Sunday, April 17, 2011

The biggest surprise

When I was talking with New York Times contributor Paula Span recently about the experience of cleaning out the condo, she asked me a great question: "What was the biggest surprise?" Nothing specific came to mind right away. It had been nearly a year since I'd locked that door for the last time, and my mind was cluttered with more current things, but a few weeks after the conversation, the memory of it suddenly hit me.

I had found the biggest surprise in the drawer of Opa's bedside table, underneath the index cards with illustrated directions for how to connect the High-8 video camera to the TV and VCR, a neatly folded sheet of typed lyrics for the Star Spangled Banner, five flashlights that didn't work, his stash of double-salt licorice, and a lot of miscellaneous batteries. It was inside of a small blue box with foreign writing on it that didn't look like Dutch to me. I mindlessly opened it, figuring that it was probably another "gift" that had come in the mail from some charity; another calculator or clock or something along those lines. I was two months into the clean-out process at that point, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the contents of the two bedrooms and their respective closets, but to find myself holding an Italian tear gas pistol came as a complete shock to me.

The biggest surprise

When I asked him about it, Opa said, "Oh, that's my revolver. It's for if someone breaks in at night."  I sat there trying to imagine a scenario in which my 95 year old grandfather, who has the steadiest, but largest hands I have ever seen, would successfully load teeny tiny tear gas caps, in the dark, without his glasses on, into this pistol, after first finding it underneath all the other stuff that was on top of it in the drawer.

Then I thought about all the nights during the previous four years when I had stayed up late after flying down for my long weekend visits, waiting for my grandparents to fall asleep so that I could sneak into the kitchen to reload the dishwasher with the dishes that had been put away dirty, sort through the contents of kitchen cabinets to find the source of rancid odors, and dump expired bottles of Thousand Island salad dressing down the garbage disposal. I began to imagine the story that might have run in the Herald Tribune if Opa's hearing loss had not been so profound, "Woman in pantry, surrounded by outdated boxes of Rice-a-Roni, teargassed by her grandfather who mistook her for an intruder..."

Opa is one of the most trusting people I have ever met, which is what made the discovery so hard to believe. If the pistol had been in the drawer on my grandmother's side of the bed, it would have all made so much more sense to me, but the people who have known Opa throughout his life agree that he'd be far more inclined to offer a burglar a cup of tea than to respond with self-defense.

He did not remember where he had bought the gun, or when, but my aunt put the pieces of the story together. She had lived in Uganda with her husband and young children between 1967-69. During a period of frequent break-ins and politic strain, they were advised to obtain tear gas for their personal safety. This wasn't something they could easily purchase locally, so they wrote to Opa for help. She didn't know that he'd bought one for himself too, but that must have been what happened. Neither of the weapons were ever fired.

While I was on the phone hearing the rest of the story, Opa sat at the kitchen table, wearing the coffee stained shirt that I hadn't been able to get him to change all week. Someone on The Price is Right was bidding on the showcase. As I watched him carefully sorting paper clips into neat piles of different sizes and colors, I could see it all so clearly, the X-Acto knife he'd used to cut the pages out of the center of a hardcover edition of Reader's Digest Collected Stories, the hours of letting the glue dry around the section that would hold the pistol, the long drive in his '66 Dodge Dart to a post office out of town, the fake return address, the successful smuggling operation. His strong desire to protect the people he loves; a lump rising in my throat. After I hung up the phone, I swallowed hard and said the only thing I could think of,  "Opa, would you like to go out for ice cream after lunch?"

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

When it no longer suits you

Suit jacket made by Opa's friend Mau in the 70's
Eighty-five years ago, Opa and his friend Mau were twelve year old boys playing in the streets of Amsterdam, riding bikes, going to the movies, and camping along the North Sea. By the time I knew them as retired old men sitting in lawn chairs on the beach, their friendship had survived a World War, immigration, and over fifty years of telling the same jokes. Mau grew up to be a tailor, and every few decades Opa would have a new suit made by his oldest friend.

When I was clearing out the wardrobe closet in Florida last spring, it was packed with every dress my grandmother had worn since immigration in 1957, (in a full range of sizes), purses and shoes in at least seven shades of beige, zippered bathrobes in every imaginable length and material, multiple pairs of identical slacks ("Buy one, get another half-off"), winter coats that hadn't been worn since the move from Massachusetts in the mid-eighties, an array of sun visors, and so much more. A woman's clothes are so occasional; the dress she wore to the fiftieth anniversary party when they hired that polka band... .the beaded blue two-piece suit from the last Captain's dinner, neatly stored in the dry cleaning bag, optimistically awaiting the next cruise. Cleaning out the closet of a recently departed loved one is overwhelmingly intimate and profoundly lonesome. The scent of familiarity has the power to deeply soothe and wound us in the same breath. I cried both kinds of tears as I sat on the floor of that closet, and the eleven umbrellas Oma had been saving for a rainy day could do nothing to deflect them.

When we would go for our walk to get the mail each afternoon, Opa would inevitably say to the ladies we met along the way, “My wife died. She was about your size. You could come to my house and see if any of her clothes fit you.” He didn't understand why nobody ever followed-up on his offer, so I started sneaking things out to the Goodwill and Salvation Army early in the morning, telling him later that I'd found someone who could really use them, which I desperately hoped was the truth.

When it came time to tackle Opa's side of the closet in preparation for our move, I made him try on everything he owned and we had a fashion show in the living room. We sorted his wardrobe into piles of 'things that fit' and 'things that didn't'. Then we subdivided, eliminating the fabrics that would most easily melt if they caught on fire, and other things we decided were unlikely to be worn by him in his ninety-fifth year (the belt buckles to his square dancing outfits, and the stretched out Speedo bathing suit with the lightening bolt on the backside). I appreciated his utilitarian approach to the process, “Why the hell do I need sixteen pairs of pants when I wear the same ones for a whole week and we have a perfectly good washing machine?” Moments of such clarity must be seized!  The decisions that followed were more straight forward than they would have been if my Oma had still been alive, and believe me, I felt guilty about that. We made one exception to our practical and ruthless purging; Mau's suits. They no longer fit Opa well, and we don't attend many suit-worthy occasions anymore, but after parting with so much already, “My longest- lasting friend made them for me,” seemed like a good enough reason to keep them.  

About six months after we got settled, Opa started to lose track of things that he usually carried in his pockets. My purse started getting overloaded with wadded up handkerchiefs, colored pencils, camera batteries, word search puzzle books, and the other items that travel with us on our daily outings. He needed a bag of his own...So we sent a suit jacket to my sister and she transformed it into the perfect solution, keeping the pockets intact and even reusing the original lining! (Click on the 'Something New' photo below to see her other similar projects.)

Something OldSomething New
Opa's jacket in 1979Opa's bag in 2011

Opa loves his new bag and tells everyone that it was “twice made” for him. The very same pocket that once held theater tickets and hotel keys now holds a pack of UNO cards and some spare hearing aide batteries, and it's getting a lot more use than it did while it was hanging in the back of the closet for the past twenty years.

What could you do with the beloved things that no longer suit you in their current form?

Spring is a great time to take a look in your closet. The Downsize Challenge this week is to sort through your wardrobe. I invite you to start with the things on hangers if the idea of tackling contents of dresser drawers feels like it will zap your life force. Diverting clothing from the textile waste stream is good for the planet and for the people on it. You probably already have some system in place for downsizing your unwanted clothing. Here are some options to consider:

You can maximize interest in a post on Freecyle or Craigslist by mentioning sizes and materials of what you have to offer (cotton dresses, denim jeans, wool coats, etc) rather than just listing “free clothes”. Don't limit yourself to thinking about the clothes as worthless in their current form. Many craftspeople seek these items for up-cycling projects and will be happy to take them off your hands. The condition may not matter if it is going to be deconstructed. When your old wool sweater has been cut up and felted and turned into something beautiful and new, nobody will ever know about that big hole in the left armpit.

Alterations: Do you still really love it but it needs some adjustment? Could it fit you again after a trip to the seamstress or tailor?

Consignment: Could you get some cash back?  

Donation: To maximize the impact of your local clothing donation, it's best to work seasonally. Your unwanted winter coat is honestly more likely to end up in the dumpster outside of the thrift store if you donate it in July than if you do so in October. Ask your donation center what happens to things that don't get purchased. Some participate in textile recycling programs (like this one in New York City). Others aren't in the loop yet. A lot of clothing goes into our landfills in spite of our best intentions.  (Readers, please post comments with your other resources and ideas.)

If you've got professional clothes in good condition, consider donating to one of several organizations that promote economic independence by providing workplace attire as part of career development programs:

But please remember, the recipients are not interviewing for careers as 1990's fashion models, so these clothes must be interview appropriate and IN STYLE.

Got any vintage items of interest? (Not just clothes, think about shoes, accessories, coats, hats, suitcases, parasols?...) A community theater company  in your area might welcome them for their costume shop.

And if you've been holding on to something sentimental from your longest lasting friend, consider how it might be transformed into something new to suit you. One of the keys to healthy downsizing is knowing what you really need to keep.