Sorting out a family's legacy

April 11, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - We are adding another relic to the huge pile that looms outside our door when a neighbor walks by and asks approvingly, "Spring cleaning?"

"Sort of," I answer, and turn my eyes to the sidewalk that looks like a giant yard sale of cardboard boxes, plastic bags and broken furniture.

At one end of the pile is a decaying red cardboard table that my daughter once used for her preschool Play-Doh. Spring cleaning, 1975. Not far away there is an ancient and honorable and defunct box of tax returns. Spring cleaning, 1987. Nearby are my father's law school notes. Spring cleaning, 1932.

We are finally excavating the archaeological layers of our past, digging artifacts out of corners of the house that have been untouched nearly as long as Tutankhamen's tomb. The pharaoh's tomb-diggers, however, didn't uncover a macramM-i plant holder or a dozen plastic planters.

It has taken us five weekends to get this far. That's if you don't count the boxes that originated in our old house. Or if you don't count the cartons inherited from our families.

From time to time, from spring to spring, we would talk about retrieving whole rooms from their musty existence as museum hall and storage company. But like an annual resolution to lose weight and shape up, our good intentions would disappear behind closed doors.

I suppose the fault was largely mine. I belong to a family of packrats. I grew up in a home where rubber bands were saved on doorknobs for a rainy day, although what we would do with those bands when it rained was unclear. My aunt next door has a collection of plastic ice cream containers that date to the invention of plastic.

My husband, on the other hand, has been nicknamed the human Zamboni. He would weed a garden with a backhoe if you gave him half a chance. His idea of cleaning out the house was to hire a trash bin and slowly tip the attic into it.

When we talked of cleaning, he would begin with the assumption that everything was junk. I would begin with the idea that everything was an heirloom. He saw the aging, peeling Playskool giraffe as kindling wood. I saw it as something to be resurrected for grandchildren. He looked at the old school supplies as Goodwill, I saw them as Antiques Roadshow.

("Why, Ms. Goodman, do you have any idea how much this 1954 cardboard stencil is worth today?"

"Why no, my mother bought it for 39 cents at Woolworth's."

"Well, she got quite a bargain. Today at the right auction you could get $1,300 for this!" Tears, followed by applause.)

If I was intimidated by the quantity of the stuff, I was more intimidated by the quantity of decisions: Treasure or trash? Who says?

The hardest part was imagining what lay in the boxes we had inherited, boxes that had acquired a kind of sacred, untouchable quality. How could we dare to triage our elders' leftovers? How do you pick and choose what matters? To them. To us.

Was it Sept. 11 that made us want to get down to basics? Get un-stuffed. Divide history from clutter. Was it simply to figure out what of my own collecting and consuming will matter to our kids?

Gradually, corner by corner, box by box, we have been separating the "antiques" from the candidates for Goodwill from the junk unceremoniously deposited on the sidewalk. One by one, I have figured out what matters to us. Not the carton of china, but my mother's wedding dress. Not the crystal vases, but the photographs. Not my grandmother's watch, but her soup pot. And above all, the unexpected treasure trove of World War II letters my father wrote.

Our spring cleaning is by no means complete. My daughter, heiress to my DNA, retrieved half the stuffed animals - "just the ones with names, Mom" - from the junk heap. I salvaged the soap collection of my childhood. ("Why, do you know how much that Waldorf-Astoria 1956 soap is worth?") Stuff will accumulate again the way dust settles in the corners of every life.

But having cleaned so many springs from our lives, I recognize that most of what we acquire will inevitably end up on some sidewalk.

What will remain for our own antiques home show? Letters, photographs, the occasional family soup pot.

This packrat has learned that what the next generation will value most is not what we owned but the evidence of who we were and the tales of how we loved. In the end, it's the family stories that are worth the storage.

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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