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Later, when I hired someone to help me deal with all of this, she would look around the basement and ask me, genuinely curious, "Have you ever thrown anything out?"

"You mean, other than actual, you know, trash?" I said.

She opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. Her eyes were full of pity.

By spring things were so bad, even my husband noticed—and housekeeping isn't even on his priority list. When he finishes a 14-hour day of painting in his studio, he sleeps; when he wakes up, the last thing he wants to do is clean—and who can blame him?

Well, I did, of course. When he'd first moved in with me, he had said he would keep house. It was only fair, he said, if he was going to be painting full-time while I was writing and teaching. I agreed, ignoring the fact that even if he had cared about keeping things tidy, he would have had no idea how to go about it. When he'd first started spending time at my house and I complained that he never put anything away, he said, plaintively, "But where is 'away'?"

It was easier to do it myself. Then it was easier not to do it at all.

Toward what she believed was the end of her life—although she actually lived another 14 years—my grandmother started going through her belongings. You couldn't leave her apartment without being given something to take away—"You always liked this, didn't you? Take it." We felt awful carting off the things she didn't want anymore. But I think we misread her. When she gave me the cookie tin full of buttons I'd played with as a girl, she wasn't saying she didn't want to remember our time together; when she gave me the notebook in which she'd practiced writing English, she wasn't saying she wanted to forget the night-school classes she'd finally taken the year I was 13. By thrusting things into my hands, she was just making sure they got into the right hands, that they weren't discarded after she'd held on to them so long.

When she did die, in her 90s, there was still plenty of stuff in her apartment. I was in Columbus, Ohio, with a newborn baby; it fell to my mother to go to the apartment in Brooklyn and figure out what was worth keeping. She couldn't do it. It was too hard. She couldn't bear to put her hands on everything, to decide what was good, what was trash. She grabbed all the photographs and had my father call the Institute of Jewish Humanities to take the rest.

The woman I ended up hiring to help me get control of my home does a lot of work cleaning out houses after people have died and their children can't deal with the sorting. She says my mother did pretty well—and my grandmother very well indeed. She sometimes goes into people's houses with their children, who look around and after a few minutes say, "Throw everything away." She can't stand that. There are all those photographs everywhere, and she knows that buried in drawers, in cabinets, in boxes, there must be letters, truly meaningful things mixed in with the receipts and grocery lists. But it's too hard for people to separate the meaningful from the meaningless; they'd rather dispense with it all.

That's where I was heading. I didn't want to go there. I just didn't know it yet.

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