile. After a decade, it felt busy and distracting, a background for the things in our lives that gathered dust in every corner of the house, but mostly in the basement, where no one could see them but us.

I wanted every room to be painted the same color. I wanted the trim the same color, the wall alongside the stairs down to the basement the same color. I wanted my office to be the same, the kitchen to be the same, the den with its brick fireplace: the same. We argued about it. And then we hired painters, who moved everything we owned — the things we carried into our life in this house and dropped like an anchor — into enormous piles in the middle of every room. The walls were painted a bright white, as though the entire house was dipped in promise. After two weeks, it looked clean and fresh and uncluttered, like the beginning of new lives belonging to other people. The things of our pasts, obscured with drop cloths, were suddenly invisible; our stuff was gone, and all we had was ourselves, our home, our name. A blank slate.

After the painters left, we began to put things away. We stopped. It was overwhelming. A week went by. We couldn’t face the task. What to keep; what to weed out.

What are the memory triggers that bend our hearts? What are the things that break them?

I unpacked my office, since it is where I work every day. We hung our entry way mirror and the massive 1929 Italian poster that we bought for the wall above our basement stairs. We put away our pots and pans, and Susan attached a single magnetic knife strip to the wall next to our stove, to hold just five knives, not thirty-two. Everything else is still in boxes. We’re almost afraid to reopen them, to be dragged back into the past and unable to see the future.

I spent yesterday in the garden, weeding around the raised beds and the four roses that are suffering under the strain of the Virginia Creeper that threatens to strangle and siphon away their nutrients.

Let the Creeper climb the fence, a master gardener friend once told me. It’s beautiful. 

But it’ll overtake everything, I said.

You just have to pay attention to it, she said, and not let it get out of control. 

We refuse to use garden poison for fear of tainting our vegetables and our ground water. It might kill something we need, something we love. It’s a balance: what to keep, what to pull, what to release. The living versus the dead, the past versus the future. A constant battle against chaos.

What we have, Jane Kenyon once said, is the present. It’s all we ever had, really, except for memory. 

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sarah June 19, 2017 at 5:48 pm

I never leave comments, but I just have to, HAD TO, tell you how wonderful this was to read. It was beautiful, and heart bursting (is that the opposite of breaking?). I couldn’t leave without saying thank you for giving me something great to read today 🙂

2 Jeff June 19, 2017 at 6:39 pm

We are in the midst of this as well. Having re entry lost my job, I take moments to “be productive”, distracting myself from the stress of the search by doing things like bleaching and washing g down my deck or agreeing to a phone solicitation for carpet cleaning, necessitating respective purges.

Having kids this bring different challenges: the adorable drawings, the scribbled and pasted products of the school system that secured us in this part of Central Jersey. The memories. One kid off to college was hard. The second and last is gut wrenching, not because of fear of being empty nesters but for the official passage of my role. Can I really be done?

That said, there is a defiance in the catharcis of getting rid of the material. The kids don’t want this crap, why should we? We do take a moment with each scrap, as if stealing one last memory, storing it, and saying goodbye. Downsizing may be in our future, I console myself to believe, and turn my head as I put these things in the trash. A quick look, and then plunged into an opaque garbage bag.

In the present, as you state there is all we have. I would add that in the present there is also the freshness of renewal and the promise of opportunity, if only for new crap, and the memories that will be adhered to it, as well.

Xoxo

3 Linda June 19, 2017 at 11:00 pm

You paint pictures with your words and they are not all white.

4 Evangeline June 20, 2017 at 4:02 am

“And so, without siblings in whose faces we might see our pasts, and without children who reflect back to us ourselves and our future, we cling to the representational, the inanimate, the stuff to which we attach memory and meaning.

“But there comes a point when this detritus of life begins to pile up; it becomes dangerous. The accretion of things makes it impossible to walk a straight line, to put anything away, to see anything else but history.”

Elissa, I don’t often comment – though I haunt your site regularly for new posts – but when I read this, particularly the part above, I just felt like I had to say thank you. Thank you for putting it so succinctly. Attaching too much memory and meaning to stuff is always a danger for me. And the longer I keep it, the more power it seems to have, even if meaningless to begin with, and the harder getting rid of it becomes for me. Just – thank you.

5 Cynthia A. June 20, 2017 at 11:50 am

Beautiful, as always Elissa!

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are squirrel people and not-squirrel people. My husband, myself and our children are all squirrel people. While our house may technically be big enough for four, that is only true if the four are of the not-squirrel variety. Which alas, we are not.

6 Denise June 20, 2017 at 1:28 pm

Your timing is uncanny as I am doing a big spring clean too. I’ve been in my 700 foot one-bedroom apartment for a decade and it’s amazing how much I’ve accumulated that I don’t actually use. It’s such a tiny space, how can there be so much?! But it feels good to let it go. It seems to create possibility just to have a little empty space.

7 Laura June 20, 2017 at 5:08 pm

Our house was broken into a few years ago and most of my jewellry and my laptop were stolen (oh, and my last beer in the fridge). The worst part was the sense of invasion and that icky feeling that someone had been in my space and I didn’t know what they had touched or done to my things.

I had hundreds of pieces of jewellry taken, from my childhood hoops and ladybug earrings to my grandmother’s costume and not-costume jewelry to my wedding rings.

I am still sad about the missing things, but I eventually realized that it’s just stuff. What’s important are what you mentioned: the people you love and the memories of loved ones still with us or lost. I’m not in a hurry to get rid of my stuff though–if it still makes me happy, I’ll keep it. But knowing that feeling of “just stuff” comforts me.

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” – William Morris

8 Margit Van Schaick June 20, 2017 at 10:56 pm

I am happiest when I can follow Candide’s advice. Your post is so timely–I moved quite suddenly six months ago, to be closer to my middle daughter and grandson who’ll be five years old June 27. Still in process of sorting, organizing what I need and love. So much of my life, I have spent too much time working, not enough gardening. Your writing reminds me of what’s really important. Thank you.

9 Amanda Jones June 21, 2017 at 7:23 am

Beautiful Elissa! My family and I just cleaned out our parents home in Greenwich, CT. My parents never threw anything away and we filled 15 dumpsters. We saved a few precious photographs and family treasures. It was an extremely emotional process. One I would not wish on anyone. I vowed to my daughter that when the time came all she would have to deal with from my husband and I was a key to a safety deposit box. And maybe a dog or two… Thank you for this lovely piece on, well, stuff.

10 Katy Budge June 22, 2017 at 2:19 pm

A beautiful read. Thank you.

11 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 2:24 pm

Thank you Katy-

12 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Thank you x

13 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Thank you Margit, as always. x

14 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Thank you Laura-

15 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 2:25 pm

Thank you Denise-

16 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 2:26 pm

Thanks Cynthia-

17 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 2:26 pm

Thank you Evangeline-

18 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 2:26 pm

Thank you.

19 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 2:27 pm

Can you really be done? No Jeff. You will never be done. Sending love. x

20 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 2:27 pm

Thanks Sarah-

21 Jacqueline Church June 22, 2017 at 3:47 pm

Double hoarding gene + sentimentality = too much stuff. I can’t fight it so I resign myself to periodic purges. Like people who do ‘dry January’, or ahem, periodic diets. I think it gets harder as I get older, but also easier. (Probably something to be learned from examining when it is one vs the other.) Do I need framed degrees that used to hang in my law office? The draft of the book I almost published? Bags of photos that have never made it into albums, and if I’m honest, probably never will. Drawings and cards made from nieces and nephew…

one of my recent discoveries is the Amazon give back boxes. Fill any used box (like the ones your last Amazon order came in) with gently used clothes or small items. Print a free shipping label and schedule a pickup. Goes to the nearest participating Goodwill. Helps with the periodic purges, since it plays to my “doing good” need while allowing me to feel slightly virtuous at having cleared out that whole box of stuff from the single closet crammed with too many seasons and sizes.

What is the answer? What have you decided to let go of? `I bet you’d have one of the most interesting tag sales ever. At least we don’t have children to foist this all on later. 😉

22 Glenda June 22, 2017 at 5:22 pm

I could sit and read your writings all day every day and this is from someone who truly doesn’t like to read because it means I have to sit still. I cannot thank you and Susan enough for all that you do but especially for being the wonderful and loving couple that I love so dearly. You two are truly some of the best people I’ve ever met in my life and I am blessed to call you my friends. Love ya’ll!!!!

23 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 6:05 pm

Love you too, sweet Glenda. x

24 Elissa June 22, 2017 at 6:06 pm

All the way you look at it, I suppose.

25 Alice June 23, 2017 at 7:24 am

Elissa, this touched my heart in so very many ways. My sisters and I cleaned out our mother’s home a few years ago. A true memory hoarder of things, we had to have 2 tag sales to let the stuff go. My younger sister, a genuine hoarder, had secretly taken many things home with her. When she died a couple of years ago, we re-visited all of those memories again, quite out of place in a disjointed kind of way. Last year I sold my family home of 29 years and moved into a small apartment, and the process became the kind of personal you describe: visceral, wrenching, poignant with the hope of a kind of freedom at the end. Thank you for writing it.

26 Elissa June 23, 2017 at 8:15 am

Thank you Alice. 🙏🏻💕🙏🏻

27 Sarah June 23, 2017 at 2:48 pm

love this, love you. xo

28 Sally Hirst June 23, 2017 at 5:57 pm

Others have said it better than I. Great writing. I enjoyed reading. It resonated. It made me think about what I keep and what I let go. I think we have to find the middle ground. Today will always be more important than yesterday though. Thanks Elissa.

29 Elissa June 24, 2017 at 12:47 pm

🙏🏻❤️🙏🏻

30 Elissa June 24, 2017 at 12:48 pm

Thank you-

31 Kristina August 4, 2017 at 5:54 pm

Thank you, thank you, thank you . Iv been waiting for this. Beautifully written you’ve said it all. ‘as long as we have the stuff time is anchored in place or so it seems.’ You’ve perfectly described the feelings, the attachments, the reasons they became packed up in boxes, the way the memories of grief snd joy are triggered and how we avoid that by just leaving them packed away in boxes. When we get them out to sort them memories are evoked not necessarily good ones either. It’s s place of confusion and choice when you force yourself to open the boxes search through the bags to make decisions. All too hard so hard rly never attempted,

I congratulate you and laud you for your work bringing this truth to our attention through exquisite writing. Now is the time, near the end admittedly but it is a review of the past to live in the present expecting a calm still intriguing future having left the past behind. Its hard work but you’ve made me realise , plan to paint the house, remove the stuff held onto and get that clean slate for the excitement and ordinariness of today . Let’s do this!

32 Monica August 11, 2017 at 9:25 am

beautiful post I appreciate it. God bless you

33 Louise C Ruggeri August 11, 2017 at 10:36 am

This is so beautiful, and moving. I can’t wait to read more of your blog! -Louise

34 David Richard August 11, 2017 at 11:24 am

Nice article.

35 Charles Brown August 11, 2017 at 12:03 pm

Thank you for sharing your beautiful story about what throw away and what to keep, or whether to get rid of it at all! I think this is a question we all face, or have to face when a loved one passes. We hold onto items hat evoke a memory balanced with the fact that we will make new memories without that person to share them with. Is that ok? I think if we give ourselves permission it is. I look forward to more of your rich and eloquent writing.

36 Matthew Landers August 11, 2017 at 2:40 pm

Wow. Very well written. Really enjoyed this!

37 Soul Vibes August 11, 2017 at 3:00 pm

I really enjoyed reading your piece. I absolutely love the nostalgia of going through items from the past and loved one who have passed. Creepy sounding, I guess. However, it make you realize just how dear the past was, what to value in the present, and just how unpredictable the future can be. When my Grandmother passed, she passed down her Bible that had also been passed down to my mother, a few pieces of jewelry, and a few hand-written notes to her from her children. Simple, really, but each item embodied and evoked emotions that I, we forget about in the hustle bustle of everyday. Even in passing, my grandmother was a goddess knowledge. I owe you a thank you for sparking remembrance of the past through your writing.

38 Rebel Girl August 11, 2017 at 7:21 pm

What a wonderful post.

39 Rebel Girl August 11, 2017 at 7:23 pm

My web page was wrong in the above post, I had copied that one to send to my sister, thought I had cut an pasted my own site. Sorry.

40 Elissa August 11, 2017 at 9:52 pm

No problem!

41 Elissa August 11, 2017 at 9:52 pm

Thanks so much-

42 Elissa August 11, 2017 at 9:53 pm

Thanks for your lovely comment!

43 Elissa August 11, 2017 at 9:53 pm

Thank you!

44 Elissa August 11, 2017 at 9:53 pm

Thank you so much- 🙏🏻

45 Elissa August 11, 2017 at 9:54 pm

Thank you!

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