We see and read about the people who improve their homes, making them picture-perfect for all of us to see and envy. They are rebuilding their kitchens, installing stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops, buying new furniture and arranging it just right in their beautifully reconfigured living rooms, placing plush new carpets on all of the wide-open floor spaces, and planting flowers of every color, shape and form in their showcase gardens. We know they are happy, contented and brimming over in self-worth. Their stories are so positive, so uplifting.
But there is another story, our story, the story that you, dear reader, don’t see, about the people who leave their homes, doing away with many of their cherished possessions, closing the doors on those past lives, never to see or live them again. That’s us, having undergone the wrenching experience of leaving our vintage home after 50 years. We are not happy, contented or brimming over in self-worth. We are sad, somewhat depressed, suffering from a depression of the spirit, the loss of contentment, the diminishment of self-worth. We have just lived through a sad commentary on a passage of life.
Our story needs to be told, too, because we all must deal with it at some time, sooner than you think, when the old house is too big and too old to clean and maintain, when there are too many stairs to climb, when we move or are forced to move. As the stumbling male in our partnership, I could see “that time” ahead when I read the obituaries each day, checking on age and cause of death, hoping to continue my life as before, refusing to face the truth of my future as I advanced to my mid-80s. My young wife, at the start of her 80s, is more sanguine about it all, accepting what a sibling once said: “what is, is.”
We’ll begin the story on our old, old living-room sofa, a symbol of the life we lived. I loved that sofa, so comforting if not comfortable. (My partner did not share in that love, wanted to get rid of it and was happy to see it go, so I shift from the “we” to the “I” in telling this part of the story.) Open-minded as I am, I was willing to give it up when we moved, in the belief that someone else would take it and enjoy it as I did. So our son moved it to the curb of our new dwelling, knowing that a passing person in a pickup would quickly grab it and haul it away. Alas, a garbage hauler got to it first, put it on the back of his truck and, as I watched, sent it into the crusher to be broken up and moved to the maw of his vehicle, never to be seen again. The sofa was crushed, and so was my spirit.
Going back to the “we,” my partner and I agreed that we would not save files, documents and other items that we had not seen, nor had any interest in, for 20 years or more. That would include 15 boxes of files from a newspaper project on how women became victims of the war on drugs when, out of loyalty to drug-dealing husbands and boyfriends, they had refused to cooperate with authorities. I figured it was almost an automatic Pulitzer Prize winner, a compelling story of a terrible injustice. But the stories fell with a dull thud, not to be noticed again. So I knew the file boxes had to go, and again I watched, this time as another son dumped them in a big garbage bin in our back driveway. Another possession would be hauled away, this part of the work life I had lived. I plunged deeper into the garbage bin of history, mired in malaise.
Those late, lamented boxes of files had been languishing in what we called the crawl spaces, closed-in areas behind the walls of our built-in attic that served as a bedroom where young family members could meet friends for activities we didn’t want to know about, or as a place for we parents to escape at night from the noisy realities of parenthood. Within those crawl-space walls, amid the bat leavings, were boxes upon boxes of family stuff we hadn’t seen nor cared about for those 20 years: school books, travel books, old letters and old clothes, the things you put in boxes as you pass through the years. I knew that I had throw out those things, the keepsakes no longer worth keeping, and I should have dispatched them all quickly, sight unseen, to the garbage bin.
But I had to look at some of the contents of those boxes and started pulling out “things” that had to be saved, things that were me in a different time. It was a big mistake, emptying one box and filling another. A daughter, who had connived with her mother and siblings to extract me from the old house — to walk away while I could still walk — was no better. She came across a box of her past and took an entire afternoon filling up another box of herself. It’s as though, in this era of quick change, from letters of long-lasting thoughts to social media that erase your thoughts in a day, we tenaciously hang on to the bits and pieces of remembrance.
My spouse of 58 years was much more able to discard our past and move ahead to a new life in a newer house. She ruthlessly gave to charity hundreds of cookbooks, novels and mysteries, CDs and clothes. Not that she has given up on cooking, music or reading. She just looks forward to receiving the many cookbooks and magazines delivered each day by publishers responding to a food-fetish culture, listening to the hundreds of songs she stores in an electronic device, reading the countless books available on another of her electronic devices, ordering new clothes on the Internet. In her own way she is a woman of the future: new home, new ways to listen and read as an eager participant in a new age.
As for me, I still listen to CDs and remain wedded to the printed page, a throwback to the past, which may partly explain why it has been so tough for me to leave a house loaded with the past. (I love the new house, though; I am glad we moved.)
But one thing neither one of us would give up, namely the photographs: 10 boxes of them — black and white prints, color slides and color prints, from trips at home and abroad, from family celebrations, from everyday life and special occasions, most taken by me in my insatiable desire to create a record of lives well-lived and, yes, sometimes ill-lived. We made those photos available to family members, and as adults now they ascend periodically to the attic to relive their own past, and to take some with them for their own memories, even though they had often objected when I ordered them to line up or shape up for yet another shot. Those are the pictures of our kids trudging along the streets of Berlin, admiring the ruins of Athens and Rome, riding in the trains of Egypt and Ethiopia. Or posing at home in front of the U.S. Capitol, the pictures of kids at the oceans or up the mountains, of kids sullen or smiling, laughing or crying.
Of course we kept those pictures when we moved from our house of 50 years, now empty, bereft of our history, ready for new people to create a new legacy of a different kind.
Joe Rigert is a retired Star Tribune reporter. He and his wife, Jan, live in Minneapolis.