Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Cleaning the creepy attic ignites memories

10/28/09 Chatterbox
Betty Kaiser

Halloween may be the creepiest time of year but at least trick or treating reaps a sweet reward. One of my October jobs — cleaning the attic — is equally creepy and there’s no chocolate payoff.

We call it the attic but actually it’s a loft atop Chuck’s woodworking shop. He maintains that a real-man’s shop is not meant to be clean. So he shares his sawdust. It creeps upstairs adding a layer of grime to the dust and general clutter that a myriad variety of insects and critters call home: bats, spiders, mice, yellow jackets, flies and hundreds of Lady Bugs. Periodically, I have to show up and reclaim the space.

My goal list is simple: CLEAN OUT THE ATTIC is boldly printed at the top. Neatly indented under that line is 1: Separate into 4 piles — Keep; Garage Sale; Donations and Burn. 2. Sift, sort, box and organize the keepers. 3. Take donations away. 4. Set a garage sale date. 5. Light the burn pile!

Armed with vacuum, rags, cleaners, markers, razors and tape, I bravely climb the stairwell. Only bare light bulbs eerily cast shadows into the corners where unknown creatures lurk. Inevitably, I run smack into a huge spider web and hear skittering noises among the boxes. I jump and chills run down my spine.

Every year I ask myself the same question “Why are you doing this? Is this really important?” “Well, yes,” I answer. “You have to keep chipping away at the clutter. Things up there need sorting and cleaning. Besides, if you don’t do it now, when will you do it? In the dark, dreary days of rainy season? I don’t think so!”

Truth is, our attic mostly holds memories. It doesn’t hold real treasures of silver and gold. In fact, there’s very little up there that couldn’t be replaced at WalMart or even at most garage sales.

Part of the space is taken up with Christmas decorations. First, we have yard art: large decorative angels, deer, trees and signs. Then we have box after box of decorations, wrapping paper and even pinecones! Of course, these holiday items are all keepers. I call them “inventory.”

A majority of the space is taken up with summer items: umbrellas and stands, tables and chairs, fans, flower pots, etc. These seasonal items are also keepers, as are the boxes of books and Super 8 films.

Decision-making gets a little dicey when sentiment starts entering in. Do we keep our grown-up children’s long outgrown baby clothes? Well, of course, we do. My reasoning is this: We’ve already kept them 40-plus years. A little longer won’t hurt. Our grandchildren didn’t have their pictures taken in them but maybe our great-grandchildren will.

But maybe I’m wrong. Who knows? The jury is still out on this decision. So how about it kids, what do you think?

But there are more clothes decisions to make. My really nice square dancing outfits from years gone by are all boxed up. I saved them “just in case” we returned to dancing. Sadly, I don’t think that’s going to happen. This decision is a slam-dunk! Finally, something is going into the garage sale pile.

The next box of clothes I put in the ‘vintage’ category. Back in the day, people got seriously dressed up for special occasions. I’m talking chiffon and taffeta here. Way too charming to give away. So, I have kept formal dresses from dances, weddings and cruises dating from the 1950s.

Keeping them is very impractical. They’ll never be worn again. But then again, there are those future great-granddaughters. They might just love them. Hope springs eternal, you know.

Peering back into the deep recesses of the eaves I spy boxes that have been stored and ignored for 20 years. The time has come to attack them. They hold a lifetime of business paperwork and personal correspondence. Box after box has been unopened and untouched except for sticky spider webs and dying bugs. Ugh.

Shortly before moving to Oregon we sold our restaurant. Twice, while still in business, the IRS had audited us. We knew the value of keeping accurate records and receipts “just in case.” Well, we kept them way too long and now it was time to let them go.

Pound after pound of paper from those 8 boxes went out to the burn pile. The one exception was an unexpected treasure. Tucked in with payroll and tax records was a pair of alabaster bookends that we had purchased in Alaska in 1981. I wondered what happened to them. Now if I could just find the lazy susan that disappeared during the move.

The hardest boxes to open were the ones marked “correspondence” 1969-1988. Gulp. This was the pre-computer era. Friends and family actually wrote each other letters. I had saved every card, note and letter. Leafing through them brought such joy! What to do?

I quickly focused on the obvious. The commercial cards wouldn’t mean anything to anyone. They went to the burn pile. I spent hours sorting the notes and letters into categories: family, friends, church and business. I think that someday our kids will be surprised at how much written dialoging went on in our family.

On the last day Chuck ignited the burn pile that was piled high with summer’s debris. As it burned down we fed it box after box of material that documented our past but had no bearing on our present.

We wiped down the cobwebs, organized the boxes, vacuumed the floor and lost another 100 pounds to Goodwill. I shed a few tears and we both felt good about our collective efforts — until next year.

One final note: This column was inspired by a conversation with my friend who asked rhetorically, “Why do we save all of this stuff, anyway?” Here’s my theory — it’s not ‘stuff’ we’re saving. We’re saving memories. Memories that we hope will be passed down from generation to generation — forever and ever. That’s not creepy.

Betty Kaiser’s Chatterbox is about people, places, family, and other matters of the heart. 
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