My Precious Stuff
by Joesph O’Day
Inside a bureau drawer in my parents’ dining room, there’s a grayed envelope filled with old pictures. I take it in hand and wonder if I should do a quick flip-through, a close inspection, or store it for later. Maybe I should just throw it out, since I’m already overloaded with photos.
I’ve taken this August week off from work to clear my mother’s house and prepare it for sale. Since Dad’s death twenty years ago, Mom has lived alone in this large two-family, until the need for permanent nursing home care forced her to leave. At this moment, this first day of cleanout, the house’s sole occupants are seven decades worth of stuff, a testament to my family’s distaste for letting things go.
I inspect the envelope. Hidden beneath familiar prints are five 2 x 3 color photos, a family series—my mother and father, and Dad’s mother, father, sister and brother. They’re dressed formally, perhaps having been to church or a wedding. The day is sunny and dry, the background, the Salem Willows. My favorite is of Dad and Mom together. Dad’s in suit and tie, his arm around her waist. Mom’s in high heels and yellow dress, nestled into his side. They smile broadly. The date stamped on back is 1946. A year prior, my father had completed his World War II tour as an Army Medic. They’ll marry in three years, have my sister and me in eight. Mom told me how shy my father was when they dated. He was exactly what she wanted, a gentleman, quiet and mild-mannered, not savvy with women, physically strong and courageous. And a non-drinker; she’d witnessed enough alcoholism in her young life to want alcohol out completely. It’s a beautiful photo, something I’ll always treasure.
Realizing how close I came to trashing these pictures, I resolve to take the time necessary to scrutinize everything, even if it means making a clearinghouse of my own home. I begin packaging items using any containers I can find, including old wooden boxes having the musty smell of dust and grime.
On the second night, I wake up at two am in a panic, wondering if I’d discarded my little wooden bank, the one Mom gave me in grammar school. I rarely used it and forgot it existed until I touched it yesterday. But now I want it not to be gone, want it in place until I decide its fate. When I search the dumpster the next morning to no avail, I know it’s gone for good.
I discover the palm-size stainless steel transistor radio I used to listen to Boston Celtics games in the era of John Havlicek, Bill Russell, Sam Jones. I’d hide under my bed covers late at night so my parents wouldn’t know I was awake, our home team’s victories causing announcer Johnny Most’s sandpaper voice, and my joy, to rise to the stratosphere.
The ceramics. For years I witnessed my mother’s pride arriving home from ceramics class each week, carrying creations that would accompany us the next forty years. The beige French poodles, the small black dog, the big white cat. The basketball-size green turtle and frog, set on their respective parlor end tables. I’d sit between them having intimate conversations with my father about problems and sports and colleges and career choices. My mother would listen from the kitchen, preparing supper, shouting out perspectives and advice.
Day three arrives and my wife Kris comments on my expanding take-home list, saying she “hates clutter.”
A friend tells me there’s a term for my style of house clearing. “Hoarding,” she says. “It’s called hoarding.”
A cousin stops by offering to sell items at the flea market. When I mention I’ll keep the old kitchen set, he looks at Kris and says, “He’s bad!”
A month after the house is cleared, we’re walking with a friend on a sandy street towards his Hampton Beach cottage. Kris discloses objects I’ve brought to our house, underscoring how movers let slip my mother’s “sixty-year-old” couch, causing it to tumble down her staircase, tear off four balusters, and make her cry.
His advice, gathered from experience with his own parents’ house, is to “Throw everything into a dumpster.”
“But I want to preserve memories.”
“That’s what pictures are for.”
The pictures. Thumbing through my parents’ wedding album, I find several that I’ve seen for decades displayed throughout the house. I find others, less familiar, that seem more candid, more real. A young woman readies herself for marriage with friends, sharing her last moments of singlehood. Mom’s sister holds open a limousine door to help her exit, both of them so young, so happy, so hopeful. Dad and Mom kneel at the altar, expressions solemn, focused on the Priest’s instructions, making sure they’re getting things right. Mom laughs at a man’s comments in the reception line while Dad, standing next to her, wipes his lower lip. These do more than preserve memories. They broaden the picture of my parents’ lives, allowing me to view them in new ways, making me want to keep every photo, not just the flawless ones.
Day five. I can’t believe the pain I feel going through my parents’ belongings. I find letters from my father to Mom from overseas during the war, saying she certainly is not a pest, writing so much. I find items they especially valued in her cedar chest: my mother’s wedding garter, her wedding crown, the top of their wedding cake. When I show the top of the cake to Kris, she says it’s nothing special. I know she means it isn’t a special one; probably inexpensive, unremarkable. But to me, it is special. It’s the top of the cake that celebrated their joining. How can I eliminate something that was such an important part of their lives? Where is the utensil Dad used to bang the pipe to wake me early weekend mornings so I’d work with him at the carwash? Can I save it and somehow bring him back, just for a moment, just for the time it takes to tell him how much I love him, to hug him and not let go?
In a tender moment last night, after a tiring day, Kris told me that I have my memories and carry my parents inside. To take a few things of theirs and call it a day. “Filling up our house doesn’t bring them back.”
In the end, although I keep many of their possessions, including the turtle and frog, I relinquish countless others. I donate the kitchen set to the Vietnam Veterans of America, pieces of furniture to the Salvation Army, unsalvageables to the dumpster.
On the seventh day, except for a few remnants (refrigerators, electric stoves, leftover furnishings), the house is empty—old white paneled walls and ceiling lights with burned out bulbs and worn rugs with holes.
I do multiple final walkthroughs, stepping into each room, recalling scenes past. I’m in the cathedral ceiling attic and see my father as a boy, living in one of two unheated bedrooms, leaving a closet door open on winter nights, stealing warmth from the heated floor below. I see him years later, arriving home late one night, unannounced, on army leave, not wanting to disturb his family, sneaking up the back stairs to his attic room, getting discovered by his English Setter, Buddy’s frenetic barking causing his mother, father, and sister to wake, to join in on the dog’s jumping and kissing and welcoming home.
I take the back stairs to the cellar, see my father in retirement puttering with plumbing and wiring and furnaces, wearing coveralls that were his uniform for twenty-five years at his car wash. I see him on his last day of life, interrupted by my three-year-old daughter’s request to come outside through the bulkhead and witness her rope jumping prowess… one jump, stop… one jump, stop, her brown curly hair bouncing up and down,my wife telling me how he laughed his wonderful, blissful laugh.
The house will be sold “as is” on a Friday in October. The Sunday before closing, I check it one last time. Garages, attic, cellar, first floor—all clear. Second floor—clear, except for a lone paper scrap on a kitchen shelf. I lift and turn it over, discover it’s my grandfather John J. O’Day’s funeral mass card. He died on August 11, 1955, a year after I was born. He’d known me for a year but I would never know him, except in stories my father told, and in memorabilia I’ve recovered: his gold pocket watch; his winter police coat with its brass Salem Police buttons; his policeman’s badge; the silver Mayor’s Cup he won in 1916 for being the force’s best marksman; photos of him directing traffic, of him sitting comfortably in a yard chair outside the house he purchased in the early 1900s and would pass on to my father. I place his mass card inside my shirt breast pocket. I want to protect it until I can get home and add it to my valuables.
Joseph O’Day obtained his BA and MBA from Salem State University and BS from Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. He has served as the Director of Pharmacy at Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital since 1998. He has taken several graduate writing courses and is a long-standing member of Salem Writers’ Group. His writing focuses on the personal essay form, exploring family relationships and life transitions. Besides pharmacy and writing, he enjoys athletics and spending time with his family.