“The things you own end up owning you. It’s only after you lose everything that you’re free to do anything.” ― Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club
When this article was first published in 2013 I’d already experienced many of the same feelings as the author, but was still working on trying to make sense of it all. The roots of these feelings and thoughts started in the summer of 2007.
For many of us moving is a sign of meaningful change. A new job, a new apartment, or a new city; changes drive us to pack up and relocate. I’d moved to Boston in 1998 for love. Then moved to a shared apartment as a commitment to that love. We moved to a house when that love was ready to blossom into a family. That new family turned out to be twins and drove what I thought would be a final move to a larger home, one we would grow into, but could never outgrow.
At the same time we were moving into that new house my father’s dementia started to consume him. It wasn’t obvious yet, instead there were quiet and subtle shifts in his behavior and personality. Things that had been fixed for decades changed, some of them in positive ways and some of them in negative ways. Over the next year, as he lost more and more of his frontal lobe, his dementia suddenly expanded from the confines of his mind out into the lives of those around him, especially my mother.
What had been a slowly growing tension in a 42-year-long marriage suddenly escalated to a point where my mother had to leave the house. They needed to purge 33 years of occupancy in as many days to get their house on the market before summer’s end, but they couldn’t work together. So I made the drive to Connecticut. By the end of the first Saturday, I had filled the 15 yard dumpster my mother had optimistically rented for the weekend purge. It was easy to determine that stacks of old newspapers and boxes for small appliances that had long ago left for the dump held no value. As the dumpster filled up, objects hidden by the trash started to emerge.
These were things that perhaps had value but no time to find them a new home. And so the next Saturday I filled a second dumpster with books, several decades of Scientific American, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, and National Geographic magazines, dozens of records, two enormous oscilloscopes that I wanted for their scifi kitch value, and 11 square yards of other stuff that I can no longer recall.
It was strange to move items that had been fixtures for decades. Part of it was my familiarity with those things I had walked past so many times. The bookshelves that lined the wall had always been full. Those cans of paint had always been on the shelf above the washing machine. Yards of fabric for projects imagined, but never started, filled the space under a folding table temporarily erected for a quick project in the early 80s. An ancient Bekins moving box full of Tonka trucks stood in the corner of the garage under shelves that held a set of rotting, canvas bases, a broken sprinkler of yellow plastic and aluminum, and half-a-dozen softballs that ranged from decaying to brand new.
My dad’s toolbox had always sat on the two 25lb plates near the garage door, less to keep the indestructible heavy plastic box off the floor and more because there was nowhere else to store the unused weights. Getting rid of something wasn’t considered, my parents found space for it instead. The broken sailboat made of shells had sat for decades on the window shelf waiting to be fixed before I tossed it into the dumpster. I packed the guilt born of discarding that childhood touchstone and many others and brought it home with me.
I kept the tools; newer mechanical tools and ancient woodworking tools. I kept the unopened, un-started, NYC fire boat models. I kept the box of his half-started, unfinished models. I don’t recall him ever showing those to me, they were familiar only from a slow, rainy August afternoon spent peeking into boxes in the basement, especially the James Bond Aston Martin DB7 model with working ejector seat. I’d asked my father about that one when he got home. I wanted to clean it up, fix the broken pieces, paint it and display it. “Later,” he’d said and went back upstairs.
Later turned into a quarter century and I found myself unable to throw the box of models away. I wanted to finish what we’d never had a chance to start. One carload at a time, weekend after weekend, I moved everything that I identified with my father and couldn’t bring myself to throw away back to Massachusetts. His dementia had severed his connections to both his possessions and their meaning to him. I kept the things that I hoped might tell me something about my father that he could no longer tell me himself.