Digging Our Way out of the Archives

Audrey Thompson

Ivan mentioned last night that he and Karl Zeibig had gone to a sports clothing store over lunch. “You did? What for?” I asked. “You hate sports.”

“That’s what I said to Karl,” Ivan agreed. “’What’s in it for me?’ I asked him. ’Sparkling conversation,’ he said. So I went.”

Karl and Ivan like to shop together. Sometimes they shop together for things they both like and are sure that they need more of, like motherboards. Sometimes they try to get the other to shop for something only one of them wants, like hockey pads. All I really need is for friends to encourage Ivan to buy more stuff.

While I am trying to declutter and, what is far more difficult, trying to get Ivan to declutter, Karl is urging Ivan to buy bagpipes on e-bay. Ivan does not know how to play the bagpipes and doesn’t necessarily want to, but Karl wants to. Karl already has a set of bagpipes, but since he is too shy to call Fred Buchanon for help playing them, he is trying to get Ivan to buy a set of bagpipes, hoping that Ivan will run into trouble playing them and then have to call Fred on his own account, and eventually introduce Karl to him. Convoluted motives of this kind on the part of other people are what make it so hard to declutter. You have so many unpredictable people to deal with. It is not necessarily a plus that Ivan is actually perfectly predictable with regard to accumulating stuff. He says that he has lived with stuff and without stuff, and with stuff is better. He does not see that there might be a grey area here.

Cats invented life with stuff
Harley with stuff Teddy with stuff

In one of his pungent reviews for The Nation, Stuart Klawans had an indignant response to a movie boasting a fashionably stark, bleak, spare U.S. cityscape. “Where is all our stuff?” he demanded. This is also how our cats feel when we try to clear away a stack of papers — although my use of “we” is somewhat misleading, given that Ivan resists getting rid of anything other than offers of free installation from AOL. He says that he prefers not to disturb the cats.

For years, my mother has taken advantage of Ivan’s propensity to keep everything given to him. With the exception of books by Nancy and Jessica Mitford, which it would be reckless not to hoard multiple copies of, Mom does not care to hold onto a bunch of old stuff. Nevertheless, she wants her children to cling to anything she considers valuable. Barbara at first seemed like a good person to give things to because she has a profound sentimental attachment to any item once owned by a relative, including relatives she will never meet. Haunted by the ninety-year-old studio photographs she sees for sale at flea markets, Barb worries that no one in their families cares any more. As a result, Barb’s house has been an excellent repository for the hideous ceramic dragons formerly owned by our grandmother. I used to have to dust those dragons; even as a child, I wondered at their biliousness. Despite taking on the dragons, Barbara draws the line at a few things. When Mom gave her a photograph of Grandma with her back to the camera, serving tea at a military wives’ function, Barbara threw it away. She reasoned that you couldn’t even see Grandma’s face.

Ladies that lunch

Luckily, Mom had a back-up copy. She immediately sent it to me with strict instructions not to throw it away like my sister had. I might have thrown it away if it had just been a picture of my grandmother’s back, but it’s a picture of a world. The woman married to the highest ranking officer poured the coffee and the woman married to the next-ranking officer poured the tea. All the women wore hats.

Grandma facing the camera, holding strange baby
with Marian (Mom, left) and (Aunt) Audrey (right)
Grandma Colonel

The summer after Ivan and I were married, when Mom and Dad were on home leave from Brazil, we went out to dinner with Mom at a Peoria restaurant. At the end of the meal, we were given a form to fill out saying whether we liked the food and who we were to say so. “It wants to know who we are,” I announced. “What do you want me to put?” “Put me down as ’wife of a big shot’,” said Mom. It used to be that you could tell by the hats.

Barb, Chuck, and I are all under strict instructions not to throw away anything that Mom sends us, but the rule applies to Barb in particular. Mom knows perfectly well that Chuck will throw everything away. If you have old junk that you want out of the house but not totally inaccessible, it is no good giving it to my brother, because he would never keep something just because you used to like it. For the most part, he doesn’t keep things even if he himself likes them. It’s not that he is uninterested in material things. He buys things and he makes things, but he doesn’t keep them. When I visited Chuck and Kaarin at their apartment in La Jolla many years ago, Kaarin said, “What do you think of our art gallery?” I looked around the room and then peered down the hall. “Where is it?” I asked. “Right there,” she said, pointing to a single painting of Chuck’s hung on the long living room wall. This is not the kind of thing that counts as an art gallery around here, where we have a little trouble with wall space.

Van Laningham-Thompson Gallery Van Laningham-Thompson Gallery

Pepe’s house is almost literally an art gallery. There is art everywhere.

Edward and Pepe
Edward and Pepe
Ron, William, and Karen
Ron, William, and Karen

Pepe keeps his art overflow under the beds. We keep our overflow on the black couch, where the framed prints can double as a cat fort.

Harley in her fort

In addition, there is a useful fort behind the black couch.

Harley in her summer fort

I sent my brother a photo that I took at Pepe’s house and Chuck sent it back with the usual improvements. Pepe’s art collection now looks much more as if he spends a great deal of time with my brother.

Vianey, Idrees, and Ivan with revisionist art
Vianey, Idrees, and Ivan with revisionist art

Although Chuck and Kaarin are artists themselves and love all kinds of art, one thing you have to say about them is that they are not art snobs. For his birthday, Chuck asked me to draw him something. I warned him that this was not a very good idea and that he would only be disappointed, but trying to dissuade Chuck from something he’s decided upon had the usual nil effect. I tried threatening him instead. “I am going to draw you a picture of bunnies and chicks for your birthday,” I told him. “The chicks will be wearing necklaces and the bunnies will be wearing bows. Even in your dreams, you have never seen anything as beautiful as what I am going to draw. And the amazing thing is that it will all be on a piece of paper the size of a stamp.” I thought that this threat would do the trick, but Chuck was ecstatic. He threatened me in turn, via one of those small guilt-o-grams at which families can be so adept. “I think that the depression that’s been nipping at my heels would fully take hold if I didn’t get that drawing,” Chuck wrote me. So I doodled a bunny and chick at the bottom of my next letter. I actually meant the doodle as a threat, as in “Don’t ask for more of these,” but Chuck was once again delighted. He scanned the picture into the computer, enlarged it, took it to Barb and Joe’s, and taped it into various backgrounds so that he could take natural-seeming photos of the drawing amidst family.

Tommy with art Kaarin and Annika and art

Having spent a full day surrounded by multiple copies of the sketch, my sister now claims to have seen that drawing throughout her childhood. In a recent email she asked whether I had learned my bunny-and-chick style in fourth grade, which is when she assumes I perfected my cute-little-girls and bluebird styles, even though those were in seventh and tenth grades, respectively. My sister knows very little about art.

As soon as Barb asked me about the imaginary fourth grade scenario, a scenario to which she clings stubbornly despite every clarification and correction, my brother fired off a letter requesting that I send him all my bunny-and-chick drawings dating from the fourth grade. Although it is true that I have kept a lot of obscure and undesirable papers, they mostly do not date from my early youth. While looking for some photos, however, I did run across some dubious artwork from my teenage years. It appears that I was a better artist in the fourth grade than I was in the tenth grade. At least I hope I used to be better.

A hedgehog A cat and a butterfly

Most of the useless files I have kept are from my undergraduate and graduate years. Last summer, I finally got rid of my Shakespeare and adolescent literature class notebooks. This summer — not without some serious pangs — I recycled my notes from M. Truchet’s literature survey lectures at the Sorbonne. Yesterday, I threw away the stacks of notecards I used while writing my dissertation, and today I recycled the University of Illinois’s 1990-1991 “Instructions for Preparation of Theses.” My point is not that I am slowly working up to the things that are most precious and difficult to get rid of. My point is that the stacks are deep. However, there are no bunny-and-chick drawings from any era in any stack. The one I sent my brother was the first one I ever drew, no matter what my sister tells you.

M. Truchet
M. Truchet M. Truchet

Since I have no childhood bunny-and-chick drawings, I made Chuck four new sketches. His favorite — this came as a surprise — was the one with sock monkeys. Chuck wrote straight away to say that he and Kaarin loved bunny and chick and had invited them into the family along with the sock monkeys. It is lucky that I am not easily embarrassed, because it is no small thing to have produced something assigned to the same category as sock monkeys. Many people would be embarrassed by this, but I have become hardened to familial embarrassment over the years, what with one thing and another.

Teaching sock monkeys to salsa The Rough Crowd

If there had been bunny-and-chick pictures in the Audrey Archives, my mother would have sent them to Ivan and Ivan would have kept them. He is only now, slowly, releasing lesser items like a letter that I wrote to the Home Mothers in fifth grade, thanking them for taking us to the Conan Doyle castle. It was a very long, earnest, detailed, hardworking, well spelled, and painstakingly researched letter, but it would be too much to say that it was interesting. Still, when Ivan told Frank and Donna and Esther that he had finally let it go, they were shocked. They tried to reason with him. They wondered if he had been too rash. It is hard enough to get Ivan to get rid of stuff without our friends taking the side of stuff they have never even seen.

The majority of Ivan’s and my clutter is of the paper variety — books, letters, photos, previous drafts of papers and stories, unsent postcards of the Nebraska State Capitol, a receipt for the Elna sewing machine that Mom and Dad bought in 1968, indecipherable notes on the backs of envelopes, old grocery lists, and primary school report cards that say things like “Audrey is a diffident singer and could certainly stand to improve her French.”

Report card for 63-64
Receipt for Elna Sewing machine

But I am gradually getting rid of stuff. I have gotten rid of more books than Ivan has. He claims that this is because I have worse books. “The Economics of Switzerland!” he laughs, as if this settled the matter. Operating on the assumption that a book about Switzerland would automatically be interesting, for a long time I did own a book by that title. Whether it was interesting I couldn’t say. I could never bring myself to open it; it had “economics” in the title. I did once read a mystery about economists. It was not very good, although to be fair I did not end up wanting to kill the economists myself, as I had the bird watchers in that mystery that Phyllis made me read.

Keeping things minimal: Annika, Tom, and Chuck share one book
Chuck reading to Tommy and Annika while they lie on top of him

In addition to the paper clutter, there is a fair glut of kitchen stuff. I recently gave away a tinned charlotte pan and a ceramic escargot baking dish, against Ivan’s strategic objections (“We will have escargots tonight!” he said), but we still own an ugly poultry seasoning jar dating from when my family lived in Switzerland. The empty jar serves no aesthetic, culinary, or other useful function, but Ivan refuses to throw it away because it is an icon of my youth. Specifically, it comes with a story. After we moved to Illinois, Mom’s sister and her family came from Minnesota to spend Christmas with us. Aunt Audrey was helping Mom with the turkey dinner and asked whether we had any poultry seasoning. “Of course,” said Mom. “It’s in with the other spices.” “I can’t find it,” Aunt Audrey told her, after looking carefully through all the spice jars. Coming over to look in the cabinet, Mom spotted it in the very front row and said testily, “It’s right here. Right in front of everything else.” Looking pointedly at her sister, she added, “It says right on it, ’Geflügel-Gewürz.’”

Geflügel-Gewürz
Poultry seasoning
Aunt Audrey and Marian taking a nap
Aunt Audrey and Mom taking a nap

In getting rid of kitchen stuff, I have been trying to adhere to the principle that if we don’t use something or if it is not decorative and cannot be put away, then we don’t have room for it. Ivan is in favor of this principle except when it interferes with important new acquisitions. Last week he came home with a large plastic jar of jellied lychee that he got at the Asian market. “Look!” he said. “Snacks! Juny told me about them and she gave me one and they are excellent. I went and bought a whole huge jar so that we would have plenty. And look! Here is the perfect place for them.” He set the plastic container on top of the microwave.

“That is not the perfect place for them,” I said. “That jar does not go there.”

“But there’s nothing else right there and it fits,” Ivan pointed out.

“That is a messy place for them; I thought our plan was that we were going to try to put things away,” I said.

“Not if they’re decorative,” Ivan reminded me.

Decorative lychee jellies

We might not even have had a microwave if Mom and Dad hadn’t given us one while I was in grad school. Dad was working at Whayne Supply, and he won two microwaves in a contest at work, so he gave Barb and Joe one for Christmas and called us to see if we wanted the other one. I happened to be the one to answer the phone. “No, thank you, we have no use for one,” I told Dad. Mom called back again later when she knew I wouldn’t be home. “Do you need the microwave?” she asked Ivan. “Absolutely,” said Ivan. So they gave us a microwave oven for Christmas; we kept it on the only available surface space in the house, the bathroom counter.

A lot of our clutter is practical — practical if you ignore the question of how many old, hole-ridden dish towels a person really needs, or how many cat toys a cat can refuse to play with. There are plenty of dish towels and dishes, more than enough shampoos, and maybe a small surplus of bottles of Murphy’s Oil Soap, although it is true that you can never have enough and, really, you never know. What there is not a lot of is clothing. Unless you count T-shirts, which Ivan has seven or eight stacks of. It is good that we do not have more clothing, as there is no room for the clothes we do have, and if Ivan gets any more T-shirts, we will have to get rid of some of the other clothes we have, as he refuses to part with any of the T-shirts.

When Ivan and I were dating, I was the assistant manager at Parkland College Bookstore and I budgeted 40¢ a month for clothing. Every three months, I bought a 3-pack of pantyhose from K-mart for 98¢. Even with tax, that averaged to less than 40¢ a month, so I was always ahead of the game. I have no idea what hose cost nowadays, but I assume the price has gone up. Some things, I can accept when the price goes up. Eggs, for example. Other things, I can’t.

“Fifteen dollars for a T-shirt!” I say to Ivan. “How can a T-shirt cost $15? That’s an outrage. T-shirts should cost seven or eight dollars, tops.”

“When you were an undergraduate, they did cost $7. Now they are $15,” he says.

It is also hard for me to accept that new cars can cost more than $10,000. Our first new car was $10,000, but our second one was not. It was two and a half times that. “Ivan!” I said. “We could buy two and a half cars for the price of this one Subaru!”

“No, we couldn’t. Cars do not cost $10,000 any more. Actually, they didn’t cost that even when we got the Stanza. The only reason that car cost $10,000 was that the Nissan dealer cut $6,000 off the sticker price for hail damage. You have never had a new car that had a sticker price of $10,000.”

“Even $10,000 is a lot for a car. We had that nice Coupe de Ville that only cost $1,200,” I reminded him.

Shortly after we bought the Cadillac, a traveling salesman came into Diane’s bookstore when I was working, trying to sell Diane a fancy vacuum cleaner. She laughed. “I’m not going to buy one of those vacuums,” she told the guy. “This store doesn’t make that much money in a month.” I asked how much the vacuums cost. He didn’t want to tell us without first giving us the whole spiel, but since it was pretty clear that he was not going to sell us anything, he went ahead and told us. It cost $1,500. “We have a Cadillac that cost less than that vacuum cleaner!” I told the salesman.

“Yes, the Cadillac was a nice car, but new Cadillacs cost more than $1,200,” said Ivan.

Most days, Ivan finds it easy to spend more than I do. The books, the groceries, the tools, the DVDs, the motherboards, and the cat and dog toys are practically a daily expense, and that’s not counting the kitchen equipment and T-shirts. Today was the first day that I can remember outspending Ivan in quite a while. I spent $2.70 on library fines, and he hadn’t spent anything all day. “I outspent you,” I said. “I spent $2.70 at the library. Usually when we go shopping, you spend more than I do.”

“Going to the library is not ’shopping’,” said Ivan. “In any case, I spent more than you did. I gave you $1.70 of the $2.70 you had to pay for library fines, so that means I spent more than you today. I doubt that I will ever see that $1.70 again.”

“I will give you 70¢ back,” I said. “That way I will still have spent more than you.”

“I don’t get my whole $1.70 back? Just 70¢?” Ivan demanded.

“On second thought, you don’t get any of it back,” I told him. “I just remembered that you gave me that money. It was a gift. You just wanted to get rid of your change. It was a gift, so you can’t count it as spending. It is none of your business how I spent it.”

“You owe me five dollars,” Ivan interrupted.

“How could I owe you five dollars?” I asked.

“It is the surcharge for the $1.70 loan,” Ivan explained.

It isn’t true, by the way, that I hadn’t gone shopping with Ivan. He made me go with him to look at cars, even though we are not in the market for one. I reminded him that I had gone out of my way to go shopping with him.

“I don’t know if it counts as shopping if no one will wait on you,” Ivan complained. “What kind of car dealership doesn’t have salespeople who will wait on you?”

“Maybe it is the French waiter concept of car dealerships,” I said. “You are supposed to expect contempt because it is a fancy place.” We had gone to the BMW dealership, because that’s who has the license for Mini Coopers. Rose had told me that she and Bob had bought a Mini, and Ivan and I thought we would go see what their new car was like. Since Rose and Bob live in Chicago, Ivan and I went to a Salt Lake dealership.

It was not only new-car solidarity with Rose and Bob. Karl keeps asking Ivan if he has gone to check out the Minis yet, so that is weekly pressure. I do not know for sure why this counts as pressure. Karl himself has not gone to check out the Mini Coopers, although he claims to be interested. I suggested that Ivan and Karl go look at the Minis together. That way Laurel and I can stay home. When I made this very reasonable suggestion, Ivan laughed merrily. He and Karl would never dream of going to look at Minis together. There is always the hope that you could actually buy one, and you are not going to do that if you are just browsing with a friend. If I go along, on the other hand, Ivan can tell himself that he might talk me into buying a car, although I have a perfectly good 1991 Nissan that cost only $10,000 new.

It was a Saturday afternoon and there were a lot of customers at the BMW and Mini dealership, but only one salesperson. There was also a “service consultant,” but you couldn’t really count him, since he was about sixteen years old and spent the whole time chatting with his friends.

“Too bad we can’t just buy the dealership,” Ivan mused. This was in reference to a story that I heard when I was growing up in Geneva. Some rich guy and his son went into a fancy Swiss car dealership to look at cars, but they weren’t dressed up like rich people, so the salespeople wouldn’t wait on them. The rich guy bought the dealership and then fired all the snobby salespeople.

“Maybe we should just look at some other car,” I said. “I suppose I could buy a Hummer.” Not that we are in the market for a car. Not that I believe in Hummers, either. I am not a supporter of the police state lifestyle. It was just a joke. But Ivan took it seriously.

“If you have the money to buy a Hummer, you should be able to buy me the BMW dealership,” Ivan said.

“Really? How much do Hummers cost?” I asked.

“Over $60,000.”

“Man, you could buy six new cars for the price of one Hummer!” I remarked. It is hard for me to believe that any sane person would pay that much for a car.

“No, you could not buy six new cars for that price,” said Ivan. “New cars do not cost $10,000 any more. Even your Stanza did not cost $10,000. It was a $16,000 car that was marked down. Also, I will just mention, while we are on the topic, that T-shirts do not cost $8 any more, although I did get some very nice prices in Vietnam.”

“The T-shirts in Vietnam may have been cheap, but they were not great T-shirts. Those T-shirts were made of thin material, plus they were undersized,” I said.

“I’ll grant you that they were undersized,” Ivan agreed. “I should have bought everything in Super Gigantic size. But the material was not too thin. And you can’t beat the price.”

“It’s no good saying that you can’t beat the price if what you got for the price were undersized T-shirts that were too thin,” I pointed out.

“Nonsense! I have answered every single one of your arguments, yet you continue to repeat these tired old arguments that go nowhere,” Ivan complained.

“When you say that you have ’answered every single one of my arguments,’ you seem to be referring to one argument that you accepted and another that you simply denied. That is not ’answering’ my arguments,” I objected.

“Also, don’t forget that you owe me five dollars,” Ivan added.

We did not buy a car, but that very night our outdoor grill caught on fire and melted, so Ivan was able to get a little more shopping in. “No need for you to go out for eggs,” he told me. “I have to go out and buy a new grill anyway, so I will get eggs at the same time.”

Whereas some of our valuable stuff — like the gas grill — self-destructs, most of the clutter is remarkably hardy. You would be surprised at how durable polyester prom dresses from the 1970s are, for example.

I’ve been getting help decluttering and building new routines from the FlyLady list. FlyLady says to do everything quickly and not be such a perfectionist about it. Her assistants can change the sheets on a bed in three minutes, and she can do it in under two. “How long does it take you?” Ivan asked me. “Two and a half hours,” I said. I am not just changing the sheets the whole time, of course; I’m also doing other things. But you can see where I’d be interested in any little tips to streamline things.

Once you start decluttering, it feels good. Apart from clearing a little breathing space, there are other benefits. In going through stuff, you find stuff. Some people find lost car keys, glasses, pens, and shoes. I found the original “Ballroom Dance” photo series that my brother created years ago, in ironic commentary on a black-and-white photo of me jitterbugging that he had got hold of. Like the title George Goes to Hospital, which Chuck considers intrinsically hilarious, the dance picture struck him as almost surreally ludicrous. He tucked it into the settings for various otherwise mundane pictures so casually that you might never notice it if you weren’t looking for it.

The surrealist ballroom picture
The surrealist ballroom picture The surrealist ballroom picture
The surrealist ballroom picture The surrealist ballroom picture

When I thought I had lost the original photos, I wrote to Chuck asking for scans of his copies, but he didn’t have any of the photos anymore, other than the ballroom dance picture itself — that being one of the rare precious items he refuses to part with. Rather than tuck the picture physically into photo settings, he now sends me digitally enhanced ballroom-dance-embedded photos.

Revisionist version of Audrey in a hotel room on Whidbey Island
On Whidbey Island

When you begin serious decluttering, a lot of stuff is easy to toss. If you haven’t read the instructions for your floor fan in the first decade or so of ownership, you find yourself able to do without them. Giving away books that were the relaxation equivalent of The Economics of Switzerland proved surprisingly painless, as was parting with the luxury bath towels I’d bought Ivan that got stringy after one wash. It was a little harder, though, to contemplate giving up the Anne of Green Gables collection that neither of us had read in twenty years. Then Tony Weller told us that he got calls for Anne books every single month. Someone out there clearly needed those books a lot more than we did.

Other things are hard to give up, even if you know you will never use them again. Recently, a member on the FlyLady list suggested that we donate our wedding dresses to the Making Memories Breast Cancer Foundation to be auctioned. My Dad’s beloved sister, Joanne, died of breast cancer. Donating my wedding dress to the foundation was at once a difficult and an easy decision to make.

Aunt Joanne
Aunt Joanne
Joanne and Tom
Joanne and Tommy (Dad)
Tom and Audrey
Audrey and Tom at the wedding Audrey and Tom dancing

On the other hand, it was not only easy but fun to give our Lego-like Tyco phone and calculator to Olin. I called and asked Dolores if she thought that Olin would want the calculator; she said that Olin loved calculators. The transaction happened to come at a good time for Olin. When I walked up to the front porch, he and Dolores had just been having a slight difference of opinion. I hid the calculator behind my back and told Olin that I had something to give him. I asked if he would like to see it. He shook his head. “Not right now,” he said politely. He is only three and it is hard to shift moods with that dizzying rapidity he will need to learn as a teenager. So Dolores and I chatted, and every once in a while I would check in again with Olin to see if he wanted to look at the gift, but he still said, “Not right now.” It was a matter of pride.

After a while, I noticed that Olin was peering behind my back to get a glimpse of his present. “Are you trying to see what I have behind my back?” I asked him.

“No,” he assured me. “I’m just checking my tires.” He pretended to peer over at his Dad’s car, behind me.

“How do they look?” I asked.

“Pretty good,” he said, as if surprisingly encouraged. He continued to check various things — the flowers, the walls, the sprinklers, and, surreptitiously, the tires — when suddenly he found a quarter on the front porch. “Look what I found!” he said. “A penny-quarter!” He handed it to me. I thanked him and tried to give it back to him, suggesting that he might want to put it in his piggy bank, if he had one. “No, no! It’s for you,” he insisted. He also gave me two stickers from his arm to keep.

In return, I gave Olin the calculator. He was delighted to learn that it was solar powered. Olin loves batteries; this is his first solar-powered device. Then I gave him the Tyco phone, which he loved even more. He made a quick phone call. I answered. He shook his head at me. “I wasn’t calling you,” he pointed out. “This is an emergency call.” He wanted someone to come straight away to see to the sprinklers.

The phone has a drawer where you can store a few Lego or Tyco pieces. Olin opened the drawer and took out the Lego pieces to use as emergency buttons on his phone. Then he put the quarter and the stickers in the drawer. “Look, Mama!” he said, pulling out the drawer.

“Oh, you’re storing Audrey’s penny-quarter in your phone?” asked Dolores.

Disturbed at this misunderstanding, Olin said, “No, Mama! That’s my penny-quarter!” Once you have a place to store something, you have to be able to store things. And to do that, you’ll need your stickers and penny-quarters back.

Olin and his new Lego phone Olin and his new Lego phone
Olin and his new Lego phone Olin and his new Lego phone

One of the best Winnie-the-Pooh stories is about Eeyore being given an empty honey pot and a burst balloon for his birthday. At first, he is no more thrilled about this than many of us would be, but before long he realizes that you can put the broken balloon in the pot and then you can take it out again. This is very satisfying. It is this satisfaction that Olin is deriving from putting the quarter in the drawer and then taking it out again. It has nothing to do with accumulating clutter. He is not at risk. Yet.

The satisfaction of storing stuff in perpetuity is different, particularly if you go so far as to label and categorize the things you save. Ivan’s parents saved things with the kind of care that can only be described as archival. Their whole basement was crammed with junk, but it was organized junk. When Naomi and George went out of town on a trip to Evansville, Ivan and his brother Kelly took it upon themselves to clean out the basement. They looked through everything to see whether it was useful or not and discovered that most of it was not. Among the things they got rid of were used gift wrap, carefully ironed and folded but never reused; boxes of bent nails; tiny stubs of used birthday candles; a bamboo bird cage with masking-taped holes where the birds had eaten their way through; and expired light bulbs with the dates on which they had burnt out noted on the packages in permanent marker. Kelly and Ivan stacked the stuff on the curb for the next day’s garbage pick-up. When George and Naomi came home a day early and saw their stuff piled on the curb, they flew out of the car, shouting, “What’s this!? You’re throwing out our good stuff! This is good stuff!” They hauled most of it back in the house again, carefully stacking it in the basement in its exact original order.

Naomi going through stuff while Ivan watches
Naomi going through stuff

Despite our ingrained archival habits and a certain amount of genetic baggage on the part of one of us, I hold out some stubborn hope that Ivan and I are not doomed to preserve burnt-out lightbulbs in painstakingly labeled packages. We were not always surrounded by clutter. There are early photos of me looking calm and content in my immaculate bedroom and Ivan has a photo of himself reading happily on a couch that, at least for the few inches that are visible, appears to be free of clutter.

Ivan reading, without clutter Audrey without clutter

Admittedly, we were young then, and had not had time to accumulate much stuff. Since that time, Ivan and I have acquired a number of important historical artifacts and documents. Just today I discovered that I have my mother’s junior school report cards, as well as a document certifying that one of my ancestors was a notary public in Sweden. We are still digging our way out of the archives, but it really should be only a year or two before we reach the next occupation layer.

Meantime, I am happy to report that I have uncovered an archival chick painting from 1973. Because I believe in full disclosure, I reported this discovery to my family via email. My sister wrote back, “I knew that chick and duck drawing was inspired by paintings from the past.” I take issue with this entire statement. In the first place, the 1973 chick was not the “inspiration” for any later chicks. It is not that inspirational a chick, although, to be candid, it did form part of a soupily inspirational series I painted in my teens, in which “Friendship” and “Peace” and other Important Concepts were represented by Nature. “Joy” was represented by worms. The chick represented “Charity.” In the second place, and highly significantly, there were no bunnies in the series. There are no bunnies anywhere in the archives. Which brings me to my third and most important point: the “chick and duck drawing” to which my sister refers in such seemingly expert terms is, in point of fact, a bunny and chick drawing.

Some people know very little about art.

The Chick of Charity The Worms of Joy

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