For the past week Sue and I were in Florida cleaning out my father’s stuff from his condo. As I wrote this last sentence, I immediately realized that stuff was a totally inadequate word for what we were doing. We were actually cleaning out the man. Taking his life and sorting it into three piles: Keepers, Giveaways, and Trash.
We always knew he was a pack-rat, but that label didn’t come close to doing him justice. He was OCD and a hoarder wrapped into one package with 92 years of perfecting his art. There wasn’t a nook or cranny of that 1800 square feet that wasn’t bulging with neatly wrapped or boxed aspects of every era of his life–and before.
Although there is something wonderful about learning a person’s life from what is left behind, problem was the proportion of each pile was trash–an entire building’s dumpster full, give-aways–two work hours of two men from a charitable organization, and keepers–a suitcase and a half.
Talk about sifting and winnowing. Boxes and boxes labeled “short wooden pencils,” filled with, as you might suspect, short wooden pencils. Plastic bags (with neatly folded plastic bags within them), financial records from 1976 on, all carefully recorded on columnar pad spreadsheets carefully taped together to expand to 11 x 34 inch dimensions. But of course, they were filed randomly so we had to go through each of them. He was an accountant after he left the bar business and the only person we knew with the precision and parsimony to deduct the postage from his Schedule B and D tax forms.
And that was the easy do. I’m scheduled for shoulder surgery in May, ripped tendons that leave my right arm with little strength and limited range of motion. This meant that Sue was stuck with all the heavy lifting. Broken VCRs, multiple busted toaster ovens, dead appliances, a storage bin of hardware from non-existent who knows what, old printers, and stacks and stacks of records of lost Publishing Clearinghouse contests, all dated and in chronological order. It’s one thing to throw away a few sheets of paper, but try a tree’s worth. Some serious heavy.
Of course, even rummaging through the tosses had its funny and quirky moments. Sue brought me a folder marked “Sad Loses” and I gritted my teeth before opening it fearing mementos of those who died during his life. Turned out it was certificates stock buys that had gone belly up.
The giveaways were almost as endless. Old televisions, radios that banks bestow when opening an account, the never used Abdominizor, desk lamps that hadn’t had bulbs in them for decades. Caps with built-in fans to keep his head cool. Suitcases and more suitcases. I suppose some people still use heavy leather ones. Did he really imagine he would at 92? I don’t think so. Hell, there was one furniture console television that even charity wouldn’t take.
But there were some really sweet surprises as well. Pop had a folder for each of my kids where he kept every note or picture they ever sent him. A folder for Sue where he had kept any articles about her books or stocks she ever sent him. Had one for me as well where he kept the reviews of my books. Reviews I don’t recall sending him so he clearly made an effort to get them. His Army Medals and Letters of Promotions as well as his history of working as a government accountant.
The diamond in the dirt, however, was his picture collection. We’d already had seen the ones that had any of my nuclear family in them, but those were just the tip of an iceberg. I now have pictures of my grandparents as young people, finally have seen what my great grandparents looked like.
There are pictures of his parents at the opening of Klein’s Tavern—Number 39 on the State’s License. A tavern where my father once hired my musician cousin Hank and his band to play.
But the most fun was seeing my father grow from high-school, to college (where he looked like an aspiring author) to the jauntiness of his attitude while he was in the Army Air Corps, his marriage to my mother and to then Lenore, who clearly had been the love of his life.
A long week with much mishagas to deal with and think about, but it also allowed me access to my father’s mind. The crazy and not.
This past week was Sam’s last gift.
Whether it’s the best of times or the worst of times, it’s the only time we’ve got. ~Art Buchwald