Growing up, I spent a lot of my time with my great aunt, Marian. My parents and I lived with her until I was three and from then on, I spent every holiday, vacation and summer with her on Long Island. She never married or had children and referred me as “her baby”. She was like a second mother to me. My grandparents lived next door to her and my great aunt and uncle lived behind my grandparents. It was like a mini compound and I loved being there, but that’s a story for another day.
This story is about stuff. When Aunt Marian died, I helped my grandmother, her sister, clean out her house. It was the house that had belonged to their parents, my great grandparents. It was the house where Aunt Marian spent her teenage years and her entire adult life, save for the last two years which were spent in a nursing home. The house was full not only of Aunt Marian’s belongings, but those of her parents as well. Three lifetime’s worth of things.
A call was put out to her large, extended family – “Come and take what you want. Everything else will be donated or discarded”. A few came, but that did little to lessen the load. There were stacks of china, mugs, collectible glasses, Corningware plates and baking dishes, dented aluminum pots and pans and every conceivable type of utensil that had been manufactured in the last 80 years. And that was just the kitchen. There was also a house full of furniture, records, tchotchkes, books overflowing with photos, sheets, towels, Christmas decorations and all the things that make a house a home.
Then there was the other stuff. My great grandparents lived through the depression and throughout their lives, they carried with them the idea that everything was worth something and someday you might need it. It was the kind of stuff that had been tucked away and long since forgotten about, the kind of stuff that no one was interested. There were hundreds of old buttons in every size and color, piles of 6 cent stamps, beautiful headpieces from the 40’s and 50’s, a round hatbox illustrated with daisies, handwritten letters, a jar full of keys, a box full of handwritten recipes, old tins and tattered jewelry boxes, pristine wrapping paper from the 60’s and old notebooks filled with lists and budgets handwritten by my great grandmother. I wanted all of it.
There was also a garage so full a car couldn’t fit. My grandfather had “moved in” after the death of my great grandparents and had filled it with his own treasures. The garage became home to bicycles, old patio furniture, paint cans and power tools. There were gas cans, buckets, shovels, garden tools and a snowblower. Practically every square inch of the cement floor was covered. I didn’t think there would be anything worthwhile in the garage, but I was wrong. Against the wall, way in the back was a toolbox sitting atop a stack of old wooden shelves. Inside were very old, rusty wrenches of every size and shape, rusted ratchets, broken drill bits along with a hand drill and forged steel tin snips. Above the shelves sat a dusty cupboard full of old coffee cans. The cans were overflowing with washers, screws, nuts and bolts. There was also a fishing weight, a ball bearing, a rusty pipe fitting, a clothesline reel and a slew of other unidentifiable objects. Just about everything was well past its prime, covered in rust and varying shades of patina. Someone, my grandfather or perhaps my great grandfather had taken the time to save all of it just as my great grandmother had carefully collected the stamps and buttons. I got very emotional thinking about it.
I ended up taking quite a bit from the house- Aunt Marian’s well-loved cast iron pans, a couple of mid century end tables, an old Ansco camera, a clock that was gifted to my great grandparents on their 50th wedding anniversary, an old chest, beautiful teacups, the records and their cabinet, a vintage patio rocking chair and glider, a few serving pieces and a couple of beautiful decanters and glassware. These things I cherish. But I also had to take the buttons and stamps, the headpieces and hat box, the keys, the recipe books and many of the other treasures that had been hidden away including all the rusty tools, washers, nuts and bolts from the garage. My grandmother thought I was crazy. Then it occurred to me. What the hell was I going to do with it all?