Each new stage in his evolution brought a new set of interests: new art, new cooking utensils, new reading material, new bathroom tile. Kent taught drama at a public high school, and, on his schoolteacher’s salary, in the years before the Internet, he shopped the world from home—mala prayer beads carved in the shape of miniature human skulls, an assortment of Buddhas to mix in with his wooden statues of saints (Padre Pio in his black cassock, as tall as a five-year-old). He laminated the receipts and letters of authenticity that came with his purchases and filed them away, along with handwritten prayers, in zippered leather pouches.
I grew up in 24-S, in the same way that Tavia grew up in my family’s house. We knew the contents of each other’s pantries and the efficacy of each other’s shampoos. And, though our house was much larger (it was a house, after all), the domain of the Cathcarts—Kent and Tavia and Tavia’s older sister, Therese—had a glamour and an exoticism that far exceeded anything most Catholic schoolgirls had seen. Candles were lit at all hours of the day. The walk-in closet in Kent’s bedroom had been converted into a shrine for meditation and prayer. A round, footed machine that looked like a plate-size U.F.O. burped out cascades of fog from the kitchen counter. The dining-room chairs were spring green, with backs carved to mimic the signs of the Paris Métro—a flourish of Art Nouveau transplanted to Nashville. Kent had had the seats of those chairs reupholstered in hot-pink patent leather. Tavia and I spent many happy hours of childhood standing between the two giant mirrors (eight by six feet, crowned with gold-tipped pagodas) that faced each other from either end of the tiny living room. We watched ourselves as we fluttered our arms up and down, two swans in an infinity of swans.
After his daughters were grown and gone, Kent amassed an enormous collection of Tibetan singing bowls, which crowded into what had once been Therese’s room, each on its own riser, each riser topped with a pouf made of Indian silk. He played them daily, turning sideways to move among them. When Tavia came home from Kentucky to visit, she slept at my house, as there was no longer an inch of space for her in 24-S.
Tavia wanted to show me a painting of a Hindu deity riding a white bull, four blue arms reaching out in every direction, that Kent had left me in his will.
Kent’s will was remarkably specific: Tavia got the fourteen-inch All-Clad covered sauté pan, Therese got the extensive collection of light bulbs, Tavia got the blue wool blanket, Therese got the midsize dehumidifier. The list went on and on: art, artifacts, household supplies. Since neither Tavia nor Therese had the space for more than a few mementos, they decided to sell most of their inheritance and split the proceeds equally. I added the blue deity to the sale.
In the end, I took a blue quartz egg held upright by a silver napkin ring. I took a case of Lance cheese crackers with peanut butter and a gross of Gin Gins ginger candy for the staff at the bookstore I co-own. I claimed six boxes of vegetable broth for myself.
For the rest of the summer, Tavia drove down from Louisville on the weekends to work with her sister on the cleanout. I, too, kept going back to 24-S, both to see my friend and to watch the closing down of a world that had helped shape me. “He made everything magic when he was alive,” Therese said sadly one day. “Now it’s all just stuff.” Friends and acquaintances came before the estate sale, wanting to pick through the bounty. I bought the painting of a floating house that had hung in Tavia’s bedroom throughout our childhood, the first painting I ever loved. I bought the green-and-pink dining-room chairs and gave them to my mother. Tavia was hugely relieved to know that they would be in a place where she could still come and sit in them.
Holding hands in the parking lot, Tavia and I swore a quiet oath: we would not do this to anyone. We would not leave the contents of our lives for someone else to sort through, because who would that mythical sorter be, anyway? My stepchildren? Her niece? Neither of us had children of our own. Could we assume that our husbands would make order out of what we left behind? According to the actuarial tables, we would outlive them.
Walking down the street to see a house that we passed every day, my husband, Karl, and I convinced ourselves that this was exactly the change we needed, so we were almost disappointed to find that we didn’t like this other house nearly as much as we liked the one we already lived in.
I could have said, “I wonder if we could just pretend to die,” but that pulled up a different set of images entirely. Could we at least prepare? Wasn’t that what Kent had failed to do? To make imagining his own death part of his spiritual practice, to look around 24-S and try to envision the world without him?
Karl had been living in our house for twenty-five years. I’d been there for sixteen—the longest I’d ever lived anywhere, by more than a decade. Ours was a marriage of like-minded neatness. Karl’s suit jacket went directly onto a hanger. I wiped down the kitchen counters before going to bed. Our never-ending stream of house guests frequently commented on the tranquillity of our surroundings, and I told them that the secret was not having much stuff.
But we had plenty of stuff. It’s a big house, and over time the closets and drawers had filled with things we never touched and, in many cases, had completely forgotten we owned. Karl said that he was game for a deep excavation. He was working from home. I had stopped travelling. If we were ever going to do this, now was the time.
What I had didn’t surprise me half as much as how I felt about it: the unexpected shame that came from owning seven mixing bowls, the guilt over never having made good use of the electric juicer my mother had given me, and, strangest of all, my anthropomorphism of inanimate objects—how would those plastic plates with pictures of chickadees on them feel when they realized they were on their way to the basement? It was as if I’d run my fingers across some unexpected lump in my psyche. Jesus, what was that?
My willingness to idly spin out a narrative for the actual chickadees that pecked at the bricks outside my window was one thing, but where did this quick stab of sympathy for tableware come from? I shook it off, refilled the laundry basket, and headed downstairs, wondering if this was a human condition or some disorder specific to novelists. My ability to animate the people who exist solely in my imagination is a time-honed skill, not unlike a ventriloquist’s ability to throw her voice into a sock puppet, a ventriloquist who eventually becomes so good at her job that she can make her hand speak convincingly without the sock, until finally there’s just the empty sock singing “O mio babbino caro” from the bottom of the hamper. Of course, it may not be a problem of humans or writers but something specific to me, though I doubt it. If this were my problem alone, more people would be cleaning out their kitchens.
To end Day One on a positive note, I struggled to open a drawer with about thirty-five dish towels crammed inside. They were charming dish towels, many unused, patterned with images of dogs, birds, koala bears, the great state of Tennessee. I decided that ten would be plenty. I washed and folded them all, then took the excess down to the basement. I revelled in the ease with which the drawer now opened and shut.
That was the warmup, the stretch.
The next night, after dinner, I hauled out a ladder in order to confront the upper kitchen cabinets. A dozen etched crystal champagne flutes sat on the very top shelf, so tall I could just barely ease them out. A dozen? I had collected them through my thirties, one at a time. Some I’d bought for myself, others I’d received as gifts, a single glass for my birthday, wrapped in tissue paper, as if I were a bride for an entire decade in which I married no one. Had I imagined that, at some point, twelve people would be in my house wanting champagne?
Everything about the glasses disappointed me: their number, their ridiculous height, the idea of them sitting up there all these years, waiting for me to throw a party. (See, there, I’m doing it again: the glasses were waiting. I had disappointed the glasses by failing to throw a party at which their existence would have been justified.) But it wasn’t just the champagne flutes. One shelf down, I found four Waterford brandy snifters behind a fleet of wineglasses. In high school, I had asked my parents for brandy snifters, and I had received them at the rate of one a year. I had also scored six tiny liqueur glasses and a set of white espresso cups that came with saucers the thickness of Communion wafers. The espresso cups were still in their original cardboard box, the corner of which had, at some point, been nibbled away. I had never made a cup of espresso, because I don’t actually like espresso.
“Dad changed his look every year for the kiddos,” Tavia had told me, “kiddos” being what Kent called his students. “They loved it. They were always waiting to see who he was going to be next.”
Who did I think I was going to be next? F. Scott Fitzgerald? Jay Gatsby? Would I drink champagne while standing in a fountain? Would I throw a brandy snifter into the fireplace at the end of an affair? I laid the glasses in the laundry basket, the tall and the small, separating them into layers with a blanket. Downstairs, I set them up on the concrete floor near the hot-water heater, where they made a battalion both pointless and dazzling.
I had miscalculated the tools of adulthood when I was young, or I had miscalculated the kind of adult I would be. I had taken my cues from Edith Wharton novels and Merchant Ivory films. I had taken my cues from my best friend’s father.
I had missed the mark on who I would become, but in doing so I had created a record of who I was at the time, a strange kid with strange expectations, because it wasn’t just the glasses—I’d bought flatware as well. When I was eight and my sister, Heather, was eleven, we were in a car accident, along with our stepfather. We each received an insurance settlement—five thousand dollars for me and ten thousand for her, because her injuries were easily twice as bad as mine. The money, after the lawyer’s cut, was placed in a low-interest trust, which we could access at eighteen. When Heather got her money, I petitioned the court for mine as well. I told the lawyer that the silver market was going up, up, up, and if I had to wait another three and a half years I’d never be able to afford flatware.
The judge gave me the money, maybe because he realized that any fourteen-year-old who referenced the silver market was a kid you wanted to get off your docket. I bought place settings for eight, along with serving pieces, in Gorham’s Chantilly. I bought salad forks, which I deemed essential, but held off on cream-soup spoons, which I did not. With the money I had left, I bought five South African Krugerrands—heavy gold coins I kept in the refrigerator of the doll house that was still in my bedroom—then sold them two years later for a neat profit.
“Keep everything you want,” I said to Karl. “I don’t want you to feel like you have to get rid of things just because I’m doing this.”
“I’m doing this, too.” He was working through closets of his own.
I found a giant plastic bin of silver trays and silver vases and silver chafing dishes in a hidden cupboard under the kitchen bar. Serving utensils, bowls, a tea service, a chocolate pot. I won’t say that I had forgotten them, but the bin hadn’t been opened since I’d wrapped the pieces and stored them, maybe fifteen years before. I spread out the contents on the dining-room table. These things were all Karl’s and, like my glasses, predated our marriage.
He idly reunited a dish with its lid. “Let’s get rid of it,” he said.
“Maybe you want to hold on to some of it?”
“Ten years ago, I would have said yes,” he said.
I waited for the second half of that sentence to arrive, but nothing came. Karl started to pile the silver back into the bin without a hint of nostalgia. I was worried that he would regret this later and hold it against me. I said as much, and he told me I was nuts. That I was nuts was becoming increasingly evident. Once full, the bin of silver was as heavy as a pirate’s chest, and we struggled to get it down to the basement together. He then called Leslie, the nurse at his medical practice, who steers him through his long, hard days with good sense and good cheer, and invited her to come over with her daughter to check out what was available.
I was mercifully able to keep myself from saying, “We were going to wait.” Of course this would be Karl’s favorite part, the part he would never be able to wait for: he got to give these things away. The first time I met Karl, he tried to give me his car.
An hour later, we were in the basement with Leslie and her daughter. Leslie had come straight from work and was wearing scrubs. Her daughter, Kerrie, also a nurse, was wearing hiking sandals and what appeared to be a hiking dress. She had recently returned from a journey down the Colorado Trail—Denver to Durango—logging five hundred miles alone. She came down with COVID along the way and waited it out in her tent.
“She just got engaged,” Leslie told me. Kerrie smiled.
“You’re going to need things,” Karl said.
Leslie laughed and told us that her daughter could still fit everything she owned in her car.
I believed it. Kerrie was the embodiment of fresh air and sunshine, her only adornment a mass of spectacular curls. Clearly, she had chosen to pursue a completely different model of adulthood. I watched as she took careful steps around the glasses and the cups laid out across the concrete floor. She lifted a single oversized champagne flute and held it up. “You really don’t want these?” she asked.
I told her that I didn’t want any of it. I didn’t tell her that she shouldn’t want any of it, either.
She took the champagne flutes. She took the brandy snifters, the decanter. She took the set of demitasse cups, but not the espresso cups. She took the stack of glass plates and the large assortment of mismatched wineglasses that had multiplied like rabbits over the years. Whenever she appeared to have reached her limit, Karl picked up something else and handed it to her. She accepted a few silver serving pieces, the square green serving dish. With every acquisition she asked me again, “Are you sure?”
I went through the motions of reassurance without being especially reassuring. The truth was, I felt oddly sick—not because I was going to miss these things but because somehow I was tricking her. I was passing off my burden to an unsuspecting sprite, and in doing so was perpetuating the myths of adult life that I had so wholeheartedly embraced. As she and her mother tenderly wrapped all those champagne flutes in dish towels, I pictured them tied to her backpack. When they were finished, I helped them carry their load out to the car. There they stood in the light of the late afternoon, thanking me and thanking me, saying they couldn’t believe it, so many beautiful things.
I had laid out my burden on the basement floor and Kerrie had borne it away. Or at least a chunk of it. There was still so much of the house to sort.
“Don’t feel bad,” Karl said, as we watched them back out of the driveway. “If we hadn’t given it to her, she would have registered for it.”
I did feel bad, but not for very long. The feeling that came to take its place was lightness.
This was the practice: I was starting to get rid of my possessions, at least the useless ones, because possessions stood between me and death. They didn’t protect me from death, but they created a barrier in my understanding, like layers of bubble wrap, so that instead of thinking about what was coming and the beauty that was here now I was thinking about the piles of shiny trinkets I’d accumulated. I had begun the journey of digging out.
Later that evening, Karl called his son and daughter-in-law, and they came over to look through the basement stash. After great deliberation, they agreed to take a Pyrex measuring cup and a device for planting bulbs. Karl’s daughter came the next morning and took the teacups, the industrial mixer, and every bit of the remaining silver. She was a woman who threw enormous parties for no reason on random Tuesdays. She was thrilled, and I was thrilled for her. It had all changed that fast. Making sure that the right person got the right things was no longer the point. The point was that those things were gone.
Night after night, I opened a closet or a drawer or a cupboard and began again. The laundry room was surprisingly depressing, with that gallon container of Tuff Stuff, a concentrated household cleaner I had bought so many years ago from a Russian kid who was selling it door to door. When he saw that I was about to decline, he unscrewed the cap and took a slug straight from the bottle. “Nontoxic,” he said, wiping his mouth with his hand. “You try?” I found half a dozen bottles of insect repellent with expiration dates in the early two-thousands, an inch of petrified Gorilla Glue, the collar and the bowl of a beloved dog long passed. The laundry room was where things went to die.
Every table had a drawer, and every drawer had a story—none of them interesting. I scouted them out room by room and sifted through the manuals and remotes and packets of flower food. I found the burnt-down ends of candles, campaign buttons, nickels, a shocking quantity of pencils, more decks of cards than two people could shuffle through in a lifetime. I gathered together the paper clips, made a ball out of the rubber bands, and threw the rest away.
I never considered getting rid of the things that were beautiful—the brass cage with a mechanical singing bird that I’d given Karl for our anniversary, the painting of the little black dog that hangs in the front hall. Nor was I concerned about the things we used—the green sofa in the living room, the table and chairs. If Karl and I were to disappear tomorrow, someone would want all of that. I wanted all of that. I was no ascetic, though I say that with some regret—I grew up with the Sisters of Mercy and attended twelve years of Catholic school. (Kent, who loved his worldly goods, had studied at the Trappist monastery at Gethsemani in his early years.)