“I don’t get it,” my cousin Gloria said after I told her about the project. “What’s the point?” She said it apologetically, as if there were some deeply recessed meaning in the texts that she was incapable of discerning.
“I don’t know if there is one, at least not yet,” I said. “Right now I think I just want to see how far I can go with this.”
“So how is this different from a yard sale? Other than being stretched out over days and nobody’s paying you for anything. You’re not really throwing out anything of value, are you?”
Throwing out anything was hard for Gloria, much less something of value. She had grown up moving to ever smaller houses as her downwardly mobile alcoholic father lost one job after another, and from counseling wealthy private banking clients on tax havens wound up pumping gas before he disappeared entirely from Gloria’s life. Whole rooms of stuff were lost on the way down. I don’t think she ever had to sacrifice dolls or clothes to the move but she lost perhaps more important things: her own room, then her own bed. She swore she’d never move once she found the house she’d raise her kids in. And indeed, after their starter house and the birth of the second of their children, she and her family moved to a sprawling house in southern Florida, which she’s been living in ever since. Given Gloria’s tendency to hoard and the inevitable accumulation of stuff that raising four kids entails, it’s a good thing she has a large house.
Value. She had said it as if we both understood what this meant and that her understanding and mine were the same, as if “value” were something as unambiguous as a blender. Some of the things I threw away had some value, depending on how you thought of it. The Goa CDs probably had some salvage value on e-bay, and there was perhaps some residual utility value in the sheets, if I ever buy a summer house, that is. And maybe there was some sentimental value, whatever that is, in Agnes and Claire’s wine glasses, I suppose. But I think Gloria was right. It didn’t cost me much to get rid of this stuff.
I only had to move once when growing up, from the city to the suburbs. My father wasn’t a failure. He was just improvident.
In addition to getting our own rooms, we also got a big back yard when we moved. It was one of the reasons that my grandfather, who made most of the major decisions for my father anyway, told him to buy the house. Perfect for a family with three young boys. In fact, the yard, at least when we first moved in, looked more like a manicured miniature city park than a field to play in. There was a garden of carpet roses that led halfway back the yard to a cottage-like potting shed set amid beds of morning glory and azaleas. A walkway flanked by wisteria and honeysuckle led past a massive built picnic table back to the vegetable patch at the end of the yard. This had been fenced off from the rest of the yard, presumably to keep out dog and kids.
My mother made some effort in the first year to tend the garden but even with the expert advice and watchful (if eventually disapproving) eye of our neighbor, Mrs. Neubauer, it was beyond my mother’s skills or interest. My father confined himself to mowing the lawn, which after a few seasons of touch-football and the general ravages of time, three boys and a dog, thinned to the point where the lawnmower would just kick up dust and pebbles. My grandfather would have planted rye but my father resigned himself to watching the patches of dirt grow and coalesce into an expanse of neglect.
I think my father planted tomatoes in the vegetable garden during our first summer at the house. But he lost interest in that soon enough. The patch was soon overrun by a dense thicket of weeds that no one cared to clear and that was soon impassable. For all intents and purposes our property now ended at the fence to the former garden.
I sometimes had the feeling he did the same with us kids. He took us out the suburbs and then just left us there, untended.
My parents weren’t messy or lazy. On the contrary, my mother always seemed to be cleaning something. But they didn’t learn how to take care of things. Maybe it was also the times, theirs being the first generation in a throw-away society that identified convenience with social progress. They didn’t need to take care of things because they could always buy new things.
Gloria was right. I haven’t thrown away anything of value. That would be too profligate, too improvident, too much like my father. Gloria hoards, I repair. I’ve spent almost as much as money in having my (18-year-old) Siemens washing machine repaired as it would have cost to buy a new one. “They don’t make them like this anymore,” the repairman says. “This was really made in Germany. A new motor and it’ll last you a lifetime,” he says. Gloria, who’s a lawyer and thus has seen more rationalizations and self-serving lies than most people, told me, “Of course he wants you to repair it. That’s how he makes a living, you dolt.”
It shocks me to think that I should get rid of the Krupps coffeemaker cum espresso bar, the one with special handle that steams milk for the cappuccino, even though I don’t use it anymore. I’m too bound to the calculus of value: considering the laughably few times I’ve used—not without reason, since it makes a lousy espresso compared to the technologically primitive (but far superior) Bialetti Moka Express, which incidentally cost about a tenth of what the Krupps bar did—I haven’t really got “my money’s worth” out of the machine. But the truth is, I never will.
I’ve decided to give away the Krupps machine to Natalie for her summer island house. I sometimes stay with her, so I don’t know if that really counts as throwing away. But the machine still has considerable salvage value, considering how rarely I used it. It’s practically new, though admittedly somewhat out of date. Gloria might say I’m cheating, though. I think she meant something else when she said value.