My husband comes from a long line of hoarders and my family is no slouch in that regard, either. Over the decades we have rationalized, strategized and even argued about whose junk needs to go. Of course, the definition of junk is a point of contention. For years I comforted myself with the notion that a successful marriage can be measured by the number of times you lug a piece of inherited furniture up and down the basement stairs before finally unloading it on one of your offspring. Little did I realize that our children might refuse to accept our treasures or worse, give them back when their tastes "evolved."
As for clearing our bookshelves by calling in dealers or donating them to libraries, forget it. They've got their own storage problems. We've tried putting boxes of books on the front lawn with signs saying "Help Yourself," but nobody seems to want the paperbacks my husband read as an undergraduate or the debut novels by still unknown writers that I have reviewed over the years. Still, we are game to try the lawn thing again with all the books we carted back into the house – if it ever emerges from under the snowbanks.
Some couples force themselves to get rid of stuff by downsizing to a condo or getting a divorce. We opted for a different plan: We bought my siblings out of the family cottage. As we stare dismally at our overloaded shelves, crammed closets and relics from bygone eras, one of us will say brightly, "Let's take that to the cottage" – a two-day drive away. "You are still acquiring," a slightly older couple gasped in amazement last summer, before delicately pointing out that instead of reducing our junk problem, the cottage had facilitated the accumulation of yet more chipped dishes and overstuffed easy chairs. Even worse, it has given us another inheritance headache: Will either, or both, or neither of our children want to take on the cottage when we really sink into our dotage?
I was having nightmares about the stack of boxes on the third floor falling through the ceiling as I sat underneath at my computer, processing yet more words and printing out more pages. Then by chance I came across They Gave Us Everything, by Plum Johnson, a memoir about caring for her senior parents and then dispersing the contents of their rambling 23-room house. Aside from designating a few keepsakes, Johnson's mother, who was 93 when she died, left it up to her four surviving children to divide up her possessions – including a wicker basketful of spice bottles that had gestated colonies of buzzing bugs, a gigantic hornets' nest running the length of the dining room ceiling and a cache of love letters. As a first-time author, Johnson is clearly in tune with the zeitgeist, for on Monday she won the $25,000 RBC Taylor Prize for literary non-fiction.
Despite a slow start, the book comes alive when Johnson moves back to her childhood home and starts sorting, categorizing and appraising the accumulated contents of her parents' lives. The dreaded task turns into a backwards journey through layers of impatience and hurt to discover the feisty individuals her mother and father were before they turned into parents – the aloof father who beat his sons and the distracted mother who found solace in gin.
I was anticipating that Johnson would end her book with stern admonishments about sparing your children a similar hassle by clearing out the attic so that they don't have to drive up with a truck (as I frequently warn my husband) and cart the treasures as well as the dross to the contemporary equivalent of the town dump. Instead, she and her brothers employ an ingenious lottery system to divvy up the spoils, followed by a round of old-fashioned horse-trading. In the process the grown children become closer to each other and develop a deeper understanding of their parents. Johnson has given me hope and a reason to procrastinate – which is almost as good as discovering a secret and empty storage room.