When I was a sophomore in college, my maternal grandmother died after a long illness. Her death was sad, if something of a relief for my mother and her siblings, and it set in motion a process that continues to reverberate through my life in strange, unforeseen ways that are sometimes only apparent in my dreams.
My grandparents lived in Somerset, MA, in a two story farmhouse built in 1912. They married young and moved into the house shortly afterward. My grandmother was extremely practical. She had no use for an engagement ring. Instead, she and my grandfather bought a beautiful cedar chest that sat in the spare bedroom and housed blankets, papers, and my grandmother’s love letters from old suitors. The house was my grandfather’s great labor of love. He was an engineer and he spent most of life working at the Montaup, a massive energy plant a few miles up the road. When he wasn’t working or helping to raise their four kids, he worked on the house, converting the second story into an apartment that he rented out. They lived in that house for almost 60 years.
As they got older and became less able to take care of the yard and the grape arbor over the carport, my grandfather became more and more attached to the house. When my grandmother went into the hospital, my mother and her siblings raised the idea of an assisted living facility but my grandfather would have none of it. He wasn’t moving from that house, even after he went blind in one eye and had a bad fall on the stairs. It wasn’t until my grandmother died that he relented and allowed his family to move him somewhere else. After she was gone, he just stopped caring.
Once he was safely ensconced in an assisted living facility five miles away from my parents, my mother and her siblings realized that they had a monumental task ahead of them—cleaning out the Somerset house to get it ready for sale. My grandparents were children of the Depression and, like many of their peers, they saved just about everything. Over the course of their 60 years in that house, they had turned into pack rats of the highest caliber. Every drawer, every built-in cabinet, every closet and nook and cranny was stuffed with things that they thought might come in handy down the road: string, light bulbs, paper clips, glass pickling jars, garbage bag twisty ties, toothpicks, the aluminum lining from bubble gum wrappers. In a dresser drawer, my mother found 12 sets of sheer curtains and a box containing all the “nice” towels, the ones my grandmother found no occasion to use. We found a closet shelf full of the threadbare tea towels that my grandmother draped over the back of the living room chairs and couches to keep the furniture from getting worn down by people’s heads. A bench in the breakfast nook was stuffed with fake flowers, bought because they lasted longer and were cheaper than the real thing.
Then there was the basement, a space so dark and dank and crowded that none of us could make a dent in the clutter. In the end, the man who bought the house—the former neighborhood paper boy—asked that we leave the basement as it was so he could explore.
We spent three months of weekends cleaning the house out. It was dirty, dusty, emotionally messy work. None of us felt good about the fact that my grandfather couldn’t live there anymore. All of us felt like the house itself, home to so many Christmas days and Thanksgiving dinners, wasn’t something we were willing to let go. But we didn’t have a choice—finances dictated otherwise. After all the siblings and all the cousins had taken the things that meant most to them, my mother hired an auction house to sell the house’s remaining contents as a lot.
The dreams started immediately after we sold the house. At least once a week, I’d fall asleep and I’d be back in the house, sorting through rooms of clutter. In some of the dreams, I’d scour yard sale-like tables of glassware and serving dishes, looking for things whose history spoke to me. In others, I’d be in the basement, scared out of my wits and trying not to trip over the bones that my grandfather found down there one year and reburied. Night by night, room by room, I worked my way through that house just like I had when I was awake. Every dream was weighed down with a sense that I was looking for something very specific but I wasn’t sure what it was. I wanted to keep everything I found but couldn’t; everything felt valuable in a distant way, as if we’d never known the significance of what was right in front of us.
Years later, the dreams have changed. Now I dream of houses and of rooms filled with things, but they are not that specific house or those specific rooms. The other night I dreamed that my family inherited a beautiful old Second Empire Victorian from a distant relative who had left the house’s contents intact for us to sort through. I spent the dream running from room to room, pulling down dust cloths and peering into glass cases. In every room, I amassed a pile of the things I wanted. And then I had a room of my own, in an upper corner of the house filled with light. From the corner window I could see the skyline of San Francisco.
Dreams are weird.
Even as I sort through my own boxes of history in my parent’s basement, I’m sorting through the clutter that’s stashed away in my head. I see the reason why it was so important to me to save everything in the past, though I’m now at a point where I want to divest myself of as much clutter as possible. I don’t want piles of boxes and cabinets full of crap that I don’t have the strength to trash. For any of my friends who have seen my parent’s basement, you know what I’m trying to avoid. Baggage, boxes, whathaveyou—it’s time for a clean start.