When my in laws decided that they needed to down size, we were at once greatly relieved by their decision and overcome by the dread of helping them clear out the 62 years of stuff that had accumulated in their house.
I say “stuff” because no other word exists in western language that is all inclusive enough for the objects, products, trinkets, ephemera, photographs and items that one would consider treasurer and that others would declare as junk.
While some are pack rats and others find status in the objects around them, my in-laws are dear people, gentle and very sweet, and they find meaning the objects around them. If you've sent them a card in the past sixty or so years, chances are they have it somewhere in their house, along with twenty stories about you and how dear you are to them. The stories always out number the objects, still, their house is large and it physically holds a great deal. A large portion of the “stuff” is “family stuff” and because both sides of my husbands family are deeply rooted in New England, the house was full of items passed down by many generations, or made by someone's sixth great grandfather the day he took a bullet on the Green during the battle of Lexington, or on the bridge at Concord, or both.
Anyone who has gone through this process knows that its a no win situation. If there are siblings, it can be even more stressful, especially when brother and brother, brother and sister or sister and sister all decide that they want the same thing and cannot compromise. My in laws have raised a good brood of children, and there is never a raised voice. Everyone gets along and the feeling of love between them is sincere, and patient.
So with their decision to look into assisted living was made, came the herald from the folks that their children and grandchildren were to come to the house and take what we wanted from the items that wouldn't transition to the assisted living center.
On previous visits we had shown interest in a maple grandfather clock from the 1700s and a couple oil portraits of the ancestors. If we wanted the one grandfather clock, would we like two? Well if no one else...they don't? You insist? Lovely.
Because neither of us wanted to think about a 26 hour round trip excursion in a rented van, and we couldn't afford a long haul moving company, we arranged for a shipping container to get dropped at their house, which we would then pack up and send to our home.
The sorting of the goods began the minute we landed at the house. Much of the contents had been sent to a well known auction house in Boston, so the things that remained we're the items of sentimental value. We started in the living room. “How about some paper weights,” my mother in law asked. “There's the police ledger...” my father in law offered. Ink wells? Scrimshaw? Tea cups? And on it went for three days. We wrapped and we packed when we exploring.
The clocks revealed that they were much older than we thought, and that the clock we thought was Civil War era was more like War of 1812. Both clocks had wooden works which somehow came as a relief to me. The clocks were dismantled; their hoods, works and pendulums all boxed, their cases were wrapped in bubble wrap and then shrink wrapped per of friend the antique dealer's instructions.
“There's a letter in that clock that my father wrote when I got that clock from his house,” my mother in law pointed out. And in fact, reaching down into the case revealed the letter which we read. The letter told us how the clock came into the family, how it was passed down, and how “Uncle Roger is not to get this clock!” wrote her father. “He had his chance; he passed it up. If he comes and asks for it he is not to get this clock!”
“So,” my mother in law said, “If Uncle Roger comes and asks for it, he isn't to get it.”
That Uncle Roger had been dead for twenty or so years was immaterial. “If Uncle Roger come for the clock,” my husband said, “we have bigger problems than turning him down.”
We found a music box cigarette dispenser that, when the button up top is pressed, plays the Ode to Joy while six doors of the container open fully, and then close. Neither of us smokes, but that was a keeper. We were also given a piece of baleen, which I thought was an old piece of cove molding. Some larger whales have no teeth, instead they use baleen to filter krill from seawater which they ingest. The idea of a whale's gum tissue freaked me out until I learned that corset stays were made of baleen, and that this piece (a three foot section) had a whaling scene etched in it.
With the shipping unit nearly full, the final thing that we went through was the silver. Not silverplate mind you like you would find in my family, but fine grade sterling, which had long ago been packed in a suitcase when silver was at it heights in price and stowed in the basement for safe keeping. The trick worked; even the in laws were surprised by what we pulled from the suitcase.
“So that's where that went,” my mother in law said when I held up her grandmother's sterling tea “ball” on a dainty chain. “She used to have formal tea each afternoon and I remember thinking when will this tea party end!”
“Will you look at that.” my father in law exclaimed as much as he could exclaim anything as we fished out his baby cup.
Candle sticks, cups, bowls, cigarette boxes, napkin rings, small spoons, large spoons, more candle sticks, all sterling, all engraved with the in laws initials or the initials of the ancestors, all sterling and all from the best stores in Boston.
Each item had a story. “I seem to remember that when we got married we received forty or fifty bonbon dishes,” commented my father in law when the 20th such delicate tray was pulled from its flannel wrappings. “We got rid of a large number of them and used the money to buy a used Packard.”
“My uncle Roger took one look at that car and told us that we weren't to drive it. It wasn't safe. He got our money back and helped us find a more reliable car,” my mother in law offered.
“Maybe he should have gotten the clock for saving your life from mortal peril,” I said.
“Uncle Roger is not to get the clock...” began my mother in law.
We selected the pieces we would take with great care, and listed to the stories that each piece elicited. Included in what we took were two sets of candlesticks, engraved with my husband's grandmother's initials and mother in law's initials. We agreed that we would take these on the condition that the one set would go to our niece when she married, and one set to our nephew when he tied the knot as well.
There was something about that evening that was far more personal than the previous nights. Each piece of silver had a story, each story brought smiles.
The thing is, the contents of the house that are making their way to our home are never going to be as valuable to us as the time we spent with my in laws that evening. The stories that we've heard will get passed down, as will the silver and the clocks. But the stories that we haven't been told will be forgotten when they pass away, like the silver in that suitcase. Unlike the silver in the suitcase though, when my in laws are no longer with us, the untold stories be lost forever.