by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – “There are a sort of men, whose visages do cream and mantle like a standing pond, and do a willful stillness entertain…” Thus, Shakespeare describes men who take themselves too seriously. It’s hard to self-diagnose that condition; but this past year, during which we sequestered ourselves away from the usual joys of human company, was a perfect opportunity for us to become standing ponds, all thick with algae, frogs, duckweed, dragonflies, and dourness. Tossing even a good-sized rock into that stagnant glop hardly makes a decent splash.
As I write this morning, some of my favorite people are tossing rocks into my glop. My older daughter and my son and his wife, from, respectively, the State of Washington and Arkansas, are emptying out my late wife’s office, about twelve feet behind me. Sounds of heavy things being moved, and the question, “Do you have a hand truck?” impinge on the usual serenity of an old man and a quiet dog who’ve together worn their routine into a deep, comfortable groove.
All three of the kids flew into Burlington last night around eleven for the start of a six-day visit. That’s when I got the first hint of irrelevancy: “Mind if I drive home?” Yeah, I did. Though there’s no question that I don’t see at night quite as I did in 1956, I can fudge it by keeping the speed down on the interstate and watching carefully for curbs and berms on the dark downtown corners. We arrived here without incident – I think.
You might call this visit a sort of intervention: confronting a friend or relative with an unaddressed problem in hopes of shocking them into reform. The problem in this case is the cluttered residue of two lives; and though I have very much desired to do something about it, I haven’t been able to muster the moxie “to do” – as Garrison Keillor says – “what needs to be done.”
There are at least three deterrents to even starting the process, the most obvious being, of course, sentiment. Your wife, for example, saved every childish scrawl of her children and grandchildren. Now you’re supposed to consign them to a recycling center? A couple dozen framed family photographs; costume jewelry; her favorite frying pan that you’ll never use again. I have a friend in Texas who has more than half a two-car garage piled high with boxes of her parents’ letters and reminiscences. I don’t believe she’ll ever get through them in the years left to her. It is truly written, “No one who can read should ever try to clean the attic.”
Second is the physical strength required to move all the stuff: bending, lifting, packing, and carrying. I can cheerfully sort through hundreds of books and pack the discards into boxes. But to carry the boxes out the back door and down the ramp to the car, and then, inevitably, up a flight of stairs to their new home, is often either too much or dangerous, Burt Reynolds has a line about that in the 1974 film “The Longest Yard:” “I can get my [stuff] together. I just can’t pick it up.”
The third deterrent to getting rid of stuff is knowing where to take it. I’m too cheap to think of paying the recycling center’s fees for getting rid of it. And yet something’s got to give if it’s going to go. Hanging always in my subconscious is the 1947 story of the infamous Collyer brothers and their New York City brownstone mansion so full of stuff it eventually killed them. I remember, too, helping clean out a great-aunt’s flat after she went to a nursing home, and promising myself I wouldn’t ever make anybody feel the way I was feeling. ReSource, here we come!
So it was with mixed feelings that I welcomed this big stone being tossed into the stagnant pool of my pandemic-inspired hermitage: a week-long visit from the kids to go through as much stuff as possible, dividing it into keep-sell-trash. They bring such a burst of animal energy that I’m swept away into irrelevancy. They’ve lugged cabinets, a countertop, and whatnot to the foot of the driveway, whence it magically disappears. Sunday morning there’ll be a “garage almost-free sale.” Kiki and I have been tacitly encouraged to stay away. That’s just as well; for seeing familiar objects leave is a bit like having teeth pulled. Still, I remember a story I used to read to the kids when they were little: “Bairns are a blessing.” Thanks, kids, for the stone plopped into my algae. I know, I know; y’all are around sixty now. But to me you’re still the bairns. And you’ll always be a blessing.