One of the first decisions that my wife and I faced after selling our longtime Westchester home was what to do with all the art done by our now-grown children back when they were in single digits. Sensibly, we decided to keep only a representative sample, and I started working through the collection, making hard choices.
That evening, I found my wife going through the garbage. “How could you get rid of this?” she demanded, holding up our son’s rendering of an American F-14 shooting down an Iraqi plane during the Gulf War. She had a point—or would have, if there weren’t ten more exactly like it. Following what the diplomats call a “frank exchange of ideas,” we ended up keeping almost every finger painting and painted bit of clay, sticking it all in a couple of mammoth plastic tubs.
Thus began our long slog, marked by many skirmishes, through 26 years of accumulated stuff. What were all those dishes doing on the dining-room floor? Which was the worse millstone around our collective neck, her unbelievably vast hoard of books or my reasonably sized collection (all right, closetful) of political and historical memorabilia?
But the real battles involved stuff with emotional or psychological weight. Since we’d moved into the house in our early thirties and are now within hailing distance of Social Security, each crammed drawer and packed closet revealed more detritus of the life we’ve shared. Clearing out the kids’ rooms brought many happy detours into reminiscence; but more than once, some rediscovered object—say, a decades-old report card—revived long-dormant quarrels over who had done what wrong.
Of course, we realized that we had no right to complain. Not only were we fortunate to sell the house in this economy; we also had temporary access to another house while plotting our next move. And since we’re writers, with portable careers, the possibilities were endless. “Are you going back to the city?” we were repeatedly asked. For many of the questioners, any other possibility seemed inconceivable. But while it sounds insufferably smug to say that you’ve had it with New York, and boring to go on about high taxes and the nanny state, that was pretty much the truth. Some people want to wake up in a city that never sleeps; we want to wake up someplace where no one’s ever heard of Paul Krugman or Sheldon Silver.
“Actually,” became our stock reply, “we’re looking for some adventure before we go,” and, for emphasis, we named exotic locales like Vietnam, southern France, and (okay, our likeliest destination) Arizona. In fact, making that choice seemed far less vital than our real preoccupation: finding enough boxes. We came to know not only which supermarket and liquor store had what, but the precise times they broke them down for disposal.
Not that we kept everything; far from it. We donated enough books, clothes, and kitchenware to a local church to stock its entire fall rummage sale. And at our own garage sale—featuring mainly stuff we’d bought over the years at other garage sales—people kept showing up breathless, saying, “We hear they’re giving away stuff here!” My wife was—literally—which provoked a horrified neighbor, a small-business owner, to stage an intervention, pretending to be a relative and taking over.
A week before the closing, we both finally cracked. “I’m putting this in your box,” announced my wife, brandishing an eight-by-ten photo that had turned up belatedly.
“No, that box is for my work!”
“The others are sealed,” she said, defiantly slipping it inside.
“Stop!” I bellowed, sending a pillow hurtling at her.
Later that night, half-asleep, I moved to cuddle beside her—and she punched me.
So now the stuff is in an extra-large public-storage space on Long Island, stacked in boxes, floor to ceiling—her books, my political stuff, all the rest—with a strong possibility that none of it will be opened until we’re gone. Like President Obama, we’re passing on our problems to the next generation.