James Hayman: Last week my wife Jeanne and I sold our house on Peaks Island and simultaneously bought another house in the Back Cove area of Portland. The closing on the Peaks house was at 11 AM on Tuesday. The closing on the Portland house was at 1 PM. In between we had lunch. We both had BLTs. Mine accompanied by a pint of strong dark ale. Jeanne’s with a glass of iced tea.
While the closings provided some moments of financial tension and four remarkably strong young men picked up all of our sofas, beds and bureaus and hauled them into and out of the van, it was the act of going through everything we owned, deciding what to get rid of and what to keep and packing all the items that made the cut into one hundred and sixty one boxes that proved most grueling.
Actress Bette Davis once famously said “Old age ain’t no place for sissies.”
The same can be said for moving. Especially when you’re no longer the spry young things you were when you bought your first house and such adventures seemed well…adventurous. Especially when you have to sort through the accumulated detritus of four decades of marriage and child raising and decide what to keep and what to toss.
The children are now grown and gone but their stuff remains. Reams of it. Stored in large plastic boxes in the attic. What do we keep? What do we throw out? What do we offer back to them when we know from previous offers that they really don’t want any of it. The Legos? The Cabbage Patch dolls? The box full of Smurfs and the other box full of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles? How about the sports trophies from first grade through high school? The children’s endless and priceless works of art? There was Kate’s drawing of me in which she declared in bright red crayon: “My dad. Not your dad. But my dad.” This one was framed and hung in my office on Madison Avenue in New York for most of the years I worked there. Naturally we kept it. There were the Mothers Day and Fathers Day cards illustrated with flowers and hearts, or in Ben’s case, occasionally with tanks and war planes blasting away in which they told us how much they loved their wonderful mom and dad.
We spent days going through it all and bravely chucking some of it and giving some of the toys and puzzles to the island school and day care, but still keeping more than we should.
In addition to the kids stuff there were the pre-digital family photos. Thousands of them. We’d told ourselves for years that we simply had to get a decent scanner and store them in computers rather than in boxes. But, of course, we never had. We threw out the ones we deemed lousy and kept the 90% we decided we didn’t want to part with.
Then there were the books. Endless piles of books we’d been hoarding for years. Some dating back to the days of Philosophy 101. Some practically new. Decisions had to be made. We had to be tough. Our new and smaller house simply didn’t have space for all of them. We went through the piles carefully.
“Have you ever read this one?” asked Jeanne over and over again.
“I don’t think so,” I replied. “Have you?”
“Yes. It’s quite good. You might like it.”
She’d hand me the book. I’d look over the blurbs on the jacket or back cover. Three out of four times I’d say “Toss it,” and into a box destined for the Portland Public Library it would go. One out of four I’d decide she was right and we’d stick it back in the bookcase. Occasionally, I’d open one book or another and start reading and had to be scolded back to the task at hand.
We stuck with the book sorting for about a week and filled more than forty book boxes with roughly a thousand books to be de-accessioned.. Many of them worthy. Probably half of them unread by either of us. All of them, nonetheless, destined for the loading (or more accurately unloading ) dock at the Library. I carried each of the heavy book boxes out of the house and loaded it in our sizable Honda Pilot SUV. It took three ferry trips to get all of the boxes from Peaks to Portland and then to the library where, hopefully, they’ll make their way into the stacks and others will get to enjoy or be enlightened by what we once purchased.
Making full use of the three $40 ferry trips, we also delivered a large number of trash bags full of unwanted clothes to Goodwill and Catholic Charities. No doubt I kept more of my older clothes than I should, Including a couple of gray pin striped suits dating from my ad days that I hadn’t worn in years. Why? I don’t know. Maybe someday they’ll come back into style. Maybe someday Martians will land.
Stuff we knew we no longer wanted and couldn’t give to good causes went to the dump. I didn’t count the dump runs I made but know there were more than I want to remember. Joe, the guy who runs the Peaks Island dump, would smile every time I’d turn up and comment on the joys of moving. Occasionally he’d spot something he figured somebody would want and keep it from going into one of the bins.
After all this sorting and donating and dumping was accomplished we got down to the serious packing. We filled more than one hundred and sixty boxes with stuff. Kitchen stuff. Bathroom stuff. Bedroom stuff. Garden shed stuff. Basement stuff. More stuff than two pleasantly aging adults could possibly want or use in two lifetimes. Clothing. Dishes. Paintings. Mirrors, Modems. Figurines. CD’s. DVD’s. Each piece carefully wrapped in newsprint and placed in boxes. We taped each of the boxes with endless rolls brown packing tape supplied by our movers. Tape that always seemed to stick back to itself after we cut it. I’d swear at the stuff, search for the nearly invisible edge of the tape and use my fingernails to bring to back to useable condition.
Jeanne, being the more organized member of the family, insisted on numbering each box. She labeled it with its contents and wrote in large black letters where it should go in our new hundred and five year old house. She also kept a list with all the box numbers and contents to make sure we didn’t lose any.
We were still packing, taping and labeling well past midnight the night before the movers were due to arrive at 7:30 the next morning.
But somehow we got it done and the following morning got to enjoy a few hours of sitting and doing more or less nothing as our four obscenely strong young men picked it all up and loaded it into the van. Including one seven foot high ficus tree growing in a huge earthenware pot.
Three days later it was all delivered to our new house in Portland and the movers got to do it all over again. Only in reverse.
As of this writing, we’ve unpacked many of the one hundred and sixty boxes. But the house is still full of many waiting their turn. And each time one or the other of us takes the box cutter to the nasty brown tape and starts unwrapping the contents of the next box we look up and say “Never again. They’ll have to carry us out of this one.”
We keep arguing over whether to sell the farmhouse where we’ve lived for 37 years and downsize. After reading your post, I’m leaning toward dying there. The kids could just toss a match after we were gone, couldn’t they?
This is my story this year times two! We sold our house in Leominster in May and our Cape house in the fall. So we had to sort through both houses. Forty years of stuff. Luckily we sold our furniture with the Cape house. We are now in a condo until we find our last and I mean last house!
Enjoy your new home!!
What a wonderful account! I have sent it to friends who just went through the same process.
We’re in the same boat, having moved to this old farm house 40 years ago. Although you are right that the children don’t want their old stuff, the grandchildren are fascinated by it. The trouble is that there’s so much in the attic, I can’t get it resolved via grandchildren because it means it would just be carried back into the too-small homes of their parents who, we all agree, don’t want it. Sooner or later we’re going to have to do what you did and sort through it and be ruthless about getting rid of sentimental treasures. Thank you for the hilarious reminder that the time has come!
P.S. Where in NYC did you work?
An ad agency named Young & Rubicam.
So true, Jim. I think that’s why we’ll stay where we are forever. For about ten years, I kept our sons rooms intact, referring to them as “the shrines.” Then we repainted and made them usable as guest rooms. Usable so long as no one opens the closets or looks under the beds. There the contents of the shrines remains. Also many boxes in the basement, the other basement, and the garage. I always say…one of these days.
We also have the same book discussions. Have your read this? Should we keep the third copy of Hawthorne short stories? College notes? I just threw out my college chemistry notes, my sister’s college chemistry notes, and my mother’s notes. I can’t even explain how I became the keeper of these. But books are the hardest. This one is signed. I remember which bookstore I was speaking in when I bought this one (author events at bookstores always costing me money) or this one was always on the bookshelf in my mother’s house, and still has her notes and clippings in it.
I pity my poor children.
And hope you’ll be very happy in your new home.
It wasn’t so bad when we moved from Ohio to California in 1980, but we’ve been in this house for 34 years. We have all the same stuff you had to go through. Plus a garage full of workshop equipment. My husband refuses to toss anything out in case he might need it one day. I fear I’ll be the one left to sort it all out. I can’t bear the thought.
How times change. When I returned from Arizona after college, all my worldly possessions fit in a Dodge sedan. When we sold our house in Chelsea, we had to toss stuff on the back lawn right before closing and hope the new owners cut us some slack (they did). It took Kate and I almost 2 years to clean out Mom’s house. I don’t even want to think about what lurks above my head in our attic here in Hartland. I remember reading a fantasy novel a long time ago by L. Sprague DeCamp where wealth was defined by how little you owned. It sounded cool 35 years ago, it sounds even cooler today. Thanks for a great narrative that almost everyone over 40 can relate to.
Happy that you’re getting settled, even though we sorely miss you on Peaks.
Thank you so much for this wonderful post! It’s amazing how the “stuff” just grows and grows over the years. When my Mom died I took 17 paper shopping bags of her romance books to the library and still had her “very good” ones and her collection of one author. I know that when I go there will be many more bags of my favorite mystery authors. And I fear that we will be moving again in a few years. I try to clean out, give away, sort through all the stuff but it either sticks like glue or what is left multiplies as soon as the discards have gone out the door. Congratulations to you for being on the other side of all that. You’ve done all the sorting and packing (the hard part) so now it’s time to relax. Enjoy your new house and unpacking your treasures. (And stay warm…from Nancy in a cold Montreal.)
Pingback: Jim Hayman: Looking back at the island | Peaks Island Press
You’re a great team, you two. We’ll miss you.
Lost, tossed and given away–amazing the list it can provoke. Maybe there’s a new story in one of those boxes. Enjoy every discovery in your new home.
Did you hear me laugh out loud, with a few groans here and there? Ah, downsizing: the ultimate gift to our family–and ourselves. Now that you’re lighter than air, fly back often!
Having moved every three years growing up (thanks to the vagaries of Y&R!), I’ve relished the last 26 years of never having to throw anything away. My house, yard, garage, shop, and office all shine as monuments of accumulation. Besides, all of it might be useful someday, particularly on an island where you can’t just run out and buy a 2×4. But recently, a certain switch has been flipped, and I sense a new need for the lean, the unburdened. Was it Thoreau or Emerson who saw man as pushing his barn ahead of him and dragging his cattle behind? What a joy to discover you don’t need the barn if you don’t have the cattle. Maybe that is growing up.
OK, I looked it up: Thoreau. And there were no cattle. And a barn, 75 by 40! I’d die for such a barn–and I’m sure I could fill it! Do you sense any conflict here?
“How many a poor immortal soul have I met well-nigh crushed and smothered under its load, creeeping down the road of life, pushing before it a barn seventy-five by forty, its Augean stables never cleansed, and one hundred acres of land, tillage, mowing, pasture and woodlot.”