Thursday, May 20, 2021

Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, into the attic we go -- May 20, 2021 column


A year ago, it seemed everyone in America who was stuck at home because of the pandemic was in cleaning mode.

My social media feeds were replete with triumphant tales of cleaned-out closets, garages and home offices.

I envied my industrious friends but had no such stories to share. I procrastinated.

I spent my time washing my hands and trying not to touch my face and chasing the holy grail of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes.

Now, while others enjoy post-vaccination freedom with trips to the beach and family reunions, I’m fully vaccinated indoors, tackling the attic.

It’s not my own attic that’s occupying my spare time this spring. It’s my late parents’ attic.  

My parents and I moved every three years while my dad spent his first career in the Air Force, but when he retired and launched a second career teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University in the 1970s, they stayed put.

Over half a century, they took a short set of pull-down stairs to stow all manner of things they thought they or their daughter might need or want someday.

The great essayist E.B. White wrote in “Goodbye to 48th Street” about clearing out his Manhattan apartment in 1957 before moving to Maine:

“A home is like a reservoir equipped with a check valve: the valve permits influx but prevents outflow. Acquisition goes on night and day—smoothly, subtly, imperceptibly.”

Taking advantage of a string of cool spring days, I enlisted Keith, my partner in crime, and our friend Kelli to help liberate objects from their dusty attic confinement.

Kelli is a woman of unstoppable cheerfulness, who, fortunately, is not put off by layers of dust. She even insisted she has seen worse. I appreciate her kindness.

Clearing an attic is physically taxing and surprisingly emotional. Objects become a family timeline. Long-forgotten memories flood back, item by item.

Christmas lived in my parents’ attic, but so did spare china, teacups and chafing dishes. I lost count of the discarded coffee pots. A note in my father’s handwriting on one electric pot said it worked well but failed to produce coffee hot enough for my mother.

A sewing machine and our old typewriters – electric and manual – are heavy enough to anchor a rowboat in a strong wind. Out-of-fashion glass ceiling light fixtures went to the attic with their old lightbulbs. An array of medical equipment sat ready for the next patient.

The attic teaches you about your family and yourself. I’d forgotten stashing my high school newspapers, college and grad school textbooks, notebooks, snapshots and letters as well as every brochure from my first solo trip to England in the 1970s.

Though we weren’t athletes, we accumulated a jump rope, badminton racquets, fishing gear, golf clubs, a bowling ball and croquet set -- all gathering dust.

When my mother died a few years ago and I bagged up her clothes for charity, I didn’t think to check the attic, where hanging garment bags contained mothballs and memories: evening clothes, handbags, footwear, and even a white Catalina one-piece swimsuit. She never gained an ounce so could have worn any of it into her 90s.

Some of my father’s military uniforms still had dry cleaner’s tags from Florida, indicating the uniforms accompanied them when they moved into the house.

There were also a few forgettable clothing pieces from my earlier incarnations: an alpaca poncho, bridesmaid dress and two formal gowns.

The long-forgotten trunk I’d shipped to college came home long ago to be filled by my parents with clips of newspaper stories I wrote. My dad filled his military footlocker with folders containing snapshots, tickets, letters, and other ephemera from his younger years.

E.B. White wrote about clearing out his apartment: “It is not a simple matter. I am impressed by the reluctance of one’s worldly goods to go out again into the world.”

I am, too. Possessions exert a hold on us, and it takes time to pick up every object and make a judgment on its future.

Eventually, though, my parents’ house will be ready for a new family to call home and to begin stashing their treasures in the attic.

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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