Thursday, August 18, 2011

Tourist or Pilgrim? Part 1

I’ve been semi-paralyzed for the past several days.

In the aftermath of trauma, it’s often that way.

When you’ve been in fight-or-flight stress for an extended period, there’s a feeling afterwards… when it finally stops… that reminds me of an antique rubber band that finally snaps. It just lies there, dead and flaccid, stretched beyond the point of elasticity or movement.

I ran across a good number of those broken bands last week.

They snapped as I picked up musty-smelling bundles of ancient letters. They snapped as I unrolled 19th century diplomas. They snapped as I rearranged stacks of black and white photographs of bomb-destroyed German towns. Every time a rubber band snapped, whatever had been held together spilled out into confusion and disorder.

I think I may have snapped, too.

My sister and I are experiencing a little PTSD.

The final dismantling of our childhood home was traumatic in every way: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. Our backs are messed up and our minds are mixed up. Our emotions are roiling, and we’re trying to interpret what it all means on a spiritual level.

It make take a while.

The things that were uncovered.

Unlike her firstborn daughter, my mother always kept an immaculately clean, neat, beautiful house. So no guessed Family Secret No. 1:

My father was a hoarder.

Actually, he was the son of hoarders, the grandson and great-grandson of hoarders, the great-great nephew of a hoarder. He was from a long and distinguished line of World Class Hoarders.

The further we got into the clean-out process, the more we discovered. The house looked perfect on the surface, but oh, what lay underneath! Box after box after stinky, rotting box. In the attic. In the cavernous basement. In the multitudinous wide closets throughout the house. In the storage rooms off the garage. Even in the bomb shelter.*

*(The house had been built in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Back then, it was a status symbol to have your own personal bomb shelter in case the Commies got riled again and nuked America. Originally, it was stocked with bunk beds, some kind of alternate air supply, candles, jugs of water and canned goods. Over the years, it morphed into a haunted house for my little sister and me, a wine cellar, and, finally, a depository of the overflow from the brimming basement. But it always reminded me of death.)

As did the boxes we unearthed in the last few weeks.

It was dead people’s stuff.

I don’t think my powers of description are sufficient to explain it adequately.

This is what must have happened: The first hoarder in the family saved every picture, every postcard, every dance card, every calling card, and every single solitary letter she ever received. Every stock certificate and land warranty and play bill. Political paraphernalia. Books. Newspaper clippings. Even hair clippings. Whole braids. (This wasn’t considered unusual or macabre in the 19th century.)

When she died, her son came into possession of these souvenirs of her life. I suppose he meant to go through it all one day. But then I suppose he got too busy living life to do it. And then I suppose he died and the same thing went on with his stuff. The relatives emptied drawers into boxes to take home and “go through one day.” But their lives got busy, and then they died, and then….

life happened and then death happened.

My father thought he would be the one to make sense of it all. After his retirement from practicing medicine, he hired secretaries to help him. He got them to transcribe his letters from Germany during WWII. He researched genealogy, going back centuries. He started copying and organizing the antique pictures and articles.

But his health fell apart before he could finish. The result is that things were even worse when he died… because there was twice as much, and it was all in different places.

And it wasn’t just papers and pictures we were bequeathed. A Renaissance Man, our father was a major Collector: Art, artifacts, coins, stamps. Thousands of records. Books. Nazi paraphernalia he brought back after WWII. National Geographics and Life Magazines from the ‘40’s. And the china, crystal, silver, and bric-a-brac of at least three generations. Plus their diaries and crumbling scrapbooks.

Much of the stuff we had to process in record time was historically or monetarily significant. So even though we had two double-wide dumpsters, we couldn’t just throw everything away.

Towards the end, that is exactly what we longed to do. It all seemed extraordinarily meaningless. Even sickening.

Here’s the irony: I was a history major. There was a time in my life when I would have been fascinated by this stuff.

But there was just so much of it that any joy of discovering keys from the past was obliterated by the crushing volume of it all.

It reminded me of when God gave the grumbling Israelites so much bountiful meat that they vomited up the surfeit.

Too much is as bad as not enough. If not worse.

There was even too much information. We found out some things we wish we didn’t know.

In the aftermath of the last frantic days of organizing, shredding, packing, and emptying, we felt utterly drained, bruised, fragile, and sad.

Trying to make sense of it all.

The overwhelming question is why?

Why did my father’s family hold on to so many things? Save so many souvenirs?

Returning to my own house after a day of hard work, I began looking around at things in a new light. There’s too much stuff there, too. Too many pictures. Too many books. Too many papers. Too many meaningless objects. My kids will be just as mad at me one day if something doesn’t change.

 I asked myself How did this happen?

A phrase emerged from the memory bank and challenged me:

Are you a tourist or a pilgrim?

I've been haunted by it ever since.

(to be continued.)



Lisa said...

As the only grandchild, one day I will be faced with my grandfather's childhood home. Not looking forward to it. Besides the things inside, what do I do with the family cemetery, land, and house that I will never inhabit?
As you know, in the South, ancestors mean everything. They often define who you are, so letting go family history is almost sacrilegious. O the guilt.

max harrell said...

Kim, Your blog is way to familiar to me. I have emptied three houses of relatives. It really gives you a clear view of "stuff" and a great appreciation of rollaway containers. I still have PTSD from the experiences. I walked into a home of a friend's mother who had just recently moved into assisted living and I had a reoccurance of the same feelings, it made me physically sick. The sight, the smell and the memories, argggg. I am sure you and your sister are exhausted. My experience has changed my way of living, I actually save very little anymore. I could certainly be a very active member of the local chapter of children & relatives of hoarders!
Love & blessings to you, btw, I so loved the photos of your beautiful "Amanda", give her extra hugs and loves from your readers.
Carol Harrell

ashli said...

the pictures of the "history" you uncovered are very interesting, i'm sure sentimental, and worthy of someone wanting to keep it.

that said, after going through what you have gone through, how will you do it differently? what will you keep? what will you not? as a "semi" hoarder myself, how can i simplify?

hoping that as time moves on your sadness and exhaustion will pass. my prayers are with you.

The Mom said...

After going through this process with my mother-in-law (it took us just short of three years to sell the house and divide all of the possessions) and watching my own mother at 80 trying to deal with her 103 year old mother's lifetime of accumulation, I made a hard and fast decision. I hired a young friend who does interior design and theatrical stage design to come and re-arrange my house and purge whenever possible. The Husband and I were gone for five days and came home to a vastly different house -- one much more streamlined and with much less clutter. My designer friend let me keep only 1/10 of what I was emotionally attached to and it was a great lesson. I have also recently opened a booth in an antique mall and am watching others purchase my old things and finding joy in seeing their happiness as they "discover" a new treasure. Let it go, sister. We are not taking any of this stuff with us where we are headed...Hallelujah! I want to have my house ready and my lamp full when He calls!

Anonymous said...

After looking at the picture of one of those handwritten letters, I must say our ancestors had better penmanship than we do! Did you know they are not teaching cursive anymore in public school? At least not the one my nephews attend. Anywho- this post was very meaningful to me. I went home last night and looked at all the "stuff" I have. A lot of it very nice and passed down from generation to generation etc... Then I think of my grandfather who recently passed and all of the "stuff" he left behind. I believe he is with Lord now, and I have a feeling that he is not thinking about the old yearbook from the school he went to for less than 6 months that is for some reason now in my possession. But God help the anxiety I get when thinking about trashing it!! I am praying for your physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional healing and restoration. much love, blair

~from my front porch in the mountains~ said...

I feel like Lisa, as an only child. My aunt (my Dad's older sister) still lives in the family home all 4 siblings were born in. NOTHING has ever been cleaned out since the home was purchased in the 1920's. As a collector of all things vintage and antique (I also have space at a local shop with things to see)I would love to begin cleaning out the home now. For my family see what is important. My aunt will have none of it! My father has tried to reason with her to no avail.
I feel for you, Kim. Someday, I will someday be in your shoes.
God Bless.
xo, misha

Beverly Varnado said...

Kim, Prayers are with you. I've had a similar experience, but at least I had months to cart off all the stuff. My situation also made me acutely aware of what I might leave behind and how those clearing the deck after me might be forced to discard without having the time to consider an item's importance. Best to deal with it now, I keep telling myself.