Friday, February 27, 2015

Excavating the Past --Also a word about 19th century outhouses in Cincinnati

The other day the guy at Goodwill scolded my husband and me. Apparently when you have a bunch of crap bigger items to drop off at one of their centers, the proper procedure is to park in the front, go inside and announce what you have, and then drive around to the back to unload.

My husband had done this the day before, but today we were trying to expedite the process and thought we'd just go directly to the back.

DO NOT DO THIS, PEOPLE. The guy expressed his annoyance with us several times, accompanied by weary sighs and exasperation at our not following the rules. The entire time we were unloading the back of a pickup truck-- a coffee table, a TV stand, a computer desk, five garbage bags of clothing and toys and games-- we apologized to him for his generosity.

"Okaaaaay," the guy said, as he helped us cart the stuff inside, "we'll take it this time, but next time..." his voice trailed off and husband and I apologized once more.

Then we got back into the truck and burst out laughing. Barred from donating to Goodwill. Is that a thing? Well, whatever. There are other Goodwills in this city, buddy.

What began as a half-day project to dust the book shelves in my office has turned into a complete excavation of every single item in our house. Do we WANT this thing? Do we LOVE it? Do we USE it? Maybe we liked it once but we can't remember why and now it's just taking up space... Maybe it was a gift we never liked but thought we should?

Absolutely everything is on the table both literally and figuratively--including the table.

We are ruthless. Pulling stuff out of a closet and chucking it into bags without a second thought except annoyance at ourselves for keeping these things.


We are slow and weepy. Look. Our son made this when he was in kindergarten. Our daughter carried this little purse around when she was four. Oh!! My grandmother wrote me this letter. My aunt made me this doll when I was a child. My husband wore this shirt on our honeymoon. I used to love this dress so hard but couldn't fit into it now to save my life, also my daughter now informs me that it is hideous.

There are decisions to be made about every single thing: Trash? Recycle? Goodwill? Keep-- but if you keep it, where do you put it?

I read somewhere that these items are called touchstones. The moment you unearth them, the moment you turn them over in your hands, you have the story, the memory, the emotion. These items are haunted in a sense, by loss (my grandmother made this quilt!) by grief (my child chewed on this toy and now he is in college and that baby he was is lost forever) by love  and joy and weirdly, fear.

It's hard to let go of things. Take the computer desk dumped off at Goodwill the other day. To the objective eye, it is nothing but a piece of cheaply made furniture. Decent condition. Still has some use. But I know where we bought it (Target) and when-- two houses ago when we lived in Lexington, KY. I know that we had it set up in our den by the window and it held the only computer in our house. Our son played video games at that desk and our daughter typed out little stories. I wrote a book sitting at that desk.

When we hauled it up from the basement, where it was now gathering dust and half begged Goodwill to take it from us, we were cutting a small cord to the past.

My wise friend Deb says that excavating our house as we have been doing, giving things away and throwing stuff out, making decisions about what to keep and what to cut loose-- is a way of accepting our own mortality. We hold onto things because they have become extensions of us. Parting with them is parting with pieces of ourselves.

We live with this illusion that we will live forever, that we can gather and collect and buy and take in households of things forever. We stuff things in our closets and our dresser drawers and cabinets and basements and attics. Some people rent storage lockers to hold the things that won't fit inside their homes because they can't bear to part from them. I have a relative who only gives friends her things so she can still visit them from time to time.

In the end, we can't take any of it with us. And those things that hold even the smallest hint of value, of memory, of emotion, return to merely being things.

Someone will buy that computer desk at Goodwill and will have no idea where it came from, who it came from. Someone will pick up the handmade doll. The lovingly sewn quilt. Old pictures still in their frames and say Who are these people? 


If they say anything at all, it will be Who WERE these people?

There's an awesome exhibit in the Cincinnati Museum Center:the items found in an excavated outhouse from the 19th century. A team of anthropologists discovered the old privy and carefully dug into it, dusting off items in the careful way you imagine they'd dig up dinosaur bones or Native American pottery shards. There's a display at the museum of the items from the outhouse, organized by layer. Those found out at the bottom and preserved in --ugh, I guess, calcified human waste?--- are the oldest.

(Peeking into the Privy Hole) 

Weird things. Bits of china, children's toys, forks, medicine bottles, toothbrushes.

You look at the stuff and think: how the hell did that get thrown down into an outhouse hole? Kids playing with marbles while they did their business. People brushing their teeth and eating? Things accidentally dropped? Can't you imagine a kid dropping a toy and having a tantrum about it? Or maybe some of things were thrown in purposely. Damn it, Millie, I always hated this china from your mother!! Or, oh my GOD I broke Millie's mother's heirloom china saucer. Let me throw it down the toilet hole before she finds out.

There are stories behind these things. But we will never know the stories. People owned the dishes. Used the toothbrushes. Loved the toys. Hated the medicine bottles. Now none of it has any meaning at all except for anthropologists and museum goers.

Those 19th century people let go of their things.

And now it is our time to let go...

For the record, (and for tax purposes) the list so far of things Goodwill has graciously allowed us to give them, in no particular order:

20 pillows
2 chairs
1 set of Polly Pockets
11 pictures
1 pitcher
3 jewelry boxes
13 scarves
2 sets curtains
3 child's purses
assorted stuffed animals
6 hats
1 sweat jacket
1 woman's coat
1 lamp shade
6 wicker baskets
1 small refrigerator
1 mirror
1 radio/cd player
18 candle holders
2 sugar bowls
1 harmonica
25 games
2 baseball mitts
2 guitars from Guitar Hero game
1 queen-sized comforter set
1 double sized comforter
1 double sized sheet set
1 area rug and rug pad
2 computer keyboards
assorted jewelry
2 computer desks
3 hand towels
5 wash cloths
5 T-shirts
25 teen shirts
4 blouses
9 sweaters
1 dog sweater
2 dresses
1 pajamas
2 dolls
12 mugs
1 jump rope
1 TV stand
1 coffee table
1 tape recorder
1 pair of jeans
1 wine container
1 table runner
1 pair ski pants
1 tea towel
1 beer mug
8 pants
2 art supply sets
10 pairs of shorts
1 Barbie
104 books
9 candles
1 bowl of beaded fruit
2 watches
1 baseball hat
1 backpack
3 piano books
2 wallets
5 bracelets
3 headbands
4 canvas bags
1 bikini
5 pairs of socks
1 keychain
2 watches
2 calculators
14 knick knacks
12 puzzles
1 ten-foot computer cord
1 wooden plate
1 glass cheese plate
1 glass plate
2 trays
2 end tables
1 cd holder
1 electric mattress pad
1 shin splint
1 Vera Bradley bag
1 filing cabinet
1 sofa table
2 lamps
1 stapler
3 bathroom rugs
2 easter egg trees
1 baseball bat
1 baseball glove
1 deviled egg tray
1 rain poncho
12 pairs of shoes
5 videos
1 nightlight
2 soap dispensers
1 glass vase
1 silver thermos
4 fake plants
2 bookends
3 sculptures
1 tablecloth
7 cloth napkins
3 sweatshirt
2 bar stools
1 laundry sorter
1 bolt of material
1 cake stand
1 metal hot plate
1 nativity set
1 queen sized sheet set
3 blankets
1 quilt
3 twin sized sheet sets
1 graduation gown (sorry, Ben!)
11 pillow cases


  1. When we moved I went through this too, and my consolation was that it was better to have the object be used and perhaps loved and maybe even creating another layer of memories on top of the ones I had already placed there, rather than gathering dust and annoying me by taking up space. And there have only been two things I've regretted getting rid of in the almost-year since the move, neither one for sentimental reasons.

    1. It's funny that you mentioned this, Tracy, because I remembered you saying that was how you felt about books too--something I could never part with, and so had collected a ridiculous number. You said something like, giving books away means they will be read again--instead of sitting there as merely objects.

  2. Hey! I wanted that deviled-egg tray!!

  3. Love you....the stuff may be gone, but the memories aren't.
    Don't let the Goodwill guy get you down! See if there's a Habitat thrift store there... I like Habitat better anyway!

    1. Hey Deb, called Habitat today. Hoping they will come get the dining room furniture!!

  4. Jody, my dog from PHX coulda used that dog sweater. lol. Very timely post for us as we haul out of 1 house to our new one in Gahanna. You are right, what we hold not, those precious memories that make us stop and slow down in the process, they are priceless. Some day soon I will see your pared down, linter house an you'll see my new one w/al the stuff too important not to haul across country. And, I agree w/Deb, think the Habitat places are called Restore.

    1. I am so excited to meet you-- and your stuff, Kathy : )

  5. Reading you post makes me want to start cleaning and purging!


    1. It's actually been kind of fun, Yvonne. Hard work, but already feeling lighter.