12 stuffAuthor's note: This column, written more than 30 years ago came back to mind when an old friend, getting ready to retire, described the agony and the joys of clearing out “his stuff.”

The last box is on the curb.

The house is empty and cold and dead. Next week it will be full again with other people’s lives. But we can never go back inside again to wander in the bookshelves, closets and attic. We will never smell the smells of hot meals on its stove, of warm, fresh clothes from its laundry room, of flowers from its garden, or of clean sheets mingled in the old blankets on its beds.

It happens to all of us when we move after being in a house for a long time, but when our parents or grandparents move to a smaller home or die, it is more than just moving.
It is clearing out. Clearing out the treasures. And the junk. Deciding what is what. Finding places for these newly orphaned things. Yesterday, they were secure in the loving possession of one whose love and memories surrounded them. Each one had its special place. Each was tied to precious people and events. Out of the house they must now go. And, without the protection of the ones who love them, they will be just things.

Who gets the silver service? Will anybody take this old cup from Niagara Falls? What do we do with this plaque that Dad got? Does anybody want the plate that has a picture of the old church? Who takes the pitcher that brought Mom’s mint-lemon iced tea to the table? Who keeps the bell that brought us to dinner together? Did we really eat supper together every evening?

Who will take the books? The bookshelves in this house were such welcome places. Every book had a story to tell, with some special connection to our family. All the books together were a reflection of my parents and their special interest in ideas and places and people. Books signed by their authors evoke memories of special friendships and connections. Where will those books go? What will the grandchildren say if we give up any of them?

Clean out the closets. Old ties, old dresses. Suddenly Mom thinks that the Mint Museum in Charlotte will be interested in one of her dresses for its collection. She thinks the dressmaker was an artist and that some example of her work should be kept forever. We think that is a crazy idea, but we set aside the dress to humor mom. The Mint Museum was delighted. They wanted the dress. Mom was right again.

Who will take the desk? Who will take the chest? Clear them out first. The letters. The photos. The old catalogs. Canceled checks from many years ago. Tax returns.
There are thousands of photos. How can there be so many? One photo of my father when he was much younger than I am today is indistinguishable from a recent picture of my son. I go into a misty dream that brings him back alive and puts the three of us together as contemporaries and buddies.

Letters. Letters. Letters. My brother settles in with the letters between my parents. Written 50 years ago, they described their jobs and the pains of bearing children, moving, living through hard times with optimism and of loving each other. My brother is moved and cannot be pulled away. But where will these letters be stored? Who will hold them for the grandchildren?

The doorbell rings. He comes in like a character from a Greek play — to bring a conclusion to our own drama. It is the flea market man. He helps us build a pile of our treasures for his bid. “I’ll give you an extra $50 for the old telephone. Maybe I can double my money. Maybe not. Thanks a lot. I have sure enjoyed getting to know you folks.”
And we are finished. The last box is on the curb. Now the tears can come.

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