Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Of estates and painted porcelain

I always feel just a bit ghoulish when we get a call to clean out an estate.

We get these sorts of calls with some degree of frequency…at least one or two a month. A parent or an aunt has died and the house needs to be cleaned out. Or a couple is retiring and moving to a smaller home or an assisted living facility. Whatever the reason, there is an attic or living room or basement full of books. And stuff. And something needs to be done with it all.

It is never a happy time. But it is something that needs to be done.

“Time to get rid of all this junk,” they say. “Why would anyone want to keep all this?”

It is usually a brave front. The person making the statement is often the same person who has taken responsibility for the cleaning out and is the same person who gave us a call in the first place. And this person invariably is a son or a granddaughter or close friend. It is a painful experience to sift through the relics of a life, or lifestyle, that is now past.

By the time we get involved, most of the really hard parts have been accomplished. We’re one of the last steps prior to selling the house or vacating the apartment.

The good part about this is that calluses have usually started to form over the really tender parts and a weariness has set in. They just want to be done with the whole thing. They want us to come and get it and just haul it away.

Usually, but not always.

There are occasions when we’re sucked into the process of closure. We’re told about the deceased or the one who is moving on; regaled with stories about his work, her family, their hobbies and travels, or Grandpa’s time in the army. And we can’t help but to envision this life that we’re evaluating and putting into boxes.

You can tell a lot about someone when you go through a bookshelf or a trunk or an attic. You can look at the books and tell at a glance whether that family preferred history or romance. Whether the books were well read or just acquired somewhere along the line. Whether they listened to classical music or show tunes or The Dave Clark Five.

And the certain amount of embarrassment when you come across that box of old Playboy magazines hidden away in a dark corner. (Funny how you never come across the collected works of Mark Twain in that dark corner.)

The ghoulishness comes in when you walk from room to room, asking if that old clock, or the record player, is available. How about that World War II uniform? “I’d be interested in that picture frame.”

Rummaging, and picking through the accumulated mementos of someone’s life.

“Do you want this?” we’re asked while being offered some trinket proudly displayed on a coffee table. It obviously was important to this household, but is close to meaningless to anyone else. We’ll take it, more to be polite than anything else. It helps to validate the life; maybe bring a little closure.

We’re doing one estate now. There have already been two protracted trips to the house. On the first, we pulled nearly 600 paperbacks out. Yesterday we returned for a second round and packed nearly that many hardcover books. There will be one more trip later this week to finish up. The questions were more for what we didn’t take.

“None of the records?” No, sorry. No one wants “The Many Moods of Bobby Vinton” these days. And I’m afraid I will pass on the 8-tracks, too. I just won’t be able to sell “A Boston Pops Christmas” on 8-track. But I will take the stereo. A silent nod of the head in sad, but understanding, assent. I’ve just disparaged an important element in someone’s life.

“But a lot of this is very good stuff,” I hasten to add. “We’ll find a good home for these books.”

I try to be affirming. It is the word of a professional giving an expert evaluation.

Now I’ve just got to figure out what to do with this porcelain figurine of a nondescript bird with “Miami” painted on the base.


  1. The bustle in a house
    The morning after death
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    Enacted upon earth, -

    The sweeping up the heart,
    And putting love away
    We shall not want to use again
    Until eternity.

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