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The International Writers Magazine: - Lifestyles

Hoard of Memories
• Walli F. Leff
The letter from our apartment building’s management stated that on the following Monday workers would begin constructing individual units in the basement storage area. Items belonging to residents had to be removed by that time or they would be disposed of. Rumor had it that the individual units would be alarmingly small and residents would be charged a monthly fee for their use.


My husband, Sam, and I had been storing belongings in the basement since we’d moved into the building many years before, but we hadn’t had access to them for a long time. Originally we’d been able to add and remove things without a problem. One day we came down and found our trunks stacked one atop the other. Too heavy for us to move, impossible to open. Our property had become dead storage. For a while we could still bring our air conditioners there after summer was over, then that right was withdrawn, too.

When we went down to retrieve our goods we were sucked into a time warp. There was our late, beloved dog’s airplane crate: he’d picked it out himself at the airport—opted for the roomy one he could stand up in. The suitcase and our three big trunks, including my great-aunt’s steamer trunk, which housed her always fashionable wardrobe during her voyage to Cuba in the thirties, had been old when they came into our possession and had already traveled across a good part of the globe before either of us ever went to sea. The last century had been well into the jet age by the time we acquired the small trunk decorated with stickers from all over the world, but that, too, had known the wood splinters of the dock and the stevedores’ strong arms before we filled it with our belongings.

We gave the dog crate to the super and paid a strong, non-orthopedically challenged young man to deposit the bulky, heavy cases in our foyer and a corner of our living room. Immediately, we cleaned off the dust and opened them, driven as much by the urgent drive to get those behemoths out of our apartment as by curiosity about their contents.

Kennedy There was no doubt about what we wanted to see first: our collection of the newspapers and magazines reporting John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Jack Ruby’s shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald, the solemn procession from the White House to the Capitol and the funeral; the passage of the Civil Rights Act; and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy. We were relieved to find them in good condition for their age.

With great displeasure we discovered financial and tax records from the seventies, most from closed accounts and defunct institutions—four shopping bags full of envelopes and folders. We’d have gotten rid of them years before if our trunks hadn’t been rendered inaccessible; disposing of them now meant we had to avoid becoming identity theft victims. The other documents that turned up: drafts of early manuscripts, anti-Vietnam War flyers, Playbills—programs of plays we’d attended, some of them iconic performances—posed no problems.

The suitcase had held the newspapers; the other documents had taken up part of a trunk. The remaining space was packed with one boring plate and an unbelievable amount of clothing. Item by item, we rediscovered our former apparel. It fell into two classes—a small group of desirable garments we could sell or donate, and piles of worn-out stuff that should have been jettisoned, not kept. Why were those cowboy boots whose soles were broken in two staring me in the face again? The cowboy boot part of my life had been an especially unusual time and I didn’t need a physical mnemonic in order to recall it. Consecrating it with a worn-out memorial had been excessive. That was true of most of the other things we had unearthed, too. Unpacking them, decoding what they symbolized, however, we recognized what our feelings about them were and our sentimental attachments to most of them wafted away with the dust.

We set out to organize as quick an end as we could to the chaos. We bagged the financial documents that did not bear Social Security numbers, put them into a shopping cart, and took off with them to the local Staples store, which was having a great sale on sturdy filing boxes good for housing documents we were keeping. En route we dumped the bags into trash barrels where newspapers, empty potato chip bags, and uneaten sandwich halves were already awaiting pick-up to the landfill and covered them over with newspapers.

As we wheeled our purchases back a short time later, we spotted an elderly lady bent over one of these street containers. Why on earth had she immersed herself in our Peugeot repair bills, our $32.47 check for telephone service (it was high because we’d made a few long distance calls), the $21.63 payment to Macy’s, and the other innocuous expenses reported on our old receipts and bank statements in such minute detail? Amazed, we stood by, pondering the workings of her brain. After she walked away, we turned the bag upside down and piled more newspapers on top of it.

Back home we turned to the clothes. Those with the most panache we would take to the vintage clothing store Sam had discovered. We put the rest of the classy duds aside to hawk on the internet. The musty junk we heaved into heavy-duty garbage bags and set them out with the suitcase and the plainest trunk for pick-up by the sanitation truck.

By this time it was late but tired as he was, Sam couldn’t go to sleep. He went back out to check on the trash cans. The one we thought we had secured had been gone through again; the papers had the look of a well thumbed-through library magazine. He stuffed the receipts back in the bag, pulled it out, and stuffed it into the tightly closed container outside the French restaurant across the street. Then he checked the other trash barrels we’d used to make sure that the story of our old finances was hidden deep below other people’s run-of-the-mill detritus.

First thing in the morning the donations went to the thrift shop, a cashmere winter coat in fine condition to the cleaners. Friendly antique dealers took the cute little trunk with all the stickers on consignment. With high hopes, we listed my great-aunt’s steamer trunk on Craig’s List. It wasn’t as elegant as some of the listings, but its clean interior looked nearly new.

That left the financial documents from still active accounts and any documents that bore Social Security numbers to be shredded and safely disposed of. The four big plastic bags of vulnerable material that job produced sat in the kitchen until early morning on recyclable trash day, when Sam tossed them into the maw of the truck and watched them being pulverized.

For the gleeful part—cleaning up financially—we had chosen the most charming of the city’s many vintage clothing shops. With a warm, personal welcome to the long, narrow, old store from self-assured young saleswomen in thirties and forties-era dresses, hairstyles, and make-up styles and the sound of music from those bygone days in the air, the place felt like a movie set. I made my way past racks of mid-twentieth century dresses positioned next to display cases filled with pre-bling-y costume jewelry, strand upon strand of pearls, and ritzy evening bags. A one-piece bathing suit that could have taken a plunge in an Esther Williams movie occupied the place of honor in the middle of the room; a pinafore in an oddly-patterned brown and cream-colored fabric, so long its hem would have ended past the middle of the calf of a woman six feet tall, ruled over the rear of the store. I approached the owner, a tiny woman seated on a worn velvet couch looking over a pile of old clothes, with the garments I considered good candidates for this theatrical environment.

“Just set them down,” she told me.”No commentary—I know what I’m seeing and what I want. I buy things outright, no consignment. The price I give you is final. I don’t negotiate.”

Quickly, she tossed most of my carefully folded past wardrobe onto a reject pile. She dismissed one pair of pants with “that has stitch marks” (it didn’t). Her comments were geared to undermine my confidence and make it appear that I couldn’t meet her lofty standards. I didn’t blink.

As she worked, her eyes lit up at the pieces I thought she’d find the most appealing. When she reached the end she announced, “Well, there are a few pieces I’m interested in.” Sure enough, the eight pieces she bought were the very ones I’d thought most suitable for her clientele.

Despite her edict we did negotiate at the end, to our mutual advantage: I gave her a good price on two dazzling rhinestone pins and she bought an unique, beautiful shawl with long fringe I knew I’d have difficulty selling anywhere else. The things I sold her would probably have commanded more on e-Bay, but it was well worth it to me not to have to photograph and write a description of each piece, wrap the packages, and wait in line at the post office.

Our Craig’s List venture was a bust. Didn’t get a single offer, even after we shamed ourselves and dropped the price way low—beggars pleading for a crust. The two trunks stacked in our foyer became more annoying by the day. When the super mentioned that his daughter was interested in them we gave them to him. She hasn’t decided what to do with them yet. We see them in the basement corridor every time we do the laundry. The workmen haven’t come to build the individual units. Maybe the trunks will be back in the storage room the next time we bring down the washing.

Now, during those years when our trunks were inaccessible, our need to store things outside the apartment hadn’t evaporated. We’d been creating ever more manuscripts, collecting files and other documents, adding “new, improved” household items, and bringing objects we’d inherited from family members who, sadly, were no longer among us, into the apartment. The crowding had gotten out of hand. To reduce the clutter we rented a storage unit uptown. After a while, though, the drawbacks to that solution outweighed the benefit. Out of sight, out of mind. We couldn’t keep track of what we stashed up there. What’s more, annual fee increases had hiked the initially reasonable rental fee to the level of gouging. We were just keeping things without any thought about whether we still needed or wanted them.

Energized by the ease with which ties with remnants of the past could be cut, we revisited our need for this space. “Do you have room in your basement where we can keep some boxes?” Sam asked his sister. As always, she was very cooperative.

It took two days of hard physical labor, but we emptied the unit. Kept a good pair of binoculars. Gave away the mixmaster, pressure cooker (“Oh, no,” we gulped after the Boston Marathon bombing. “Our pressure cooker had better not kill anyone!”), carpet sweeper, and dust mop we had when we set up housekeeping, and my grandmother’s antique doilies and dresser runners. Threw out the junk—more old clothes, a couch cover riddled with holes we failed to bargain for in a Middle Eastern marketplace, a handsome silk bedspread we favored whose quilting threads had broken, a patchwork quilt whose middle had disintegrated.

Each item we looked at would trigger a brief memory-movie of something in the past. As soon as we decided on an object’s fate and took up the next object, the memory-movie would segue into another reel. Our brains had conjured up an expedient process.

We turned in the keys, rented an SUV, and drove half a dozen framed prints and a considerable number of cartons of important documents to their new home. We felt proud and relieved. And exhausted.

Demystifying the hoard was liberating, not painful. We did feel a couple of twinges when we said good-bye to certain things we’d been close to many years before, but we were able to laugh at ourselves and let go of irrational, petty attachments, some right away, others after a little time had gone by. We kept sentimentality to a minimum and only held on to a few things that evoked authentic feeling, like my aunt’s compact with a (working) watch and Sam’s father’s jacket.

The living room smelled of the musty old clothes we’d removed from the trunks as we stared at the images of the Moore, Oklahoma tornado wreckage on television. Gone. Every one of those people’s physical possessions had blown away or been rendered into shards and splinters. They had nothing left but their memories of what they had once had.

We had all the things we needed to live a comfortable and secure life and follow our dreams, but had kept things we didn’t need, things whose time had passed. Now our time with those things had passed, too. Our memories of them would be enough.

© Walli Leff August 2013

Walli F. Leff’s psychological thriller, The Woman Who Couldn’t Remember But Didn’t Forget, was published by Sunstone Press. She is also the author, with Marilyn G. Haft, of Time Without Work, published by South End Press, and writes articles on psychology, science, cultural and political affairs, and travel.

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