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For the past while, I have been clearing out Jim Gunn’s house. It wasn’t huge, but all of it was as full as it could hold, of everything from a Victorian wicker baby carriage to 1957 receipts. When you live in the same house for a long time, it’s easy to declutter a desk or cupboard by pushing the contents into a cardboard box and putting it in the basement. I have probably cleared more than two hundred boxes, not to mention bookcases, kitchen cabinets, linen closets, and the like.

I really cared about Jim, so this has been a chance to say a last farewell to him; but it’s always a good chance to take notes. There will come a day when someone else needs to clear my home, and what do I want them to have to do? I’m not a very cluttery person, so even if I never did much from now until my death, we wouldn’t have anything like Jim’s house has been — but why should anyone have to spend weeks on the task? With Jim’s house, I am being paid; but it’s not cheap hiring someone to do the work.

A few of the things I have noticed:

  • Don’t layer things. Don’t add a second row of books to the bookcase. Don’t push the pans in the cupboard back and put the new ones in front. Don’t put a new bookcase in front of a full bookcase, and then start to fill the new one.
  • With photos, identify them. There are many hundreds of very old photos and no one alive to say who is who. I occasionally recognize Jim or Jane as a child. Jim’s parents and grandparents and great aunts and all the rest are in that stack, but no one can say so. Do I keep them all because some might be important to the family, if only we knew which ones? Eventually they will all be discarded or sold to strangers, because no one can tell which are relevant.
  • If you break something you care about (or something you need) and you don’t fix it and get it back into your daily life quickly, you increase the chances that it will become irretrievably damaged. The basement was full of things that obviously were considered worth saving until they could be fixed, such as paintings in broken frames or tables with loose legs; and all of them, in their decades of waiting, got damaged to the point that they no longer can be saved. The paintings are ground with muddy dust and mildew; the screw that secured the table’s loose leg has rusted away and deeply stained everything it touched.
  • If you keep a thing, keep it for your own sake. I have found dozens of scrapbooks. Some were made by Jane when she was a child, but there are others that clearly are the leftovers of distant relatives which for some reason ended up in the Gunn house. There was a lot of attention put into them, a lot of careful decisions made — but they aren’t meaningful any more, except as interesting ephemera a stranger might buy on eBay (if we were selling them). I hope the creators enjoyed the process and flipped through every so often and felt satisfaction or nostalgia or whatever they hoped to feel when they put all that time into them — but no one else will ever see them the same way the creators did.
  • You don’t need those papers, and no one else will want them, either. Even in the estate of Grand Master James E. Gunn, most of the paper is just refuse.
  • If you are cleaning a disused place, mask up and glove up. Did I mention the spiders?

Anyway, I am probably 70% done now. I don’t know what it will feel like when the spaces are quiet and clean.