Thursday was a day of intensely blue skies, frothy white clouds, heat that tipped into the edge of the 90's F. I went out early to water plants on the porch and on the landing at the bottom of the steps, then scuttled back inside.
It seemed a day to tackle the mess of 'stuff' in the basement storage room, a task that I've picked at a few times and then abandoned.
I tied on an old apron and began with the books. I decided on several categories: 'keepers'--those that I would re-read; books on gardening and home decorating suitable to donate to the local library; paperbacks in good condition to drop off at the charity shop; a few foxed and musty volumes destined for the burn pile.
I made the mistake of reading half a paperback, dustcloth trailing from my pocket, before deciding that it belonged in the charity shop pile, then gave myself a mental shake and the stern admonition to get on with the task.
I carried an armload of items well past their prime out to the area we use as a burn pit and resolutely lit a fire.
By mid-afternoon I was grubby and tiredness was undermining my resolve. There is something sad about sifting through a stash of belongings--finding a box of photos that remind of other times, other places, friends and family no longer with us.
I uncover a shattered bone china teacup, part of a set received long ago as a gift, but seldom used. Finding a clean bit of rag I carefully wipe the remaining cups and saucers, set them gently with the sugar bowl and creamer in a small box padded with newspaper. Surely someone will find them pretty enough to carry home from the charity shop.
I have salvaged items which still have enough meaning to keep; I have steeled myself to add to the smoldering burn pile things which have become clutter, not worthy to be offered to anyone.
I am burning memories, reminders of my own years and times, and notably, a few such that came into my keeping years ago--musty journals with yellowing pages, fading ink, records of thoughts and happenings experienced well before my time.
Inevitably, I will at some point be gripped by a fleeting pang of yearning for something given away, some item consigned to my bonfire.
As I work I think of my Uncle Bill. Bill became, by default, the custodian of the family home, taking on in mid-life the housekeeping duties for his widowed father.
Once a week he presided over the Maytag wringer washer, pegged out sheets of startling whiteness to snap on the backyard clothesline. In springtime he bundled woolens into trunks reeking of mothballs; when the frosts of autumn arrived he took them out again to be aired on a fine day of sunshine and chilly wind. He wielded mops and brooms, sloshed about with buckets of suds.
Periodically he burned things.
Small items, papers, scraps of this and that went into the kitchen woodstove. Larger things--a broken chair, a rickety crate, a mouse-bespoiled box of old letters retrieved from the attic--such things were lugged to the edge of the pasture below the kitchen window and set alight.
Bill did have a sense of things that should be saved, hoarded, tucked away.
He could be crafty about this, whisking treasures upstairs to his clean but increasingly cluttered north bedroom. Occasionally my grandfather would inquire, testily, where something had gone; my mother might wistfully recall some item that had belonged to her mother or grandmother and would request to know its where-abouts. Bill's standard response to these quite legitimate queries was a truculent announcement, "It's gone up the flue!"
Although my grandfather sputtered in exasperation and my mother fretted, neither of them seemed to doubt that the item in question had been reduced to ashes.
Uncle Bill survived my grandfather by six years, living alone in the old farmhouse, puttering amongst his belongings--which he referred to collectively as 'my inheritance.'
In the weeks following his death my mother, my sisters and I tackled the sorting of a house that held the belongings of 4 generations.
Opening the door to Bill's bedroom we found stacked trunks, piled boxes, small tables groaning under a weight of miscellany. The trunks held hand-stitched quilts, neatly laundered years ago and folded away. Tucked down the side of a trunk, in a bundle carefully tied with string, were the letters written home from 'somewhere in France' by the great uncle who had been a casualty of the Second Battle of the Marne.
My mother spread the letters in her lap, handled them in astonishment.
The letters had supposedly 'gone up the flue' in one of her brother's fits of frenetic house cleaning.
Sifting through boxes, sorting, keeping, discarding, I chide myself for having lugged with us to this house, things which I no longer need, items which have lost their relevance. Waves of nostalgia threaten and I set aside boxes of photos--keepers--knowing that I cannot take the time just now to handle them one by one, to flounder in memories.
Trudging to the burn pile with a few stray items I remind myself that I am being sensible, creating some sort of order where clutter has lurked.
Those first forlorn boxes of tattered pages, the splintery wooden shelf, the bedraggled ornaments, an ancient and faded stuffed toy--have all settled into a glowing heap, shapes charred to soft ash, no longer recognizable.
I find a rake, spread the remaining coals to die on the cobbled ground.
The job isn't finished, but the harder decisions have been made, sensible, irrevocable.
The storage room doesn't yet look better for my efforts; still, the sorting and categorizing has made a good start. Next week when I can deliver boxes to their planned destinations, I can do a thorough sweeping and dusting, line up the cartons of things I mean to keep.
I tell myself that what remains to be done will be easier.