The three women are my sisters and I. The dumpster deposited for three weeks at my Aunt Ruthie’s house on Anchor Road was 30 feet long. Or should I say “is”? Weeks ago, a husky guy with an extra-long tow truck carted off the mammoth container filled to the brim, but my memory of the sight of the disappearing hulk is as sharp as though it happened today. (Click below to see the show!)
Into the dumpster went squirrel-nibbled National Geographics and Readers’ Digests; we saved the Priscilla magazine editions from the early 1900s. We threw out, kept, and donated the possessions of four or more generations: some special artifacts went to the Anabaptist and Pietist Center at Elizabethtown College. We set aside most of the furniture, wall hangings, photographs, blankets, and crockery to keep or sell.
This energy-sapping, emotionally draining experience of clearing out Aunt Ruthie’s house continued for four months.
Now we’re older, more tired, but wiser.
Some tips for Dumpster Damsels
- Wear masks
- Expect to develop muscles flinging stuff from the attic, dragging bags without going to the gym,
- Work in pairs, or single efforts
Sister Jean assisted with identifying items using a journal of provenance created when she and Aunt Ruthie went through her valuables many years ago.
- Ask for help!
- Savor treasures + treasure your history
- Take off mask and make time to smell the roses and other natural beauty beyond the walls
As a point # 7, I could use the metaphor of sisters (including me) with porcupine quills, but I’ll resist. It’s hard to do such intense work without conflict, as emotionally draining as it is physically—and in such close proximity—for months on end.
We spent half of every month between February and May together this year moving from attic to cellar, from house to barn to garage, curating as we cleared out. We stayed on speaking terms. One sister even remarked, “I’ll miss this!” meaning being together as we honor our legacy.
Two Authors, On Dumpsters and Bulldozers
One of my favorite authors is memoirist/novelist Dani Shapiro. I have read many of her books. My Mother’s Day gift, Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage flashed a light or two on the dark corners of the dumpster dilemma. Here are her thoughts from pages 34-35:
After our housecleaning, we still had a few rooms that remained untouched. We kept waiting for a rainy weekend to tackle the basement, which, M. [husband] would argue, ought to be next on our list. But I found it overwhelming. The basement requires a Dumpster, or at the very least a pickup truck to haul stuff away.
It was easy to part with the contents of closets and drawers—the old sweaters, jeans, dresses, boots. The gold satin dress by the Italian designer, worn to a friend’s black-tie wedding . . . the scraped-to-shit pans, broken thermometers, stained dishtowels. But to get rid of my mother’s sister’s china, for instance, is to cut loose the hopeful young woman who chose the pattern decorated with cheerful bursts of gold and silver confetti. To tape up that box and cart it off to Goodwill kills her all over again. Or perhaps this is sentimental and foolish. She’s dead, dead, dead.
Rainy weekends come and go. The basement remains an obstacle course of boxes. I can’t part with the framed diplomas of my parents and their siblings. They were the first generation in my family to go to college. How does that get tossed in a Dumpster? My uncle’s pipe, my aunt’s forty-year-old golf clubs, ceramic figurines from my grandmother’s apartment in her assisted-living facility mingle as if at a family reunion with [son] Jacob’s discarded booster seats and board games. I am an only child. I have inherited it all.
[My husband] goes there, once in a while, and hauls up a few boxes filled with long plastic containers of slides. There are thousands and thousands of them, mostly from my parents’ vacation, and they’ll be ruined soon if not already. He sifts through them and digitizes the ones with people in them. These are few and far between.
“What we have,” he tells me, “are endless Alps.”
Ruth Bell Graham, wife of the evangelist, hears stern words about her hoarding habit in the recently released Legacy of a Packrat, page 13:
You need to get a bulldozer to clean out your attic,” Bill exclaimed one day. “All that junk—just clean it out and burn it. You’ll never use it. And what will the family do with it after you’re gone?”
“Get a bulldozer and clean it out,” I replied.
And so it went. For years. And the wonderful old attic continued to accept contributions gracious, endlessly, never complaining.
A trunk going back to my childhood in China . . . Newspaper clippings of the fall of Shanghai to the Japanese in 1957 . . . High school in Korea, old love letters from Bill, boxes of photographs . . . An old Roman earthenware bowl dug up from the Thames River . . . A box of arrowheads and spearheads from Australia . . . Crutches to fit any height . . . Christmas ornaments . . . My old wedding dress (the veil was used to trim four bassinets; when Ned, the fifth, arrived he had to make do with a cradle) . . . Enough old luggage to start a used luggage shop . . .
A veritable treasure trove of disorganized surprises.
“When are you going to clear our the attic—all that old stuff you save? You’ll never use it. The children won’t know what to do with it–”
And so it has gone. Year after year.
Ruthie’s Display of Intention
Minimalists clash with conservators when it comes to keeping “stuff.” Many millenials don’t want old stuff, so it’s no surprise they may not want your stuff!
According to this article no one wants your stuff anymore, published at www.nextavenue.org.
What do you think about the headline in this article? Do you have children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews who think the opposite and cherish hand-me-downs?
Have you experienced clearing out a loved one’s house? Please do add another tip to my list. Or, share a story of your experience.
Grand-nieces Crista and Heidi examining cherished porcelain.