We’re born, we die — and we accumulate stuff


If selling my own house was not my idea of fun, selling someone else’s house stinks. And it’s not the selling, really: it’s the getting the house ready for the selling. It’s patching, sanding, and painting walls, shampooing carpet, making repairs, sprucing up landscaping, and most of all, getting rid of stuff. Actually putting the house on the market is the easy part.

My mother, who suffers from Parkin-son’s disease, has moved into an apartment in an assisted living community. It’s a beautiful place, and she is safe and well cared for by a fantastic staff. Its monthly cost is also pretty fantastic, and so my mother’s house must be sold to cover the rent for her, hopefully many years ahead. The house is not my childhood home: Three years ago, my parents closed escrow on this place the week my dad died. But it was still full of all the things my mother hadn’t sorted through from the last move, and had decided not to take with her to her new home.

Step One was to host a friends-and-family giveaway. My sister and I invited people close to our mother who might love the same things our mother had once picked out so meticulously. A cousin took the flatware, something she said she’d been planning to replace in her own kitchen. A niece took one set of dishes, which she will use as she moves out of her parents’ house and into her own place for the first time. A friend took the lawnmower, for which he wanted to pay us, but instead helped us by using his time and his truck to lug bigger furniture elsewhere. We offered framed photos back to the people depicted in them. We dispersed Christmas decorations. And in every corner, we confronted unbidden memories prompted by things.

My mother, revisiting her house one last time, decided there were some belongings she wanted to keep in her new, smaller place. In spite of my protests that she was clinging to unnecessary stuff, she took with her all of her crystal stemware, goblets and wineglasses and champagne flutes. She also rescued her French tapestry luggage, although she is unlikely to be doing much traveling. And I had to quiet myself, because these are her things, and I have to accept that they are important to her. I wrapped them all up, stowed them in the closet at her apartment, and tried not to think about the next time I might be moving them.

Step Two was the “estate sale,” which sounds classier than a garage sale, but is essentially the same event. A representative quandary from the sale: What to do with the badly done oil portrait of my maternal grandmother that her own daughter had stashed in the garage? My grandmother smiled benevolently from her ornate frame, a frame I considered putting aside for my artist daughter to salvage for her purposes. My uncle had the portrait done after their mother died in 1971, and I know that my mother never liked the photo from which the painting was copied. Which explains why it had been moved from garage to garage over the years and had never hung in any house. I put my grandmother’s face in the sale pile. Someone bought her. So it went, in the purge of a half-century’s worth of belongings. People arrived at the house, poked around, questioned and haggled, and carted away random items that spoke to them. Along with them, they took reminders and markers of times past for our family. Still, there was plenty left over after the sale to donate to Goodwill. “If you love your family, clean out your house. Get rid of stuff,” warned one of my daughter’s college professors, after she emptied the home of a friend after his death. Two of my daughters were at the estate sale, and took home a couple of their grandparents’ belongings — a breadbox, a candy dish — that they held dear. I had a sudden mental image of them, my daughters in the future, sorting through their mother’s ridiculous treasures, and offering them to strangers for a dollar — or how about 50 cents — like I had been doing all that morning. I vowed silently to go home and get rid of stuff.

My mother’s property is listed with a real estate agent now, and the contents that made it my mother’s home are gone. The rooms echo. My dad’s presence, never really established in that house, has been slowly erased since his death, although there were still vestiges of him in some of the boxes and bins in the garage. The place now smells of paint and Windex, as it awaits the next family whose lives will unfold within its scrubbed walls. The eventual sale, whenever it happens, will mark the end of my parents’ homeownership. We arrive in this world with nothing, and we leave with nothing, but there can sure be a lot of stuff, dishes and houses and escrows and sorrows and joys, the perishable and the intangible, in between life’s entrance and exit.

These are the opinions of Valerie Schultz, not necessarily those of The Californian. Email her at vschultz22@gmail.com.