I always knew it would be hard, this part. I mentally rehearsed for it over the years, but now it is upon me: cleaning out my Uncle Don's apartment, a stable far crazier than ours, in preparation for selling his co-op.
My uncle and aunt were among the very first "co-operators" to inhabit Morningside Gardens when it opened 50 years ago on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It represented the urbane side of their life plan, the one centered around exotic cultural events, clubs devoted to UFOs and other esoterica, photography, and sundry enthusiasms that filled and energized their childless life. The rustic side would flourish in Brookside, their little old white house in a wooded valley in New Jersey, where they spent weekends gardening, reading, feeding birds, and tooling around the backroads in my aunt's collection of vintage Volkswagens (beetles as well as buses, all painted blue).
That was the first of their Augean stables. When my aunt died almost 11 years ago, leaving the childlike Don alone at age 83, I signed on to facilitate his final years of feisty--okay, completely wacky--independence. The first order of business was clearing out and selling that wonderful country place, buried under years of clutter and falling to ruin in the woods. This turned into an exhausting, amazing journey of discovery, as I unearthed several Tut's tombs' worth of family treasures and secrets; my aunt turned out to have been, not just a compulsive pack-rat, but an obsessive diarist as well. As her strength for manic bouts of organization failed, she took to dumping all the detritus of their lives into undifferentiated piles, squirreled away in a dozen mouldering outbuildings. The clear-out job was a heartbreaking one, since this house was a mystical shrine of my childhood, scene of family summer picnics and Thanksgivings, and a place of deep respite and peace for me even in adulthood.
Don didn't seem to miss Brookside after we sold it, and kept busy loping about the city on public transportation (assisted by his trusty crutch), taking pictures, attending free concerts, and rewiring lamps with terrifying creativity. He proved as adept at unloading clutter as Louie was at collecting it; he'd often call me to announce cheerily, "I'm eliminating!" I suspect he gave away lots of stuff, valuable antiques as well as junk, to assorted home health aides, repairmen, and strangers. The Morningside apartment thus had three incarnations: the delightfully Bohemian refuge I remember as a kid (with a Buddha statue and a beaded curtain!); the Collier-brother elder-nest crammed with my aunt's books, homeopathic remedies (hundreds of jars' worth), and tchotchkes; and, finally, the widowed Don's increasingly bare and filthy rooms, filled mainly with piles of assorted photos and paper memorabilia that he proudly called his "museum." At the end, there was hardly more than a bed and a few sticks of furniture to hold the teetering piles of stuff.
Oh, and there was some old pre-digital photography equipment and supplies, offloaded to a member of the co-op's camera club. And now even the "museum" has been cleared out, much of it awaiting a final sorting in bags all over our house. The piles are 95% garbage and 5% priceless family pictures or terrific Don photography, all in manila envelopes with nonsensically wrong labels. An envelope marked "Italy, 1939" in Don's wavering hand might contain take-out menus from his favorite Indian restaurant down Broadway; a box labeled "best India slides" might turn out to contain an ancient cache of Fig Newtons; and so on. Don's mother, another clutterbug, saved 4-year-old Don's first drawings. So did Don. Half the family was involved with light opera; no one ever threw out a program in 125 years. I lifted a pile of letters from a grubby folder marked "Interesting People Known by Family"; among the thank-you notes and Christmas cards from long-forgotten acquaintances was a letter to my grandfather from Albert Einstein. (And a Publishers' Clearinghouse pitch from the mid-1980s--you get the idea.)
As Spouse and I wandered through the emptied-out rooms, now awaiting the anonymity of plaster and paint, I left one task for last: taking down the portraits of a young Don and Louie drawn by their family's friend, the legendary eccentric artiste Paul Swan. While no masterpieces, they are reasonable likenesses, and Don taped them up on the wall at the foot of his bed. During the final few days of his life, when we got him home from his purgatorial nursing home, they were the first thing he would see upon awakening, and the last thing he would see before turning out his lights. Removing them felt like lowering the flag before abandoning an embassy or a military base.
Their home for half a century, I thought, now dissolving back into a blank template of empty rooms. They moved here the month I was born, and now as I prepare to turn 50, I erase the last traces of their sojourn. Back in our own CrazyStable, it is impossible not to envision a time when these rooms, too, will stand empty again. But I find myself smiling; they had an awful lot of fun along the way, and by God's grace, so do we.
We still have that Buddha, by the way; he's sitting on our landing now, serene and inscrutable. There are some things you just can't get rid of.