Back when I was growing up, we didn’t call it clutter. Or hoarding. It was just “the basement,” and most people thought of it as our subterranean treasure cave. When relatives came over for holidays or my friends visited for play dates, they’d be delighted to be invited downstairs. They’d make their way down the matted, pastel-colored rainbow steps to the lower level of our New Jersey ranch house. This was where my salesman father stacked his towers of cardboard sample cartons.
My father would ceremoniously open one of these boxes with a utility knife. The thick strapping tape unfurled and revealed a mind-boggling array of wholesale items wrapped in brown butcher paper. He sold miniature antique dollhouse furniture. Cloisonné jewelry from Taiwan – necklaces with miniature scaled fish in every color. Almost everything came by the gross, which was not gross at all but, rather, the magic number 144 – a dozen dozen. My friends and I dove into grosses of faux birthstone rings, a dollar a dozen. They winked on our fingers, glass rubies and peridots and amethyst. We’d sit cross-legged on the floor, covered in Neptune’s treasure. For a few years, he sold marshmallow-like stuffed animals, elephants and whales that were lighter than air. Wicker baskets. Giant bumper stickers of glow-in-the-dark peace signs and “flower power” designs (this was the early ‘70s, after all).
Digging deeper than the souvenir shlock, my adult cousins looked for the good stuff, the better stuff. My cousin Betty favored the exquisite Imari platters and bowls from Japan. My aunt loved his Rainbow glass: blue rabbit paperweights, amber colored decanters with bulbous stoppers. Going home, they’d clutch a grocery bag filled with their newspaper-wrapped treasures. Thanks, Uncle Mas. Rhymed with “glass,” the way they said it.
Back then, there was no Internet catalog and even paper catalogs were rare because inventory was constantly evolving. A company would discontinue items, bring in new things, and they’d ship them to their reps homes every year. Ultimately, the samples would end up in our basement. When the basement filled from floor to ceiling, my father built an extension onto the house, two stories high. The upper story was, at first, a sun porch, but then it was enclosed. The basement just held more cartons, more samples. Then they started spilling over into the living part of our house. The dining room tablecloth concealed dozens cartons; flat trays of enameled souvenir pins (in the shapes of states or cartoon animals or miniature logos) lay stacked beneath the sofa.
[pullquote]Our house filled and filled. The samples were busting the seams of the house, and the basement had only narrow, single-filed paths between the teetering boxes.[/pullquote]
With all of his salesman connections, my father had colleagues who sold everything. He scored fancy rolls of wrapping paper by the dozens, which we kept in the laundry room. He knew where to buy high-end stereo equipment and glassware and almost everything else imaginable. I remember coming home from the mall when I was a teenager. He gave me a stricken look when he spied my shopping bags. “Sus, you paid retail for that?” When I nodded, he softly punched his heart. “Hurts me right here.” He was partly joking – but partly not.
Our house filled and filled. At the apex of his selling career, he was repping over twenty different companies. The samples were busting the seams of the house, and the basement had only narrow, single-filed paths between the teetering boxes. We also kept every piece of furniture even after it had been replaced by more modern models. Underneath the boxes, our first black-and-white television in its bulky console lay buried, along with multiple abandoned coffee tables, chairs and lamps.
My father also was a fan of finer “collectibles,” convinced that they would explode in value one day. He kept shoeboxes filled with pristine proof coin sets; signed, limited-edition bird prints and delicate porcelain horses, one of which he believed would pay for my college tuition (not quite). He hid the valuable amongst the junk, cleverly disguising his treasures in cartons labeled “Fishing Equipment” and “Pickles.”
By the time I was a young adult living across the country from my parents, I was shocked to come home and see the state of the house. The piles and mountains were starting to encroach on the main floor as well. Now the enclosed sun porch was crammed with boxes covering the windows so that even narrow rays of sun couldn’t find their way in.
My father died in 2000 during a complicated surgery to repair his fragile aorta, and my mother was left in the house with all of the stuff. After a year, it was clear that she didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with it. We kids got a week to get it ready to put on the market before I had to return to California and my family. We packed photo albums and some memorabilia and wrapped my heirloom porcelain Arabian horse. My husband found a torn plastic bag underneath a chair with a thousand dollars in small bills, leftover from when my father would sell his samples at the end of a trade show. We sifted through as much as we could, but it would have taken a year to examine every object.
Finally, exhausted, I found an estate-sale organizer in one of their piles of Yellow Pages. It seemed like the perfect solution. I’d been to an estate sale at one of their neighbor’s homes: The china and silver were laid out on the dining room table, the knick-knacks arranged on shelves and coffee tables – everything labeled with colored dots. It all felt so orderly. I imagined people admiring the Rainbow glass decanters, the precious dollhouse rocking chairs. Beautifully displayed, it would prove to the world that this was no hoarding situation; it was valuable merchandise, and people would pay good money for it. The organizer lady followed me through the house, threading her way between cartons, taking notes. “This is worth a minimum of 20k,” she reassured me, and I was happy, thinking of the check I’d be able to give my mother.
I was back on the West coast when she delivered the stunning news: Not only was she not going to be sending us that hefty check, but we owed her over $6,000 to pay for four full dumpsters. I sat down, unable to breath. “Dumpsters?” She explained that the contents of the house were just too overwhelming and the only thing she’d been able to salvage for sale was their black walnut dining table and the Ethan Allen bedroom set from my room. “But what about the estate sale?” I pleaded. Too much trouble, she said.
For years, I had nightmares about the shattered glass, the thousands of pieces of jewelry, all of my father’s livelihood, gone to dumpsters. Even my piano, she’d said. “You can’t even give away pianos these days,” she’d sniffed. A last-minute call to my old elementary school saved it from the dumpster.
People say that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But here, all of my father’s treasures had been relegated indiscriminately to the trash bin, and it broke my heart.
I began my adult life with nothing more than a Toyota hatchback filled with record albums, some clothes and books. Now, my own house is filled with three decades of accumulation. I’ve desperately read The Magical Art of Tidying as well as a dozen (or maybe a gross) other self-help decluttering books. The “dirt room” under our house, hundreds of square feet of shelving and random boxes, resists all my good intentions to purge. Somewhere in those shelves sits a carton marked “antique dollhouse furniture.” I haven’t been able to let go of it, nor the rough plywood dollhouse that my father built for my daughters. The proof coins are still in their shoebox in my closet. I am my father’s daughter.