Confronting the conflicts of cleaning out the garage

SEPTEMBER 12, 2016 By Courtenay Harris Bond

This month we cleaned out our garage—a gargantuan chore that involved the whole family and threatened to send a rift through my marriage.

I am a doer and a purger. My husband is a procrastinator and a saver. Our opposing qualities balance each other in many circumstances and create a sort of equilibrium in parenting our twin 9-year-olds and 6-year old. But when it comes to jobs like sorting through piles of musty mementoes, our contrary natures can bring us to blows.

“I think you have misconstrued the meaning of Labor Day,” my husband said when I informed him about the work that lay ahead.

But the weather was mild, a cool breeze forecasting fall. School and all our children’s activities were about to begin. So as much as I, too, wanted a respite, I knew this was our chance to purge. Plus, I had avoided the conflicts that I knew this project would involve for long enough—eight years, in fact. And in order to realize my fantasy of someday transforming the garage into a hideaway for myself, first we needed to clean it out.

Despite my fervor to get the job done, however, I did feel daunted when Jeff finally agreed to heave open the garage door, and we confronted moldering boxes of papers, wobbly strollers, a lawn mower that hadn’t worked in at least seven years, a nest of what I would describe as spider crickets. Teenagers of a previous owner had used this cavern as their den of iniquity, scrawling graffiti on the walls and “welcome to hell” on the cement floor at the entrance. We couldn’t quite reach an ancient bottle of Schnapps hiding on some plywood in the rafters, even though Jeff climbed a ladder.

But after an initial burst of energy, my husband soon became lost in his past. He burrowed into boxes of mementoes, while our son played basketball in the driveway around us. Our daughters wandered in and out of the house, taping “free stuff” signs onto the discards—outdated car seats, a dresser long missing a drawer—that I kept hauling to the street.

A woman pulled up and took three broken chairs I had painted several years ago but had been too impatient to let dry before applying additional layers. I felt compelled to warn her that they were tacky in both senses of the word, but to my delight, she took them anyway. A mother and her pregnant daughter stopped to inspect the strollers.

“This is the best junk I ever saw!” the soon-to-be grandmother exclaimed, filling me with a sense of satisfaction.

Each time a passerby claimed a piece of my history—my 24-year-old roller blades, a cheap beach umbrella we bought for a trip to the shore when our twins were infants—I felt lighter and brighter. But my husband kept grumbling as I urged him to cast off the trappings of his past.

Among the gems he found was his high school prom picture, his forehead glistening above his oversized glasses. The 1980s gray tux alone, I thought, was grounds for divorce.

“I don’t ever want to see that again,” I said.

He tucked the photo back into the trunk along with a bundle of yearbooks and a 1987 Run DMC/Beastie Boys concert poster that adorned his college dorm room wall. His prize discovery was an unopened bottle of Coke honoring Joe Paterno as the 1986 Sports Illustrated man-of-the-year, a token my husband swore he would keep for “irony’s sake” or at least try to sell on eBay. 

“This is hard for me,” Jeff kept saying as he hunched over an ancient trunk, reading newspaper clippings from his high school football glory days.

Unsentimental and ready to move forward, I had trouble relating to my husband’s determination to hold onto these reminders of the past. I told our kids, “When in doubt, throw it out.” And my satisfaction increased each time a cracked plastic sled or box of broken frames landed on the pile we would later transport to the dump. Given my preference, I would have thrown out everything, except for perhaps the lawn mower and our children’s bicycles.

But the afternoon was wearing on and the blacktop on our driveway was getting hotter. Jeff was still hemming and hawing about getting rid of his moldy high school history papers and box of sheet music that neither of us could read. I began to worry that we would never empty this space, much less turn it into one fit for habitation and contemplation.

So ultimately, I had to compromise. Jeff kept his old trunk and several boxes containing random items—a Mike Schmidt bobble head doll, a 1993 Fall Classic World Series Official Souvenir Scorebook. But my husband promised he would try to get rid of more down the road.

And as we swept out the now uncluttered garage, Jeff admitted that he felt “pretty good”—a statement that meant more than any future fem-den or long-forgotten memento—one that helped re-establish our family’s equilibrium.

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