My father lived at 617 Harding St. in Chippewa Falls since 1953, the year he and my mother bought an unfinished two-story house. When he died in April at age 93 he left behind about five tons of relics, including three floors of furniture from 10 decades, 120 bud vases, 200 plus 8-tracks, vintage Jim Beam decanters, a sauerkraut crock and 1,000 Amoco Christmas plates still in their original packaging.
Ten days before Dad died, he asked me, “You won’t get a dumpster, will you?” He teared up. Dying was inevitable; his real sadness came from leaving his house and his things.
I teased, “The only reason we’d get one is because it would be so fun for me to dig your stuff out of it.” My parents were collectors who filled every inch of every room. Their kids run the gamut from borderline-hoarders like a few of my five sisters and me to neatniks like my two brothers.
Dad taught me to dumpster dive. Neither of us could ever drive past any “FREE” sign or even just items at the curb. I currently have 10 mismatched dining chairs in my garage, part of my personal mission to keep perfectly good pieces out of the landfill even if I have no plan for them.
Dad was an “American picker” — long before there was a TV series — at auctions in his younger years and at thrift sales his last 25 years. He once got a great deal on 10 pairs of his dead neighbor’s underwear. My standards are a bit higher.
In “What Happens to Your Stuff When You Die?” Shane Cashman writes about his experiences working for an estate appraiser: “You learn a lot about a dead man rifling through his house — lifting his furniture, clearing his walls, going through his closets, finding out which psalms are dog-eared in his Bible — searching for anything that might be worth selling at auction. It feels like trespassing.” Cashman laments that he clears out homes of the dead until there is no trace of them.
The longer we live, the more things we amass. Recently that abundance has led to big business. One in 11 Americans pays for storage space, what one critic calls the “overflow of the American dream,” at an average cost of about $90 per month.
Dad didn’t believe in wasting money. Besides, he had three floors and a two-car garage with rafters; he made his own storage unit.
Currently there are more than 50,000 facilities in the U.S., which offer about 2.3 billion square feet of space to rent. One creative reporter calculated that the volume of these self-storage units could fill the Hoover Dam 26 times over. What happens to this excess after death? It’s often auctioned off to bidders hoping to discover a suitcase of gold coins or a $2 million Superman comic.
Dad’s best treasures were divided among his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren — add our partners and we’re a crew of 65. Then we held an estate sale and a week later gave the rest away in a two-hour free-for-all from Dad’s garage.
The last day of our July sale we take a break inside Dad’s air-conditioned house, and my family and I sing happy 70th to our oldest sister. Hers is the last See birthday we will ever celebrate at 617 Harding. Even the timbre of our voices sounds different in these empty rooms. Soon enough another family will live here.
As my parents are erased from their house, they appear in mine. Dad’s framed 4-H art project from when he was 7 and the deer horns he taxidermied when he was 57 now hang in my bathroom. In my hallway I recently mounted the original wooden house number sign he took down when he put on vinyl siding 40 years ago. I’ll always have “617” with me.
The first Saturday in August we arrange for Sofas for Service, a local veterans organization, to pick up Dad’s furniture and three vacuums just before our mass give-away. Even while volunteer Pete and his partner load up their truck, cars line the street in waiting.
Once I put up our FREE sign, the feeding frenzy begins, one Dad would have loved to watch. He liked a bargain but free was always better. Someone immediately grabs our “family tuxedo,” which I last wore trick-or-treating in 1983. A 30-something fills a bag of music cassettes. “My grandpa is into tapes,” he tells me.
“Then you should take a few more,” I say.
People are shy. More than one person asks, “This is really all free?”
Across the street two entrepreneurial siblings, ages 5 and 6, notice the crowd and set up a folding table to sell ice cold lemonade for a nickel. I sit in the shade and watch our customers carry their loads of freebies to cars, then beeline to the kids. Soon their price shoots up to $25, until Mom comes out to set them straight about the cents versus dollar sign.
A guy picks up Dad’s chimney sweep, which looks like a fancy metal lantern. I walk towards him just to ask, “What are you gonna do with that?”
He says, “Use it in one of the fountains I build.”
“A chimney sweep?”
He shows me photos on his phone: a bed frame rigged onto stilts behind a 3-tiered water feature with scavenged scrap metal scattered throughout the rock. Bizarre and perfect. Who would giggle most at this? Dad.
A woman cradles five VHS tapes and an adult toilet topper, Dad’s “throne.” This pairing makes me smile. If Dad was here, I’d joke, “Guess what she’s gonna do when she gets home?” And he’d shoot back, “I can’t believe some people have a TV and a tape player in their bathroom.” These past four months, I’ve had plenty of conversations with my dead father.
Someone I’ve never seen before says to me, “Sorry for your loss, girl.” Her voice drips with kindness. She’s here because she saw my Craigslist ad: “Everything must go. Our dad didn’t want his 93 year’s worth of treasures going in a dumpster. Come take anything for free.”
Dad may live on forever in some rural water feature or a much shorter time for the dude who took a box of his half-used shampoos and lotions. I’ll realize later that all of these strangers — who grab Dad’s faded bath towels and sheets, his plaid shirts and slippers, his toy trucks and mixing bowls — are part of my family’s grieving process as we give our father away piece by piece.