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.
I didn't watch the crew work; I couldn't. I stayed upstairs, going through file cabinets, filling bag after bag with paper to recycle—manuals for electronic devices I no longer owned, manuscripts of stories by people I hadn't talked to in 18 years, AAA TripTiks for trips I'd made in 1986.
When, finally, unable to stand it anymore, I wandered downstairs, outside, the Dumpster was full: A mound rose out of the center of it—a mountain of trash. I watched the men throw things on top; I listened to glass break, to the thud of wood on wood, the clank of metal.
The leader of the little band of men, a great big man named Alan, sweating and breathing hard, came up to me as I stood and watched, and put his hand on my shoulder. "This must be hard," he said softly. I burst into tears.
I still can't say exactly why I was saving all that stuff. Some of it was about a confusion of meaning—what matters and what doesn't—and my reluctance to make that distinction. Some of it was learned behavior: My grandmother, by her example, had taught me to save everything. In their way, my parents had, too. They saved nothing—none of my toys or clothes, not one volume of the Bobbsey Twins or Nancy Drew—and for years, I'd been making up for it.