December 2011

Cleaning up

By Gail Binkly

Yesterday’s gone, yesterday’s gone
Oooh, don’t you look back. — Christine McVie

“We ought to get rid of that armchair,” my husband remarked one afternoon. “We don’t have a place for it, and it’s not like it’s a really fine piece.”

“But it’s comfortable,” I protested. “And the arms are flat, so you can set things on them.”

Neither of us mentioned the real reason I didn’t want to get rid of the rather shabby thing: My mother had reupholstered it for us, years ago. Even now I can see her kneeling in front of it, deftly pushing and pinning.

And, despite its age, it really does not look out of place in a home whose motif, if there is one, could be described as “mixed memorabilia.” A casual guest, upon eying the collection of magazine articles, trophies, yearbooks, piano music, art work, and knickknacks that dominates our living room, might conclude that we are two hoarders united in our love for useless detritus. But the truth is, we aren’t hoarding the stuff – we just aren’t able to get rid of it.

Inevitably as you travel through life, you accumulate possessions. Some are useful, like furniture. Others are aesthetically pleasing, like paintings.

And others are neither, but nevertheless have a hold on you.

The coffee mug with my name on it as editor of my college newspaper. The antique spool cabinet that belonged to David’s mother. (Neither of us has any interest in antiques, but there it sits.)

Newspaper clippings from my days as a sports writer. The Star Trek insignia pin my students gave me when I quit teaching. A tea set that was a wedding gift from a now-deceased friend.

Individually these items don’t use up much space, but collectively they turn into clutter.

One entire drawer of my dresser, for instance, is devoted to clothing so imbued with memories that I am incapable of throwing it in the trash. The purple-andgold “Elbert Bulldogs” sweatshirt that transports me back to the overheated, deafening gym where our high-school basketball team battled. A soccer shirt I wore when I played (badly) for the Gazette’s intramural team.

And a black concert T-shirt spangled with silver glitter. When an old college pal came to visit me in graduate school, back in the 1970s, the Greyhound had somehow lost his luggage and I loaned him the shirt because it was the only thing I had that would fit him. Unfortunately, the glitter was not well-gluedon; before long his hair, mustache and even his eyelashes were dusted in silver, to his disgust but my great amusement. He’s dead now, but every time I see the shirt, I smile.

Some people embrace change. Others may not like it, but learned early in life to accept it.

I belong to neither of those categories. My family has owned the same, very modest house in Colorado Springs for the past 50 years. When my sister and I moved out, my parents remained. When my mother died four years ago (five years after my dad), neither Rhonda nor I had the will to tackle the sorting and throwing-away, so the place and its possessions remained intact, like a museum.

This fall, our uncle drove clear from California to help us finally do the job. Despite being over 80, he proved to be a font of energy and vigor, wheeling furniture around on a dolly, poring through old utility bills and photographs, casting clothing into piles.

I found him an inspiration. But my sister, who claimed to be ready for this process, turned out to be anything but. The more items our uncle put outside for our estate sale, the more she snatched back. Commemorative belt buckles – old John Wayne movies on videocassette – coffee mugs with affectionate messages – all were continually being moved out to the driveway and back inside and then outside again, as if in some absurd Marx Brothers routine.

Rhonda even balked at getting rid of a love seat whose stuffing was showing. “I might want it!” she said with stubborn, forlorn illogic, knowing she made no sense but unable to stop herself.

I carried on with fairly heroic stoicism, only to be reduced to tears by the sight of a cheap wall clock. The damn thing ticked so loudly, I used to take it down and pull out the battery whenever I came to visit. Mother could never understand why – until she got her hearing aids. “It really IS loud, isn’t it?” she admitted, and we laughed merrily.

What do you do with these pieces of the past, these ties to a reality that no longer exists? “It’s just stuff. He isn’t in it,” my mother used to say as she boxed up my father’s clothes after he died.

And she was right, of course. Yet most of his belongings were still in the house when Rhonda and I went through it.

Possessions are like smells; in a flash, they can trigger memories buried so deep you didn’t know your mind still retained them. And that’s why it’s so difficult to abandon these artifacts. They serve as tangible evidence of the years you have lived and the people you have known.

But at some point you have to shed some mementoes, or you’ll need a second house to store them all.

So Rhonda and I steeled ourselves and got the family home (mostly) emptied, and I returned to Cortez with a new, unsentimental resolve to clean up my own domicile.

“You’re right. Let’s get rid of the armchair,” I told David.

He hesitated. “But it’s really pretty comfortable,” he said.

Gail Binkly is editor of the Four Corners Free Press.