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Voices / Column

Cleaning out the attic

When I say my life passed before my eyes, I meant my life and the lives of three generations before me


Many, many years ago, I traveled light. I owned only what I could carry in a duffel bag.

Then I settled down, bought a house, and managed to stuff an attic so full that it took a filled-to-the-brim Dumpster to haul the junk away.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has had to sit her ego down and whisper this sad, hard truth: “There never will be a museum dedicated to us, Ego. Not every single thing we’ve written, worn, slept on, stolen or sat on has value.”

Those jeans? The ones with the patches that were tenderly sewn onto the ragged legs by a string of long-lost lovers? They don’t fit any more. And no one besides us, Ego, cares. Out they go!

Those alpaca coats I had made in Peru for sale to Henri Bendel? Same thing.

That mountain of yellowing and crumbling magazines that carry the reporting I’ve done over the years? Most of it is out of date and out of the house!

They say that when you face death, you can see your life passing in front of your eyes. But another way is to clean your attic.

* * *

As it turned out, I have the genes of a pack rat. Her name was Rose Kagan, and she was my mother.

When she decided, at 92, to leave her graceful and spacious home and move into an apartment, it took me six hard weeks to clean her out and move her in. We fought over every last teacup.

After she died, a year ago at 94, it took me another two hard weeks just to clear out her one-bedroom apartment.

So you see, the attic really wasn’t my fault.

But it certainly needed cleaning.

For one thing, if there’s a Rodent Hall of Fame, I’ve won its Lifetime Achievement Award.

After we finally managed to drive away the squirrels that were nesting in the attic, we discovered that the mice were nesting there, too.

In one carton, I found three tiny Panamanian straw bags, each with a little woven top. Two of the tops were closed. In the third, tucked into the bottom, was a round little mouse nest.

And in one carton of orange-juice glasses, the white paper wrapping them had been eaten into lace, and the white fragments made their way into little round nests in the bottoms of the glasses.

In a way, it was very sweet. But now mothballs are hung in the attic with care, hopefully keeping out rodents forevermore.

* * *

When I say my life passed before my eyes, I meant my life and the lives of three generations who came before me.

For example, my grandmother and her sisters worked in the needle trades in the 1920s. They fancied themselves superior embroiderers.

In the attic, I uncovered a large pile of their embroidered tablecloths. Sad to say, the embroidery is less than distinguished.

I treasure the items because Aunt Lilly and Grandma Kampler made them, but what does “treasure them” mean? I don’t like them enough to use them. Do I have to keep them? Should I leave them in the attic until someone else has to throw them away after I die?

If not, should I throw them away now? Give them to a second-hand shop? I would feel as if I were handing over my aunt and my grandmother. I loved my relatives dearly. Help!

In a well-chewed rattan laundry hamper, I found the cocktail dress I wore to my younger brother’s bar mitzvah in 1958. I was just 16.

The dress, made of cobalt blue taffeta, has a bubble skirt and a waist span of 26 inches. It would be immensely stylish today, but I remember feeling ugly in it. Body image issues are not just a contemporary problem.

But here it sits, having outlasted my mother, my father, and even my brother. What do I do with it?

My father had an army and navy store in Brooklyn while I was growing up. When he retired, he gave the store to my brother, who had colorful t-shirts made with the name and phone number of the store on the front.

The store burned down in the late 1970s, but I found several of the shirts in the attic. My brother never got to meet his grandkids, but now the grandkids have the shirts.

What was the most startling thing I found?

From my wandering days, I found a 24-inch-high, screaming Pre-Columbian statue wrapped in a blue blanket. It’s missing one arm, but its genital region is still, let’s say, happy to see me. It dates from the Chancay period of Peru, before the Incas, and it’s been sitting in my attic for 18 years! Any takers?

* * *

Cleaning out the attic took eight hard days. What have I learned from this experience?

Shame, that’s what.

First, I’m ashamed that I kept all this stuff. Out of sight, out of mind is not a good philosophy when you are a pack rat with an attic.

Second, why did I put off cleaning it out for so long?

As I watched the Dumpster, piled with my memories and six old mattresses, leave the driveway, an idle thought crossed my mind: If the trucker returned it, in a million years I couldn’t fit all that stuff back into my house.

A friend told me that according to feng shui, getting rid of things makes way for new things to come. One door closes, another opens, so to speak.

I hope, however, it’s not the door to the attic.

She also says that writers tend to be pack rats because every object tells a story. That’s true. I treasure all the stories of my past which came back to me when I cleaned the attic. That’s why I wrote this column.

I’m glad the job is done.

I’m glad that I can still walk.

Most of all, I’m glad that my heirs won’t be stuck with this difficult job. The house feels lighter. I feel a great sense of accomplishment.

And I hope I never again hear myself say, “Well, maybe we can use that some time; let’s put it in the attic.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #184 (Wednesday, January 2, 2013).

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