Sunday, August 30, 2009

Leaving home

This past week Merry, Joli & I were in Hanover, PA getting my mother's house ready for sale. My mother died in May at the age of 95. She was still living on her own in the house at 103 Third St. where she lived since the early 1950s. The house was built by my grandfather, William E. Pitts, around 1909 when he opened Hanover Heel & Innersole Co. Grandfather Pitts wanted his immediate family to live together so he built a nearly identical house right next door at 101 Third St. with separate apartments upstairs and down for his older children. When I was born my parents lived upstairs at 101. My father and his brother Bill managed the factory after my grandfather died. When my grandmother moved to Florida, we moved into 103. Because the house has been continuously occupied by the Pitts family for 100 years it accumulated layers and layers and layers of stuff.

My brother, Rick and his wife, Andy, worked steadily on cleaning out the house ever since mom died. They collected and donated her clothing. They sifted through and removed several layers of once treasured but now useless stuff from the attic. They diligently worked on the task of sorting drawers stuffed with stuff that had not been touched for decades.

I only had a week. When we arrived I sat down with my brother to make a plan. We agreed that Labor Day was a good target date for the end of the clean-out. We didn't know how we would get everything done by then, but it seemed like a good idea to pick a date. Merry ordered a big dumpster so we could more speedily proceed with the clean out. I decided to interview auctioneers and firm up hiring a real estate agent. My brother agreed to come back on Tuesday so we could do more planning. It would be an understatement to say we were daunted. We took a deep breath and began.

Interviewing an auctioneer is a unique experience. I walked through the house, top to bottom with two of them separately as they sized up the assorted stuff. Both are extremely experienced, with well established reputations. Both are named Randy. Randy #1 started working at the age of 5 at his father's auction house. Randy #2 started working at auctions 30 years ago while still in High School. Both had very convincing sales presentations. Randy #1 argued for an on-site auction in the house. Randy #2 wanted to do the auction at a hall rented from a local church. The costs worked out about the same. I decided to make a decision on Tuesday with my brother.

Meeting the auctioneers clarified our task considerably. They told us we were on the right track. They acknowledged we had done a good job so far, but both were a bit worried we would trash something valuable. Nothing more was to be put in boxes that they would just have to unpack later. Things should be left in place. Our job was to focus on finding and removing the personal items and the pure trash. Washing all the glassware would also help. They assured us they would clean out the house. Great. Labor Day was starting to look possible. My mood lightened a little.

At a pleasant dinner Tuesday my brother and I decided to hire Randy #2 to conduct an off-site auction.

For the rest of the week Merry and I hauled trash to the dumpster and searched for personal stuff. I went through about 1000 books and piles of dusty brittle papers in the attic piling the trivial and the terminally water damaged (and old Reader's Digests) into garbage bags that I hauled down to the dumpster. Merry sorted and washed every dish and piece of brick-a-brack in the kitchen and china closet. At one point I was reduced nearly to tears on discovering my mother had kept box after box of treasured stones collected during her trips. Hundreds of stones came to light in the garage, attic, cupboards, in mayonnaise jars in closets. I carefully piled them all in one spot by the driveway. We plodded on and on every day until we collapsed.

By Friday morning I just wanted to flee. I had to push myself to return to the house one last time. Merry seemed to be holding up better as she washed more dishes. I opened drawers to find old ashtrays, newspaper clippings, and tablecloths. I felt out of breath and anxious. I couldn't concentrate or decide what to keep or pitch. I told Merry I couldn't go on. I was on the verge of tears or possibly hysteria. Quite suddenly Mer also wanted to bolt. We just downed tools, locked the door and drove away. We left a lot undone.

I doubt I'll return to my boyhood home. I've been going back ever since I left for college in 1966. Now my ties are broken. I mourn the loss. I'm also happy to be free of the weight. It hard get a handle on this feeling. I hope to understand it better someday. For now I'm just happy to be back to my life in St. Louis.


  1. This is a story from a book I read a long time ago called “Through the Mickle Woods” by Valiska Gregory (Author), Barry Moser (Illustrator).

    I am not sure if it can be posted because of the copyright – But I wanted to share the story with you.


    In a kingdom long ago there was a weaver who spun stories out of thread. One day an owl as white as winter perched in a nearby tree.

    "I should like my story to be woven out of the clouds," said the owl.

    "As you wish," said the weaver.

    The owl brought the woman strings of clouds as round as pearls, but every time she tried to weave them in and out, they would dissolve as quietly as dew upon the grass.

    The owl blinked his great eyes. "Perhaps we should add some moonlight, " he said," the kind that shimmers on the water."

    "As you wish," said the weaver.

    But though the owl brought baskets of jeweled moonbeams, worth more than the king's own crown, the story's cloth would not take shape.

    "I do not understand," said the owl. "I have chosen beautiful things for the weaving of my story."

    "Ah," said the woman. "But sometimes the cloth will pattern itself whether we will or no. You must bring everything, things chosen and things not."

    The owl flew over mountains and through valleys. He gathered jade, green as ginkgo leaves, and raspberries, red as blood. He flew past peaceful villages and countries ravaged by war. And when he returned with all the things that he had found, the weaver smiled.

    "These will do," she said.

    She took the things the owl had brought - threads of sunlight fine as silk, and cobwebs gray as skulls - and wove them all together into a cloth.

    And when the owl pulled his story round him, it was so full of woe and gladness, so beautiful and strong, that when he stretched out his new-made wings, people thought he was an angel hovering in a breathless sky.

    ~ from Through the Mickle Woods
    by Valiska Gregory (Author), Barry Moser (Illustrator)

  2. Your post really captured the essence of something that is so very hard to articulate. In fact every time I tried to come up with my own words to respond, the words seemed to disappear before they are fully formed.

    So sharing the Things Chosen story was the best I could do at the moment (and since then).

    I am glad you could post it. And I would like to thank you for sharing your touching story.

    “…the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
    J.R.R. Tolkien