I flew back to Pennsylvania about two weeks ago to wrap up my mom's estate.
I'm really not sure how else to put it. It's short, to the point, but nothing at all like simple.
Lyssa and I flew back on two different days: I got us set up in a hotel and tried to sleep off the jetlag because I flew out at 0700 from California. Lyssa flew out just before midnight a day later. As it turned out we both slept all day and night because we just didn't have it in us to do anything else.
We spent the rest of the week turning the house upside-down looking for anything that we might have overlooked. Pictures. Home movies. News clippings. Letters. Anything that might have escaped our notice, no matter how small or where it might be. As that week progressed Hasufin and Johanna drove up from DC to assist because fresh pairs of eyes always help when you've been staring at the same things for days on end. Each time we tripped across more and more stuff that had to be handled. Keepsakes that lurked in the forgotten recesses of the house I grew up in.
And papers. Reams and reams of papers. Tax forms dating back decades. Pay stubs of my grandfather's dating back to just before he retired in 1981.ev. Ancient driver's licenses. Paid bills and cancelled cheques dating back to the 70's. Empty chequebooks. Business cards.
Documents neatly filed on mom's desk and bookshelves in her office. Documents stuffed into drawers and the backs of cabinets. Paperwork used to mark places in books and magazines. Hardcopies of recipes from the last 20 years. Printed out images loose and in binders. News clippings and pages from newspapers of import and not. Acres and acres of dead trees. By Saturday we'd accumulated three lawn bags full of documents that needed to be destroyed. Hasufin and I drove to two different stores which have Iron Mountain burn boxes and filled every one of them up. Three at a UPS Store and two more at a local office supply store. Documents to shred are priced by the pound, and the grand total was somewhere in the neighborhood of 160 pounds.
As I'll get to a bit later, that wasn't all.
We did throw some things away as they came up in the process of sorting through the detritus and segregated them into their own garbage bags, but the bulk of the work was to be done by a crew of general contactors I'd hired to do the job. It's extremely easy to underestimate just how much stuff an average sized house (three bedroom, two bathroom) can have in it. Additionally, you have no idea how hard it is to just get rid of stuff. Everybody always says that holding an estate sale is the way to go about it, but when you get right down to it the immense amount of work that goes into cleaning up a house enough so that random folks can walk in and make offers on stuff is orders of magnetude more than the amount of money you'll actually make from it. You won't get all that many people, either. Sure, you can contact everybody you know and tell them that there is stuff they're welcome to have if they want it, and you can put signs up all over the neighborhood, but maybe 10% of everyone who finds out will actually show up (covid notwithstanding) and the chances are slim that there is anything they'll actually be interested in buying. And so on, and so forth.
And, china cabinets aren't really a thing anymore. Nobody seems to want them. As 'lex Pendragon observed, the number of people trying to get rid of china cabinets without throwing them away far outnumbers the people who are actively searching for one.
Granted, part of the problem was that I didn't want to just throw away anything that could still be useful to someone. I hate waste, and if something can go to a good home I try to make that happen. So I worked to make sure that as many folks as possible got to pick stuff out. Craft supplies, tools, books... I didn't get to give away as much as I'd hoped but enough stuff went to good homes that I'm satisfied with how things turned out on the whole. I also shipped maybe a dozen boxes of stuff back home that I wanted to keep; figure half the volume of each box was packing material, so that's really not a lot of stuff. There are also, however, a certain number of things that occupy the overlap between stuff I don't want to get rid of, stuff I really want to keep, and stuff I just don't have room for. I wound up renting a storage unit nearby to load that stuff into, after wrapping the boxes in multiple layers of shrink wrap to protect them.
Maybe I'll write up a tutorial of how I protected all that stuff at some point.
It's been a long couple of weeks and I can't think straight. I apologize for how this narrative slews to and fro.
Let's cut to last week as you reckon it. Robert, the guy who headed up the cleanout crew, had rented a 40 cubic yard dumpster and a moving truck for the express purpose of hauling the rest of the stuff in the house away. They started around 1100 hours UTC-4 and worked clear through until almost 2100 that night. When negotiating the contract I offered him his pick of stuff in the house and he knocked the bill down to a very reasonable $950us. A great deal of furniture and a couple of displays were taken, which pleased me greatly. Unfortunately, everything else was not so fortunate.
A great deal of contents of the house had to simply be junked. The contents of the china cabinets. The chest of drawers in my mom's room. Everything I'd gone through downstairs but didn't want to keep (which was a pile of stuff about nine feet in diameter, two feet high, and consisted of several oddly shaped shelves and chairs and incredible amounts of crap). The furniture in the living room. The dining room set. Most everything on the shelves. The silverware, coffee mugs, and glassware. Just about all of it went into trash bags to be hauled to the dump with neither pomp nor circumstance. The cabinet holding VHS tapes (remember those?) had to be broken up so it could be loaded in with the rest of the junk. Same with the beds and what furniture that couldn't be preserved. In the process, the cleanout crew found even more paperwork squirreled away in every possible nook and cranny.
There is a joke that goes around the Net periodically. Someone will occasionally post something along the lines of "What the fuck. What the fuck. What in the shit???" without context or elaboration. The cleanout crew did that several times that day. When emptying the shed they found another cache of chequebooks, cancelled cheques, deposit slips, and unused cheque registers. In the basement they found a packing crate full of DV'd stock certificates (because the shares had gone all digital and then were sold off as my mom had her financial advisor diversify her holdings), yet more folders of tax documents. My report cards as far back as kindergarten and student loan documents from the first college I went to in the 90's. Behind the bookshelves in here office were more family pictures, entire notebooks filled cover to cover with lists of numbers and figures, and even a couple of MiniDV cassettes. I even found the program from the very first sci-fi con she took me to when I was twelve.
All of this stuff had to be gone through, bagged up, and disposed of properly.
Far be it from me to tell other people what to do. I can't even tell people what not to do successfully. But for the love of Turing - please clean out your stuff periodically. Seriously. None of us know how long we have to live so don't inflict this on your next of kin (and if you don't like your next of kin, you shouldn't put them in a position of having to go through all of your stuff anyway). They'll have enough on their plates to worry about, including grief, and they don't need multiple 39 gallon lawn bags of papers that they'll have to dig through. I don't know if my mom had actual clinical hoarding tendencies or what, but please, please, PLEASE clean your paperwork out regularly. At the very least, consider going to all digital copies of everything so that their mass and volume are fixed but the same amount of data is present. Which then changes the problem to "How do I search all this stuff?" but I have more than enough pontification and instruction on how to go about this around here.
It broke my hearts to see the cleanout crew reduce the china and curio cabinets to flinders before tossing them into the back of the truck. Listening in on them talking (as well as their talking to me) they lamented having to do so and apologized profusely. If they'd had room in the truck, they said, they could have taken them to be donated (like they did to some of the stuff they'd handled earlier in the day) or moved them into a storage unit for later use. But night was about to fall and they were down to brass tacks, so to speak. One guy on the crew had ripped the carpet out in one of the rooms by request because it was ancient and badly damaged, so there really were brass tacks to account for.
I was somewhat amused by their reactions as they found playing cards in the most unusual places around the house. While mom was in the hospital, and when I was killing time waiting for various folks to show up at the house after her death I practicd my throwing of playing cards and thought it would be funny to leave my best shots in place for people to find.
As I finish up this post, I have walked around the house one last time, wandering through my memories as I did so. Good times. Bad times. Lonely times. School times. Pain and recuperation. Joy and sorrow. I also walked around the outside of the house and took as many photographs as I could before the power cell in my phone tanked.
I took a look at the rhodedendron that has been growing at the side of the house since before I was born. It's now almost as tall as the house at its highest point. The new owners will probably rip it out. Frankly, I'd be surprised if whomever buys the house doesn't raze the structure to build a new one. The rose bushes in the back are still there, somehow. They're trying to claw their way back to life. You can still see where the swimming pool (it wasn't a big or a permanent in-ground one, just a semi-permanent one that required a certain amount of landscaping that we'd had for a few years) used to be.
As I write this, the house will officially go up for sale tomorrow morning.
Now I really can't go home again.