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Holiday Guide Feature

The Gifts That Count

The presents that have stayed in our writers' thoughts

By Raymond Cummings, Lauren Bender, Charles Cohen, Alex Epstein and John Barry | Posted 11/18/2009

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By Charles Cohen

Deanna Staffo

I have this old memory of my father standing in the hallway, loosening his tie. He had come back from a funeral. He told me that in the end, it comes down to how many boxes you have.

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"If you're rich, you have a lot of boxes," he said. "If you're poor, you don't have much."

My father wasn't one to dish out pearls of wisdom--that was my mother's territory. So even as a 13-year-old kid, I knew this nugget was a keeper. But nothing prepared for how it would serve as I measured the true value of my parents' things as we boxed them up one at a time.

My father died in March, and my mom died five months later. My father's death at 90 was anticipated. My mother's death, at 74, after she developed fast-moving lung cancer, was not.

To have both of your parents obliterated from your life will send you into a spiral of memories, especially when you find yourself opening the door to their bright apartment to see everything in place, including the dents in the couch cushions, as if they were out for lunch. It's not spooky, but it's sobering, as you confront a house full of their stuff that takes on new meaning.

In fact, their entire lives, more specifically your relationship with them, are reduced to stuff--stuff on bookcases, in drawers, neatly stashed. No matter how prized, rare, or valued, these inanimate objects stand quietly, very quietly, before you, and the memories come to a boil in your head. My father's saying about the boxes was on heavy rotation.

 A basic rule in the science of sentimentality: Memories tend to adhere to anything solid. Add the finality of death to the equation and random memories becomes synced together, and their lives emerge with a renewed focus--that is, before my brother and I would dismantle it forever. And this act of unraveling is one of life's more distinctive sensations, like the first time you moved away from home, a once-in-a-lifetime journey. Abstract as this idea seems, our day-to-day existence became dominated by the physical reality of cleaning out our parents' condo before we put it up for sale, always balancing the marketplace against our emotions.

Everybody has treasured mementos, items of distinction. But my parents spent their lives hunting such future heirlooms for Baltimore-area families, and displaying them in the window of Gallery 1330, their shop on Reisterstown Road, in which they carried high-end china and silver and a revolving selection of home-furnishing art pieces. So what my brother and I faced for several months became both a sampling of the gift-giving era that spanned the '60s to the '90s and a freshly opened archaeological site of our family story told through objects that were about to be scattered forever.

We sat on the couch, my brother and I, easily attaching eras to a 1960s stainless-steel steamer--summers eating corn--or say a modernist clock with a face that changed colors with the second hand, a beacon shining brightly from the '70s. There was my father's soft burgundy leather bag labeled with a card bearing the typed address of our childhood home. In the corner stood two statues, a Chinese  warrior and a goddess, that were given to my mother by an aunt when she emigrated to the United States from Glasgow, Scotland. My mother was told she could always sell them for quick passage back to the United Kingdom. There was the potato masher, small Limoges pots that my mom filled with chocolate mousse, my father's wooden shoeshine box, which we opened as kids to inhale rich polish fumes. There was my mother's brand new vacuum, the last major purchase of her life, rows and rows of crystal stemware, outdated stationary, a Picasso lithograph that hung over our childhood fireplace like a family seal. Enough Le Creuset to supply a restaurant. Frozen samplings from major feasts of years gone by as well as saved, labeled and dated items--egg whites, chocolate shavings--reserved for meals that now would never be.

Somehow, we had to get rid of this stuff. Either toss it in a Dumpster, store it in our already cluttered homes, or give it away. But knowing so and doing so are two different things.

When culling trash from treasure it can take hours to fill one box, stopping to calculate the significance of what you are about to toss. I held simple black magnets that my mother used to cover her refrigerator with Polaroids of her grandchildren. Trash? Probably. I stuffed these little pellets in my pocket.

We grew to resent the curator burden thrust upon us. At night, my brother and I took trips to the trash chute to dispose of things that failed to make the cut. We became a little too proficient in the disposal ritual, recalling scenes of Paulie and Christopher cleaning up their business on The Sopranos. The jarring sounds of broken glass, wicker baskets, and two wooden birds clunking their way eight floors down to the trash bin below sent us into fits of laughter. A bedpan can make some racket going down a condo tower chute.

But there were bursts of second thoughts. My brother looked at me with disbelief when I was about to toss my father's broken-down leather attache case. And as I stuffed my mother's knitting needles down, I spotted a multi-colored yarn square that my mother had made--picture Joseph's coat of many colors condensed into a 2-inch-square swath. I grabbed the yarn unraveling in my hands and pulled it up from the depths of the chute, working like an escaping convict to cut the swath free from its deadly tether. As I worked a key like a knife, my brother seemed to realize that I had finally lost it. But I couldn't let this go, and stuffed my new-found totem in my pocket.

The same was true with her full can of ironing starch--Niagara, the same brand we used as kids. My father's ugly, banged-up cane. Her perfume bottle. Strange to keep for so many reasons. But I can't toss it either.

Again and again, I was floored by the seemingly minor things that worked their way into the cornered section of cherished stuff. The silver candlesticks given to my mother by our grandmother were classic heirlooms, but they stood next to the tray on which we carried coffee to our parents all through our childhood--red, yellow, black, and ugly. There was an earthen faux-primitive vase that could easily have been tossed except it was one of the few vestiges from my father's famed bachelor days.

My mother's butter knife that she carried in her purse stood shoulder to shoulder with the Lalique decanter, an Art Deco crystal bowl, an antique set of Charles Dickens editions. The worn cutting board and the dented colander held more memories than antique prints of the five senses.

My mother kept an orderly house. Everything was not only in its place, but eloquently exhibited. But for some reason, a woman who headed one of the finer china shops on the East Coast treasured a sagging, worn-out cardboard box, the perfect depot for her grandchildren's toys. Unfortunately, the grandkids had outgrown the toys, but not the box. During the last visit before she fell suddenly ill, all four rapscallions pounced on this poor container, climbing in, poking holes, drawing cartoons on the sides. It was doomed to the recycling Dumpster until my mother interceded.

I have always been one of those yard-sale daydreamers, indulging in the sense of mortality, mystery, and cruel finality, picking through flotsam of someone else's past. Now, here I stood at the headwaters of the tag sale, packing the not-so-lucky platters off to a thrift shop or giving away medical items to a hospital. I opened my car trunk, holding the battered box to scoop up the last items before deeming the condo real-estate ready. In it I would put a massive bottle of shampoo, disposable razor, and a tiny porcelain box emblazoned with mementos and keepsakes--those, I don't know what would happen to them. But that box with the poked holes and the kid's graffiti on the bottom, that I will keep.

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Holiday Guide Feature archives

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Stuffed (11/18/2009)
The 2009 City Paper Holiday Guide

The Wish List (11/18/2009)
Gifts we wish we could afford

Present Tense (11/19/2008)
City Paper's 2008 Holiday Guide

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