Paul Andersen: Disposing of 60 years in 10 days
June 17, 2002
I am now qualified to write a “How-to” guide on estate liquidation. The subject is fresh in my mind since I just liquidated the estate of my 90-year-old father three months after his death. Rule No. 1 of my guide: Prepare for emotional and physical exhaustion.
When I arrived at the family home in Chicago last Saturday night, I was met by my brother and sister. They had already been in the attic and had stacked dozens of boxes in the living room. “Welcome,” said my brother, who shot me a glance of grim determination and steeled resolve, a look we all adopted over the next week of 16-hour work days.
We grew up in this house. Our father designed it and our grandfather built it. The attic was a repository for family heirlooms, picture albums from the 1800s, dusty steamer trunks, empty cardboard boxes, old suitcases and assorted memorabilia including an ancient pair of jodhpurs, 50-year-old ice skates and toys from a bygone era.
After two days and 30 hours of rummaging through the attic, we attacked the unearthed mountain of memories, sorting through aged photographs, reading love letters between our parents, paging through portfolios of their original artwork, rehashing family vacations and gradually saying goodbye to our childhood home.
Room by room we went, stripping closets bare, emptying drawers, unloading shelves, folding clothes for the Salvation Army, sorting through books, examining personal effects and performing the equivalent of an archeological dig into the deep recesses of our lives.
In 60 years, a home collects an incredible volume of “stuff,” which is finally how we came to view the household icons. And the stuff that didn’t warrant keeping or selling, we packed into a huge Dumpster that was filled to the brim by the time we left.
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Every day we started after breakfast and worked until midnight or later. We wore out work gloves and breathed through dust masks. We tore away thick cobwebs and penetrated spaces that hadn’t been opened in decades. From the crawl space, I dragged out the old cast-iron grate from when the house was originally heated with coal.
Most of the items uncovered in this seemingly endless search were familiar – a rock collection in a shoe box, an old Veg-o-matic (“It slices, it dices”), report cards from the third grade. … But there were things that mystified us and for which there were no answers – a black suitcase containing a decayed lace dress, glass-plate negatives of people we had never known, military manuals from World War II.
Relentlessly we pored over the remnants of our parents’ lives, including 75 slide carousels – a photographic family history. Then we wrapped and boxed our individual keepsakes until the prized possessions of the house were transferred into corrugated cardboard crates. Then came the yard sale.
Hundreds of items were priced and sorted. We had a “men’s” section with tools, gizmos, pipes, wires, drills; a garden section with hoes, rakes, orchid-growing lights, an ancient leaf shredder that my brother labeled “Fargo” and more. The hundreds of books we stacked in book cases on the porch. Household goods were displayed on banquet tables rented for the occasion.
On the morning of the sale, friends and neighbors joined in hauling out sofas, love seats, beds, tables, chairs, lamps. Then they came, a rush of eager buyers who pawed over the trappings of our home life as they do at flea markets.
We made change for twenties, dickered over dollars, gave things away and watched with awe as people carted away stacks of old LPs, a 100-lb. set of Encyclopedia Brittanica from 1929, rusty old garden tools and even that old coal-furnace grate from the crawlspace.
They came from every walk of life – Filipino, Chinese, Iranian, Puerto Rican, Mexican, white, black, yellow, brown. They told us their stories, debated among themselves, made their deals. In two days, we sold almost everything of value and some things of no value at all.
When it was done, so were we. Exhausted, drained, bleary-eyed we topped off the Dumpster and searched the empty rooms. The house was no longer our home. The place where a family once loved, laughed and cried was no more.