Thursday, October 29, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 7

Life with Grandma was a peaceful one. A lot of the clutter and chaos that had defined our lifestyle when my siblings still lived at home moved out. While not especially meticulous, she kept the house reasonably tidy. She was frugal, quiet, helpful and loving.

She cooked some weird, old-fashioned stuff, like watermelon rind pickles and candy made out of orange peels. Grandma picked buckets full of wild Russian olives to can. She knew how to make wine out of the berries that grew along the banks of the irrigation ditch. Unfortunately, she was not the creative and passionate cook that my mother had been. I tried to stay away from home on macaroni and cheese night. Her mac-n-cheese was the color and consistency of shoe leather. When it was just at the peak of chewiness, she squirted about a half a bottle of ketchup all over the top and baked it an extra fifteen minutes, just to guarantee its unpalatablity. Grandma’s cooking may have lacked pizazz, but to her credit, she never left pans soaking on the back of the stove.

Everything about her appearance was practical and understated. She did not use makeup or perfume, always wore the same pair of black orthopedic shoes, and never spent more than thirty-five seconds in front of a mirror. Mostly, her wardrobe consisted of clean snap-up-the-front house dresses that she purchased mail-order from the “Monkey Wards” catalog.

Under the surface, however, ran a precious vein of pure feminine gold. One day she bought herself a very expensive formal gown, went to the beauty shop to get her hair done, and then had her portrait taken at the local photographic studio. “Every girl should do that once in her life,” she said. For my sixteenth birthday she bought me a pretty pink hair brush and told me that if I brushed my hair one hundred strokes each night, it would shine like a new colt. In her spare time she devoured Harlequin Romance novels and told stories of how she fell in love with my grandpa.

Grandma saw and admired in me youthful beauty and hope. She listened to my ridiculous boy chatter. She knew all about my dreams of domestic perfection, and never once rolled her eyes. For my high school graduation she bought me my own expensive formal gown. In my mother’s absence Grandma became a dynamic influence in my life.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 6

By the time Momma died, all my siblings were grown and gone. Now alone as a single dad raising a way-too-cute-for-her-own-good teenage daughter, Daddy needed help. He invited his widowed mother to live with us. Grandma was very different from my mom: This fact by itself would have made her highly suspect, even if I had not already disliked her for as long as I could remember. Momma and Grandma never really got along. On second thought, that is not entirely true. They got along all right, somehow always managing to be civil to one another, but neither of them had been happy about it.

Grandma was a no-nonsense kind of woman. Nonsense had been my mom’s middle name. Momma coddled children, bought every new gadget, and visited Disneyland once a year. Grandma pinched pennies, crocheted baby blankets out of thrift store yarn, never went to Disneyland, and, as far as I knew, never coddled anyone, most especially herself.

Before moving in with us, my only vivid memory of her was when I was four years old. Grandma came to stay with us one of the times that Momma was in the hospital. She had fixed us kids a proper meal which was to be eaten at a proper table with the proper utensils. In an age of the Red Skelton Show, Man from U.N.C.L.E., Sing Along with Mitch and, best of all, TV trays, we rarely did such a thing. Grandma told me to sit up straight and cut my meat. I didn’t know how, and I must have told her so in a way that she mistook for insolence. She quietly excused herself from the table, walked out to the drainage ditch and cut a willow switch. Without a word of explanation, she spanked me and instructed me to obey. I was a quick learner. I sat up straight, cut my meat and decided from that day forward that she was a mean grandma.

Every little kid needs a grandma-type lady to adore him unconditionally. Grandma Mollart was not that kind of lady, but I had two other old ladies who filled that role quite nicely. My mother’s mother, Grammy, lived in Southern California. Laden with as many presents as the bonnet of her 1962 Chevy Corvair could hold, she came to visit us once a year for the expressed purpose of spoiling us rotten. Her twin sister, Aunt Doll, lived in another house on our ranch, and worked hard at spoiling us the rest of the time. I saw absolutely no need for Grandma Mollart to move in.

She could live with us and try to take care of me, if she wanted to, but I made up my mind not to love her. Grandma was a quiet woman who worked hard and kept to herself most of the time. Not loving her would be easy. Besides already having Aunt Doll to love, I was going to be too busy with school, 4-H, square dancing and boys to worry about Grandma’s impact on my life. Besides that, a couple of weeks after Momma died I started my first job, so I would not really have to interact with her, if I didn’t want to.

I worked at the only dry cleaner and shirt laundry in the county. We washed, pressed, folded and delivered uniforms and linens for the National Guard and most of the hotels and restaurants within a sixty mile radius. It was physically very hot and strenuous work. The shirt laundry department averaged temperatures in excess of one hundred degrees with humidity at around eighty-five percent. I lost about ten pounds in the first eleven days of work and became very, very sick.

I missed work and stayed in bed miserable, sweating and retching. Grandma brought me cool cloths; she changed my sheets, and emptied the garbage pail next to my bed. When I was better, I said distantly, “Thank you for taking care of me. You have been very kind.”

Grandma was visibly taken aback. “Why, darlin’!” she said in surprise, “You’re one of my babies! Of course, I would take care of you: I love you!”

I was shocked, and a little embarrassed. How on earth could she possibly love me? After all, I was only one of her twenty-seven grandchildren. She barely knew me. Worse than that, I was one of the four that belonged to my mother, whom she had clearly never liked. I was afraid to love her back. To do so would have seemed almost a betrayal. Despite my resolve, I opened my heart a crack and decided to give her a chance.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Chapter Two--page 5

I yearned for the type of home life I saw around me. I wanted a home and a family like Carol's, where children were fed neat snacks on pretty plates. I longed to lift a lovely vase of flowers and see a smiling reflection. I wanted to look around me and see a beautiful home to match the shining furniture. I wanted a clean car and a real garage. I wanted a groovy, smartly dressed mom. I wanted a handsome dad who wore a tie to work. I wanted white shag carpeting. I yearned for a manicured lawn where children could play quietly behind a white picket fence.

I adored my parents. I wouldn’t have traded my family for Jill’s or anybody else’s, but I believed that, because our house didn’t look like others, we were different and somehow wrong. I knew I didn’t measure up: What I longed for most of all was a Pledge-polished reflection that was worth a smile.

My heart ached for beauty and order. I couldn't wait to grow up and have a house of my own. I was sure that when I got to be a mom, things were going to be perfect. I confided my dreams with my favorite stuffed duck, Waltzing Matilda. She and I spent my birthday money that year on a box of Grape Nuts and practiced preparing neatly served snacks on little sage-green Melmac plates and cups to my baby dolls out in the playhouse every day.

Eventually I got too old for such things. Waltzing Matilda retired to the Easter basket from whence she came and lived out the rest of her days somewhere in the clutter on the top shelf of my closet. My dad, of course, filled the playhouse with more stuff.

Though I was too old to pretend, I never stopped playing house, and I clung tightly to my secret ideals. Throughout my teen years I diligently honed my skills at cooking, baking, sewing and handcrafts. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, Momma was blind and bed-ridden. She had taught me everything she could, so mostly, I learned by doing. During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, my mom passed away.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chapter Two--page 4

I was vaguely aware that our home and family looked different than those of my friends. My friend, Andrea, had seven brothers and sisters, a perky mom and a handsome professional dad who wore black horn rimmed glasses and a tie to work every day. Their kitchen had beautiful shiny tile, a gleaming stainless steel sink, and an island with a counter top stove, just like the Brady Bunch. Another friend, Carol, lived in a home with dark hardwood flooring that probably reflected her mom's face when she waxed it. One summer afternoon we played in their carefully groomed back yard while her parents napped. When she awoke, Carol's mom gave us each a nutritious snack of neatly sliced apples served on clean china plates, which she had removed from paper-lined shelves, and cold chocolate milk in pretty little crystal juice glasses. Then she drove us to the movie theater in her clean air conditioned station wagon, which the family kept in their neatly organized garage. At my house we ate cold leftovers from the refrigerator staight out of the Tupperware, drove a Chevy wagon that my sister had crashed into a herd of cows, and on a good weekend, we got paid a penny apiece for every fly we killed.

At my eleventh birthday party a girl named Jill, who lived in a house with a fashionably decorated sunken living room covered in soft white shag carpeting, said my house looked like crap. Her words stung.

Part of me knew what she was saying was true, but I was just a kid, so I didn't understand what made the difference between her home and mine. I thought maybe the difference was money. Maybe if we were richer, we would have a cleaner house. Maybe it was my mom. Jill's mom was a teacher, and mine was a housewife who was sick all the time. Maybe it was because we lived in the country, and Jill lived in town. Maybe town people had better houses. Maybe our house was too big; maybe it was too small. Maybe it was too old; I didn't know. I felt angry at her bad manners, powerless to defend my family, and ashamed that I was somehow different. Mostly, though, I felt longing.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Chapter Two-- page 3

We kids did all of the housework because Momma was not a Pledge-commercial-type lady. She did not flit about with soft white cloths dusting and smiling at the furniture. She did not do the cleaning at all. My mom was sick most of the time. As a young wife, she had suffered through the loss of three stillborn babies. After ten miscarriages, it took her a total of seventeen pregnancies to get four live children. She was diagnosed with diabetes a couple of years before I was born, and when I was just a baby, she got cervical cancer. She survived it, but never really recovered emotionally. In addition to that, the diabetes caused degenerating discs, kidney failure and blindness. Despite her illness, she was a great lover of fun, so when she was feeling well enough to get out of bed, housework was not a priority.

She was probably the most creative and intelligent woman I have ever known, and when she was able to work, she worked hard. Momma could read a cookbook with the excitement and intrigue of a novel, then get up and fix amazing new dishes for supper. She canned bushels of tomatoes from the garden, and at slaughtering time she prepared tons of meat for the freezer. She also loved sewing and every kind of needlework and handicraft. She had shelves, tables, boxes and bins filled with craft magazines, yarn, fabric, paint, ceramics, needlepoint, and Craft-of-the-Month Club kits just waiting for her eager hands when she felt well enough to do them. Like my dad, there seemed to be nothing she couldn’t do. I think the one exception might have been housecleaning.

In our family culture, now that I think about it, once-a-week housecleaning during the hours between cartoons and American Bandstand by four under-skilled, and for the most part unwilling, minors actually made sense.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Chapter Two--page 2

I remember one particular Saturday when my sister returned from spending the night with her best friend, Leah Robinson.

"Did you know that the Robinsons clean their kitchen after every single meal?" she said.

"What? They, like, do the dishes three times a day?" She had piqued my interest.

"Not only that, but they put every dish away in the cupboard and actually clean everything in the kitchen every time! They even sweep and sometimes mop."


I couldn’t imagine why anyone would ever clean a kitchen if she didn’t have to, let alone choose to do it two or three times a day. It seemed so impractical.

Of course, we did the dishes. Almost every day. Each of us kids was assigned dish duty for a week; so when the sink was full, or we ran out of clean drinking glasses, the designated washer got to work. If we were really lucky, Momma would burn something to the bottom of a pan. That way we could leave it soaking at the back of the stove, maybe for days. Maybe long enough until it was the next kid's turn. If the pans weren't dirty enough to soak, George would sometimes hide them under his bed until it was Clark's turn. Then Clark had the option to either wash them or to leave them soaking until my turn the next week. When, or if, the pans got washed was a crap shoot. But, all bets were off if our mom needed them for cooking. Eventually one of us would have to do it. Once washed, the dishes rarely made it back into the cupboard. With the balance and skill of circus professionals, we could stack a mountain of plates, cups, glasses, pans and lids to air-dry in a single ordinary dish drainer.

As for the rest of it, RoxAnne and I had kitchen duty every Saturday. We cleaned the kitchen once a week whether it needed it or not. It needed it.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Chapter Two

By the time life had slammed me headlong into the 47 yard dumpster and left me for dead in my own clutter, I was no stranger to change. I had been writing and teaching classes about organization for more than a decade by that time. Most visitors to my home saw it as a peaceful, orderly place, and mostly that was true, if they didn't look too closely. I had already come a long way from my messy upbringing on the ranch.

When I was growing up, housework was strictly a weekend affair. For me, Saturday meant three things: Scooby-Doo, American Bandstand, and cleaning. Getting to watch Scooby-Doo was easy. All I had to do was emerge from my bed and pick the sleep-sand out of my eyes early enough to watch Scooby and the gang, followed by their Hanna-Barbera cohorts, entertain me with their madcap misadventures from 7 to 9 every Saturday morning. If it were a really good Saturday, I could catch the Bugs Bunny/Roadrunner Hour, and maybe even Super Friends. Being a Saturday morning couch potato came naturally. I loved it.

Getting the opportunity to watch American Bandstand, however, was not so easy. If I had any hope of giving that new song an 89 "‘cuz the beat was good, but I didn’t like the lyrics," my siblings and I would have to work. The time between cartoons and American Bandstand was always stressful. That was the time we would clean the house.

Don’t get me wrong. When I say "clean," I mean it in only the most technical sense. Cleaning products were sprayed about, fighting and bad tempers ensued, brooms and mops moved from here to there, but our house was never actually clean: Not like Brady Bunch clean, or the house on Bewitched clean or Pledge-commercial clean. You know, on Pledge commercials where the mom lifts the lovely bouquet of fresh cut flowers from the center of the dining room table, sprays the Pledge, wipes it with a soft white cloth, and stops to admire her own reflection on the shiny surface? Uh-uh. Not our house. Never happened.

Saturday morning cleaning always began with my dad and a broom. Our house had concrete floors covered with linoleum, which, I suppose, made Saturday morning clean up so much simpler. Daddy would take a straw broom and sweep everything in his path to the center of the living room into a big pile. Then he would yell, "Whatever is still here in five minutes goes into the trash!" We four kids would scramble to grab cardigans, Barbies, G.I. Joes, moon shoes, stuffed animals, homework and jewelry as fast as our anxious little hands could go because we knew, for sure, that my dad never lied.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Chapter One--page 7

When I refer to 47 yards, I mean cubic yards. A cubic yard is the measurement of a box which is three feet by three feet by three feet. The dumpster was seven feet wide, eight feet high and twenty-three and one-half feet long. With swinging doors in the back that opened to its full width, it could have easily held four square-dancer-bedecked old Plymouths parked end to end and stacked on top one another. By the time we were done, we had filled and emptied it four times at a cost of $500 per dump. We spent $2000, physically exerted ourselves harder than we had since the Disco era, and betrayed our dad's wishes all in one horrendous weekend. We tried to assuage our feelings of guilt by leaving the swinging doors unlocked for scavengers who might want to dig for treasure. That's what Daddy would have done.

After spending three days hoisting mouse-chewed Barbie dolls, broken 78 records from my mom's teen years, unlabeled photographs of people long since passed, drawers full of old grocery and gas receipts, broken tools, rusty cabinets, unfinished craft projects, and piles of dead vacuum cleaners into the dumpster, I became sick. I stayed in my motel room bed for two days, lifting my head from the pillow only to vomit. I doubt that it was the flu or food poisoning: We all ate the same food, and nobody else in the family got sick. I believe it was a very visceral response to the overwhelming pain within my spirit. This was the one final and worst betrayal of all: I was desperately unhappy, and that is the thing my Daddy would have wanted the least. Had he known that storing all that stuff would cause me so much pain, he would never have kept it.

When I was finally able to function, I took the six-hour drive back home with a few precious bits of my inheritance. Ordinarily, Thanksgiving weekend marks the beginning of the Christmas season for my family. We crank up the Christmas music, put up the tree, drink cocoa and deck the halls. Not this year. Too depressed and exhausted to care about Christmas at all, I collapsed on the couch and surveyed the pictures covering the walls of my own living room, my bookcase stuffed with dozens of books, the furniture, knick-knacks, memorabilia, toys and collections that I treasured in my own home. Then I thought about my garage full of unfinished projects, my own basement stacked with storage boxes, my kitchen drawers and cupboards filled to capacity with gadgets, and my craft room overflowing with good intentions. I wondered to myself how much of it my kids might someday be forced to toss into a rented dumpster. Emotionally spent and physically puny, I made the decision to change.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Chapter One--page 6

That is what made our decision to throw away his stuff so horrible. If Daddy could see what we were doing he would have been rolling over (more like spinning) in his grave.

Most children find contentment in fulfilling their parents' final requests as one last act of honor and obedience. Two of my childhood friends went to great pains to scatter the ashes of their dad, Doc, who was an avid fisherman, in all the places he had loved. Some of Doc went into a swath of irises in the cow pasture above his favorite bass pond. A bit of him ended up in a wildflower meadow on the shore of a special brook trout lake, and just a pinch went into his late wife's rose garden. Even though they had not hiked the trail in over twenty-five years, the girls even made a special memorial hike up to a wilderness area to scatter his remains where the family had backpacked every Summer while they were growing up. They felt peace and joy at knowing that Doc's body would eventually become an organic part of the nature that he so loved. My friend even chuckled at the irony that, if a little of Doc washed into the lake, the fishies might get the last word and nibble on him.

My siblings and I found no such contentment. A combination of circumstances mixed with the daunting reality of his junk had forced our hands to do exactly the opposite of what we knew Daddy would have wanted. Clark and I had moved hours away to opposite corners of the state, and RoxAnne lived halfway across the country. Poor George, who lived only a few miles away, could not, and should not, have had to handle it on his own. As now the four legal owners of the property, we each had to agree to the terms of sale and sign a contract with the realtor. Thanksgiving weekend was the only time all four of us could take time off work. In the three months between Daddy's death and this weekend when we were legally free to deal with his property, thieves had stolen most anything that they believed could be sold. Even if we had the heart to let strangers rummage through everything to pay a quarter here and a dime there for the remaining clutter at a yard sale, we simply did not have the time to organize one. We salvaged what sentimental treasures we could, borrowed my uncle's front end loader, and used it to shovel everything into a 47 yard dumpster.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Chapter One--page 5

I think the main reason my dad kept so many things was his deep sense of values. He believed it wrong to discard things that were still useful. Reclaiming something that was even nominally functional was more virtuous than buying anything new. A child of the Great Depression and a World War II veteran, Daddy had lived through some very hard times. I have heard that people from his generation hold onto their possessions out of fear, a very real fear that they might once again find themselves in want. When this fear turns pathological, newspapers report that a little old lady from Cincinnati died of suffocation under a mountain of egg cartons or that paramedics couldn't find a stroke victim inside a ten-foot-high yellow maze of National Geographic magazines. A healthy fear of want, however, results in frugality. Daddy was frugal, but not miserly. Frugality, while it is a great virtue, was not his primary motivation to keep so much stuff.

Inside one of the sets of school lockers we found about twenty old metal Thermoses. A few had their insulated glass liners. Most had lids. Some still had cups. Marred by rust, chipped paint, and lime scale, they all had a bad case of ugly. He wasn't saving them for fear of never again being able to afford a locker full of Thermoses: He knew that he didn't need them, but with some elbow grease and a few new glass liners, they were still good. Neither was he saving them to save money: A new glass liner, if you can find one, is just about as expensive as an entire Thermos. He wasn't hoarding them out of a fear of want: He was saving them out of a sense of duty. If anything could, with even the remotest possibility, be reused, he was under moral obligation to save it. Like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer on the Island of Misfit Toys, my dad found his worth in redeeming things that the rest of the world had cast aside.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Chapter One-- page 4

Daddy didn't cram a ranch-ful of stuff into a twenty-eight by fifty foot shed for selfish purposes. My dad was not a hoarder. That's right, I said, "not." Hoarders are people who cling to their possessions. Hoarders seize, clutch, grasp, stockpile (don't you just love the thesaurus?) with tight fists, clenched teeth, and the determination that, like Scarlett O'Hara, they "shall neva, neva be hungry again." Daddy did not squirrel away ten years worth of Better Homes and Gardens in neatly stacked green plastic milk crates because he wanted the blue ribbon recipes for himself. No, somebody somewhere might need them someday. They might be exactly the thing that a poor decorating-challenged-recipe-deprived lady had been looking for all her life. And wouldn't you know it? TA DAH! There they would be. He always had the presence of mind to save important things like that. He hung onto everything just in case: Just in case the neighbor's old Kirby snapped a belt. Just in case a young couple was moving into a new house and needed a dishpan of mismatched flatware, or just in case a rancher friend lost his very last baling wire twisting tool. My dad was not only ready, but also eager to help.

Daddy was sentimental. Stored among the debris I found a tiny box which contained just two china plates and two china cups with a note in my dad's own handwriting that read, "Beverley and I--First Thanksgiving '49." My dad loved a good story, and better yet, he loved to tell and retell his own. The story of the little plates and cups, however, is one that I had never heard. Before their elopement in mid-November 1949, neither of my parents had lived on their own. Daddy brought Momma back to an empty house on his mother's ranch, and once there, I suppose, they must have purchased just one plate and one cup for each of them to celebrate their first holiday together alone. How special was that short note and its little sentimental treasure hidden among the stacks and piles! I rejoiced like an archaeologist unearthing a single priceless artifact in a vast desert wasteland. That china and its precious note were proof of my dad's undying love for my mother even beyond the grave. He kept lots of other sentiments, too, from our rusted-out steel school lunch pails to his grandmother's steamer trunks filled with baby clothes and bric-a-brac. Some of the things brought beloved memories to mind as we sorted between treasure and trash. Others kept their secrets, sentiments lost at our father's passing because, unlike the china plates and cups, he did not write their stories.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Chapter One--page 3

In its heyday our ranch had six outbuildings : a chicken house, a workshop, a pump house, a real fully operational outhouse, an extra building that was dubbed "Georgie’s Room" because that was where my brother George slept when he came home on leave from the service; and, hallelujah, my play house, where one very special stuffed duck named Waltzing Matilda and I practiced the domestic skills which have served me well to this day. These buildings, with (perhaps) the exception of the outhouse which contained only what one might expect, were filled to capacity with all the things necessary to do everything in the whole world. They functioned in varying degrees of organization from Daddy's workshop in which every nail, nut, screw and molly had its own baby food jar to the chicken house, where stuff got left to be pooped on.

After our mom passed away and the four of us were grown, Daddy sold the ranch, packed up the house and six outbuildings, and moved to a double wide mobile home on a third-acre lot just outside of town. Behind his mobile home he built the shed where my siblings and I spent this Thanksgiving weekend dumping a lifetime of clutter into a rented dumpster.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Chapter One--page 2

Not only can ranchers do everything in the whole world, but they also own everything they need to do it. Such was the case with my dad. He held onto precious antiques passed down from generation to generation, plus everything he had ever been given, all the things he had ever scavenged from the dump, anything he had ever purchased new from a store, and especially those treasures for which he had haggled every weekend at a yard sale. Everything he owned seemed to hold a higher purpose. Where others might have seen the wooden console from a busted old TV set, Daddy saw a new bookshelf. A dead refrigerator could double as a meat smoker. He once sculpted a really terrific hood ornament out of two bowling trophies that he picked up at a yard sale. One trophy was a male bowler and the other female, each with its right arm back ready to swing the ball. He removed them from their wooden bases, cut off their little bowling balls, soldered their left hands together, and proudly presented them to me.

"Look at the hood ornament I made for your car!" he beamed.

At seventeen I drove a 1967 Plymouth Barracuda, with like, I don’t know, maybe three million miles on it. I think my dad paid $150 for it in the mid-1970's. While serious auto enthusiasts would give their eye teeth for that car today, at the time it was just an old Plymouth.

"What’s that supposed to be?" I didn’t mean to be rude, but I was, after all, seventeen.

"It’s a hood ornament. They’re square dancing, see?"

Okay, so now my story becomes a gutsy tell-all autobiography: Here is where I reveal a fact that even some of my closest friends do not know: I was an avid square-dancer in high school. My best friend, Holly, wore platforms and knew all the movements to "YMCA." I secretly dressed in pantaloons and knew the difference between a Do-Si-Do and a Right and Left Grand. The little bowling trophy people were clearly engaged in a Right and Left Grand.

While I was moved by my dad’s thoughtful gesture and impressed further by his ingenuity, I had no intention of driving to school in an old Plymouth with square dancing bowlers bolted to the front of it. He ended up attaching them to our front gate post right over the "A 4-H Member Lives Here" sign. Just so there’s no confusion here: Yes, we were class A nerds.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Chapter One-- page 1

"That’s what you get for having bad taste, Mom," said George as he tossed the ashtrays into the bucket of my Uncle Clifford’s front end loader. The ashtrays were a perfect set of three in graduating sizes that nestled inside one another. Greeny-blue with scrolled brown edging and white notches to hold burning cigarettes, they were somewhat the shape and color of Gumby’s head on a bad hair day. The set was in mint condition: Nobody in our family smoked. The ashtrays had rested on our living room coffee table for as long as I could remember in preparation, I suppose, for a visit from a group of three smokers who had aversions to sharing the same ashtray, and who needed something really hideous into which they could tap their burning ashes.

When I was kid, I didn’t think about whether or not the ashtrays were stylish or ugly, whether we needed or loved them. I never once thought about whether or not having a set of three ashtrays of any description sitting forever on a the living room coffee table in a house full of non-smokers made any sense at all. The ashtrays were just there, along with a zillion other things piled, stacked, and messy in our home. And, now, here they were, fodder for the 47 yard dumpster.

Our hearts ached as we watched them hit the bottom of the rusty metal loader scoop. All four of us, Clark, George, RoxAnne, and I stood speechless, gazing down dumbly at the ashtrays. They didn’t break, at least not right away. I yearned to reach in and snatch them back. After all, they were still good. Somebody might want them. I might want them. They were a part of my childhood, not a significant part, but they had belonged to my precious departed mom and dad. Throwing them unceremoniously into the bucket of a rusty old tractor seemed almost sacrilege. I resisted my urges and returned to the task at hand: hefting a green metal teacher’s desk and a 1955 set of New Standard Library Encyclopedias on top of the ashtrays. When the bucket was full, my nephew, Justin, backed up the front end loader, raised the scoop, and headed for the dumpster.

My dad, a widower, had passed away three months earlier and had left behind a twenty-eight by fifty foot shed which was filled from the floor up to its sixteen foot ceiling with stuff. He had even taken the time to build shelves up in the rafters. With barely a pathway to move through the building, my siblings and I had but one weekend to deal with his stuff. Boxes of stuff. Crates of stuff. Shelves of stuff. Bins of stuff. Old high school lockers filled with stuff. Some of it, like my mother’s silver tea service, were valuable. Other things, like stacks of apple boxes filled with photographs, held our precious childhood memories. Many items, like the set of three 1950's nesting Gumby-head-shaped ashtrays tugged at our hearts. Most of the stuff, however, like the locker filled with broken vacuum cleaner parts and tractor gears, made no sense whatsoever. Daddy was gone, and his children had to deal with what he left behind.

My dad was a rancher. Ranchers are the most amazing people on the planet: They know how to do absolutely everything. If the crew of Apollo 13 had had a rancher on board, they never would have spoken those immortal words, "Houston, we have a problem" because the rancher would have come up with a solution and fixed it before Jim Lovell would have had the chance to pick up the radio. Those of you who have known ranchers know what I say is true. If you have never experienced the pleasure of a rancher's acquaintance, I highly recommend that you rush right out to the country this weekend and meet one. You will quickly find that they are more dependable than the auto club, more knowledgeable than a Harvard professor, more helpful than an Eagle Scout and more ethical than most clergy. My dad was such a man. If you needed your cow butchered, your fences mended, or your chickens caught, my dad was your man. He could adjust a rooftop TV antenna in the middle of a snow storm, and fix a sewage pipe down in the place where even angels feared to trod, the crawl space under our house. The man was the Superman of self-sufficiency. He built our entire house out of surplus World War II ammo boxes in the days before the county enforced strict building codes. Once while on vacation, on the side of a winding mountain road in Yosemite National Park, he replaced the rear axle of our family station wagon filled with four kids and a hysterical wife. He could tar paper the roof, chop the firewood, get up several times each night to keep the fireplace stoked in the winter, milk the cow, slop the pigs, plant the garden, groom the horses, repair the swing set, tend the sick, bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and fall asleep in the Barcalounger during the Ed Sullivan Show every Sunday night.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Before the First Step

I've heard that the journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step. That is not entirely true. Maybe it's true for a toddler escaping out the front door heading for stray doggies to pet, old gum to chew, and endless unperceived possibilities to kill oneself in the most adorable fashion imaginable. Maybe it's true for teenagers whose only thought before a thousand mile journey is how many members of the opposite sex they might meet on the way to Potter, Kansas, or what to do if the bed in Great-Aunt Mildred's guest room smells like dust and Bengay. Maybe it's true for dads who honestly believe that plans are for sissies, and bladders magically hold more when seated on the passenger side.

For moms, however, the journey begins long before that first step. Every journey begins with an inkling, a suggestion, a possibility, hopefully a plan. And, always, the journey of a thousand miles begins with the thousands of miles that came before. Every new journey we encounter begins before we were even born. It begins with the legacy that was left behind by our parents and their parents. How and when we take our first steps, where our journey takes us, what we encounter along the way, and mostly what we, in turn, leave behind are impacted by the things and people we have loved.

The miles I walked before this book brought me to the 47 yard dumpster. My plan (because, after all, I am a mom) is to write about where it came from, how it changed me and how my experience can help you avoid a legacy of clutter.