I called a friend who has lived in Columbus all her life, and whom I can always count on to know "the best" of whatever I'm in need of. The next morning, Terra Marzetti (Terror? Grace asked, alarmed. No, I told her: Terra, the earth) walked through my house with me, not saying a word as I chattered nervously. When she did speak, she was matter-of-fact. "You realize that this house is infested with mice."
Infested? I coughed out a laugh. Not infested. I knew we had a few mice. I'd seen some droppings, I told Terra. I just hadn't gotten around to setting traps. But I would, I promised, right away.
It was too late for traps, Terra said gently. There were too many mice. And then she took me from room to room, moving furniture, moving stacks, opening drawers, showing me the nests—mice made nests?—and all the things the mice had ruined. I had to go out immediately and buy poison, she said.
It took five days for all the mice to die or flee, and by then Terra and I had gotten started. We worked side by side, ten hours a day, and I kept at it even after she left each evening, until I collapsed, past midnight.
Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday.
Terra, who called herself a home space orchestrator, was systematic and patient, working room by room, sorting every single thing she saw into one of three categories: obviously trash, obviously good, and look it over and decide. When I'd sorted the look-it-over piles into one or the other of the first two categories, I hauled out the trash and then contemplated what was left so I could make more decisions: good and keep, or good and give away? I filled bag after bag with clothes and toys and linens to donate to Goodwill. Meanwhile, Terra cleaned.
In my study, a lot of things had been ruined by mice and had to be thrown away, but I still had to go through all the boxes the mice hadn't gotten to. I filled plastic bins (with lids that locked tight—Terra's rule) with the things I wanted to save: the journal, with illustrations, that Grace had kept the year she was 6; notes from my friend Amy, who died; all my letters from my junior high school boyfriend, Howie; the novel I wrote when I was 11; a few drawings of mine that my grandmother had saved and given back to me during those years of her own jettisoning. The notebook in which she practiced her English. The cookie tin full of buttons.
If I didn't do this, I told myself, eventually Grace would have to. Someone would have to. Or no one would—everything would be chucked. That was what kept me going.
By Tuesday night, I had filled 360 fifty-gallon contractor's trash bags—a third for charity, two-thirds with trash. And we hadn't even gotten to the basement yet.
Terra hired a crew to clear out the basement. They came on Wednesday morning with a Dumpster big enough for a construction site. There were a few things that hadn't been ruined by years of storage in the damp—Grace's bikes and stroller, the space heater, an assortment of toys—and before the crew arrived, I hauled those things upstairs and they went into the charity pile or out to the alley, where I was sure someone would drive by and snatch them up (I was right). But the crib that might have been useful to someone was ruined after being in the wet basement for 11 years; the car seats were not only ruined but obsolete. Then there were all the things that should never have been saved to begin with—the broken suitcases, the baby-food jars.