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.”