The Stuff of Legend

dealing with our old junk, one box at a time

Dan Ingersoll

My dad is 83. Late in life he lost his left arm at the elbow. He has had four bypasses on his heart and Parkinson’s. Mom died of Alzheimer’s a few years ago. He lives in Stoughton, Wisconsin in an big old, two story “four square” with an attic.

The attic has lots of stuff in it. Dad is an engineer, a smart and determined problem solver. He would never say it but I can’t believe it has been easy.  Try doing something with your arm tied behind your back, add a weak heart and a Parkinson’s body that doesn’t always do what you ask it to do and you may get the idea.

In any case he has come to a place where he thinks he might downsize and move out of the big house, which brings us back to the stuff in the attic.

It struck me that my dad never had new stuff – he just kept fixing the old stuff. We bought an old green camping tarp for $5 when it was new, and Dad kept it serviceable for 20 years with about $50 of duct tape.

This past week, Dad and I spent a couple of days going through the stuff in the attic with the goal of throwing out that of little value prior to an estate sale. Climbing the narrow spiral stairs to the attic I am struck by the smell of old stuff. At the top I take it all in and find myself overwhelmed.

Just start somewhere… I start in a corner with boxes of old toys from my childhood. Growing up with six kids in the family, the toys are well-used and most have missing parts – are any of these of value? I don’t know – an Archie comic from the ’60s, Hot Wheels cars, Lincoln Logs, stuffed animals losing their stuffing, a Barbie doll, 15 boxes of picture puzzles. Great! I can start by throwing out these old puzzles. No one is going to want to buy old puzzles that may or may not have all the pieces intact. 

I ask Dad what he thinks of the puzzles. Dad thinks someone might want to buy them. I go back to the toys feeling a bit nostalgic as I connect some of them to days of play 50 years past. I started to separate them into “good” and “too far gone” piles.

An hour has passed and I haven’t thrown one thing away.

Behind the toys are some big boxes, labeled and taped from when my folks moved to Stoughton, Wis. from Sartell, Minn. some 33 years ago. One label caught my eye: “Old Pillows that Need Mending.” I pulled the box out to an open space and used Dad’s Swiss army penknife to cut the old tape to find truth in labeling – the box, of course, held five old pillows that needed mending.

But it struck me that my dad never had new stuff – he just kept fixing the old stuff. We bought an old green camping tarp for $5 when it was new, and Dad kept it serviceable for 20 years with about $50 of duct tape. The pillows were torn, stained and smelled like an old lady’s purse. I made the case that these were of little value and should be tossed – Dad agreed! Progress!

I dug in with renewed vigor until I found the box labeled “Dan” that was full of notes, books, papers, and artwork. I have never been much of a speller. I wasn’t so good in math either. Mom saved this, why? As I flipped through old schoolwork, feelings of inadequacy flooded my brain – I never liked school.

Dad is holding a green sleeping bag with a once red flannel lining that I remember getting for Christmas when I was seven or maybe 10. The lining has been patched and sewn back together and now it looks like a crazy quilt. The zipper has been replaced. Years ago, Dad ordered a new zipper and replaced it himself. There is a tear in the outer covering. Dad says, “I guess no one would want this,” and I say, “It has served us well.” One more for the trash.

This went on for hours and slowly but surely the trash pile grew and by the time I hauled it down the stairs and out to the curb we had a pile that was large enough to feed a sense of accomplishment.  

My mom’s mother lived with my folks in the later years of her life. She had the small bedroom in the back corner of the second floor with the single bed and a 1950s dressing table. She died years ago but some of her things are still in the room. This night I read a book about dying with dignity by a ceramic light with palm trees and pink flamingos.

Finishing a chapter, trying to get to sleep in Grandma’s room in Dad’s square house, my thoughts turn to the stuff in the attic. Why do we keep it? Why is it “important” enough to “save”? Because it is an extension of ourselves? Because it has monetary or sentimental value? For a historical record of our existence? 

In the end it sits in a box in the corner of an attic, undisturbed for 40 or 50 years until the time comes to “deal” with it. And so around the country, people sift though lifetimes of stuff as their parents come to the age of unpacking their lives – stuff that may spark reflection, nostalgia and memories both rich and painful. In the worst case, the stuff is perceived as “mine or yours” and rifts are formed, walls are built, feelings are hurt.

In the best case, a piece of the past completes a puzzle, resurrects a sweet memory from deep within a box to enjoy a new life with the next generation of “family.”  

In my Grandma’s bed, in Dad’s square house, my thoughts shift from the stuff in the attic to the stuff in my own basement and I think when I get home, I will work at getting rid of some of it.

Press and hold the up/down arrows to scroll.