Since being “right-sized” (in corporate parlance) by my former employer in 2010, I have worked a plethora of jobs and gigs ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Having no foolish pride, I’ll gamely accept almost any money-generating task short of nuclear sludge removal. In every instance, I have learned something or gained a new skill or insight.
Among these experiences include carpenter’s helper, landscaper, painter (interior/exterior), recycler (deposit cans and scrap metal), Kelly temp, eBay dabbler, freelance writer/editor, and house clearer.
Yes, house clearer. Sometimes I am part of a team that clears out houses for estate sales.
After the deceased’s family removes all they hold dear, we go in and remove the chaff. Surprisingly, the experience has had a very profound impact on me.
The work is often very physical, dirty and sometimes gross. I wear a mask, knit hat, and leather gloves. But it’s a good workout and what I learn about people I’ve never met is often amazing and moving. Often this complete stranger might earn my admiration if not respect.
After overcoming a sense of intruding, we go through what’s left — books, clothes, personal papers, tools, hobby/crafts materials, et al, and the artifacts of unknowable sentimental value, the remainders of a life.
The books are telltale, mirroring a person’s interests, curiosities and values. Toys and recreational equipment reveal a whimsical and fun-loving side. Baby clothes and old photos reveal their past or connections to family.
Then there are the mysteries that come down to “Why would anyone hold onto . . .” — you fill in the blank. What about the single baby shoe dating back to the early 1900s? Who once danced the night away in this flapper dress? Why are these plush toys still wrapped in their original packaging? Who was the hand-crafted dollhouse intended for?
There are other discoveries: the pristine three-piece luggage set was hardly scratched. Did the person do some traveling? Did they get to see a bit of the world outside their routine and familiar life?
Every box we opened that turned out to be an unused Christmas or birthday gift had the giver’s tag or card tucked inside. There were many fine pieces of handwork — delicately crocheted linen hankies — given in friendship as was the custom of the time. They were always the same names, indicating abiding friendships of many decades.
After several days of loading two Dumpsters that were big enough to live in, I drove home looking forward to a long hot shower.
That night as I settled in, I looked around my house — I was seeing it in an entirely new perspective. The letter-opener my grandfather crafted, the chair I rescued and restored from a dump on Martha’s Vineyard, the sepia-tinted photo of my grandmother who died at age 22, the framed note from Eleanor Roosevelt to my mother, the tomahawk head my grandfather gave me — and all the sentimental gimcracks that no one would understand or appreciate.
Some day would house clearers come through here? Would I become some stranger’s mystery to figure out or not? Or would much of it end up in a Dumpster?
Then it came to me: It is time to match up the people I love with the things I love. I will not be a mystery to them.
Monica Finch lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.