When households merge: What to do with all that stuff?

In the 1967 film Barefoot in the Park, newlyweds played by Jane Fonda and Robert Redford move into their first apartment together. They own so little, the apartment holds their vibrant emotions more than their meager belongings.

I envy such simplicity.

When my first son was 9 months old, we moved from a house in Columbus to a shotgun apartment in Boston. In the weeks preceding our move, my ex-husband visited his brother and sister to collect his inheritance. Years earlier, the three siblings had divided up their parents’ belongings, but my ex didn’t have a place for things like 12 Queen Anne chairs, drop-leaf tables, a sideboard and two hutches.

In Boston, it was immediately evident we should have left the heirlooms with their previous caretakers.

Dividing the apartment like a river, a narrow hallway ran front to back with doors to small rooms on both sides. At its terminus, the hallway opened into the kitchen with a table and four chairs.

All other rooms, however, could’ve been mistaken for antique shops. Furniture lined every wall, often stacked two high. One room was inaccessible, warehousing all that fancy dining room furniture.

Many of the antiques had been built by my ex-husband’s great-grandfather, adding a layer of obligation to keep and preserve every single piece. In 14 years of marriage, we moved, with all that furniture, five times.

When we separated and a moving van drove away with all he owned, I felt relieved of an unwanted curatorship. Rooms where heavy furniture once towered felt vast and airy. Where I had been overwhelmed, I became calm.

The boys also liked the freed-up space and we were mindful of adding anything new. A couch and a wing-backed chair given to us by friends were all we acquired.

And then …

Gourmet kitchen

Lamb shank roasted with berries and a layered root vegetable casserole was the first meal Max cooked for me after he’d put an addition onto his house, which included a gourmet kitchen. More than the granite countertops and hickory cupboards and floors, I loved the layout of the kitchen — both open and cozy.

The rest of the house, however, was a curious blend. Max’s father had lived there for more than 20 years before he died in 1999 and much of his furniture and collectibles remained. Added to this were the contents of Max’s household, acquired during the years he lived in Philadelphia and Iowa City before returning to Ohio when his father became ill.

Books of poetry, fiction and literary criticism, from Max’s previous career as an English professor, filled shelves in several rooms. Artwork, including African masks, recalled long-ago trips taken by Max’s dad. Some things were stunning, like the table lamps with Buddhist figures for bases. Others were trinkets valued only for the connection to their previous owner.

The first years of our relationship, Max and I maintained our two homes, even after Leif was born. We started calling his home in Chagrin Falls our pied-à-terre, a village getaway from “big city life” here in Akron.

For well over a year, our friend and realtor, Barb Snyder, patiently showed us houses. With two homes already, we weren’t in a rush. Every month or two, we’d put together a list of properties we wanted to view.

Many newer homes had ideal floor plans for our large family. The houses we already owned were both early 20th century Arts and Crafts style. Old homes with doors made of solid wood, doorknobs of brass with decorative scutcheons, rooms with quirky features. We were very tempted by a home built in the ’60s with terrazzo flooring in the entryway. But the hollow-core doors and sterile bedrooms nixed it for us.

After the sellers dropped the price significantly, a home built in 1940 popped into our price range. We knew instantly. Rooms that flow with doors of solid wood and decorative trim. An acre and a half in the city with a 5-foot-tall wrought-iron fence enclosing the back yard. A month later it was ours.

Months to move

As we sold neither of our previous houses, we took several months to move. Endless moving. I opined over the couple I know who built a modern home in Peninsula and when they sold their century home in West Akron, sold nearly all their possessions in a tag sale and started afresh.

That couple has more money than we do.

The homes Max and I moved from were about 2,000 square feet each. At 3,000 square feet, the one we moved into is bigger, but still required substantial downsizing.

We had yard sales at Max’s Chagrin Falls home and at our new home. We sold stuff on Craigslist (it’s amazing what people will buy; seriously, Craigslist anything before throwing it out). And yet, we still had enough for an extra house.

So it was fortuitous when I bought the home next to my old one on land contract. We quickly filled it with our extraneous furniture. When Max opened his solo law practice, we made the ground floor of the new home his office. Our extra dining room table became his conference table.

The second and third floors became an apartment for Claude and Hugo when home from college. After he graduated in December 2016, Claude moved in permanently and began paying rent.

But wait, there’s more.

Still, sections of our garage and basement are filled with stuff we never use, will likely never need and, in some cases, cannot even say what it is. Over time, we’ve become largely blind to these piles, which include all the boxes we used when moving.

A Buddhist friend recently said managing a household like ours requires a continual balancing of order and chaos. Homes that are too tight and tidy restrict creativity, even joy. But extreme disorder makes clear thinking difficult.

And it’s not just an adult thing. Kids thrive with relaxed order. For one thing, it allows them to more easily find the toys they want. It also provides predictability and predictability fosters security.

This summer, I’m leading the charge. And I have a very willing crew. We have been in our house for seven years now. Enough time to lessen our attachment to items no longer of use. Room by room, floor by floor, things are going on Craigslist, to Goodwill and, on rare occasion, the trash. We can let go of once-precious possessions so they can bring joy to someone else.

And thereby bring us some much-needed simplicity.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 15, 2018.


Fully house nearly empty…for now

I have at times, like most parents, imagined my life with a different number of children:

What if Claude had been my only child?

What if I had stuck to my guns on zero population growth and birthed only Claude and Hugo?

What if Max and I had skipped having two more kids together? I’d be nearly done with the parenting of nonadults. Jules, who has one more year of high school, just turned 18.

Undeniably, my life would be different in any of these scenarios. But to imagine something is not the same as to wish for it.

Currently only one child, Lyra, is home with Max and me.

Jules and his girlfriend are in Northern Michigan. Leif, who will stay a few weeks with the grandparents, went with them. Jules comfortably drove everyone up there. I checked in on them throughout the long trip, but I knew they’d be fine.

It was different the first time a son of mine drove himself to Michigan. At the end of Claude’s first semester of college, he had a week between his second-to-last and last final exam. He took a Greyhound bus home and drove back to Ann Arbor for the test.

Before he left, I found some excuse to fill up the car for him at the BP in Fairlawn, right off I-77. Then, as he drove away, I whispered, “Please be safe, please be safe,” while my eyes welled up.

Some things do get easier.

After two years of saving and holding fundraisers, Hugo flew to Austria to study vocal performance in Graz for six weeks. Before he left, he came back from Rochester for wellness visits with doctors and the dentist.

While Hugo scheduled and got himself to his appointments, I was routinely involved. During a lunch meeting, I received four text messages and one call:

“So no fluoride, right?” Right.

“Do I need X-rays?” No.

“Just so I’m clear; I’m getting the fluoride and X-rays?” Hahaha.

“I need a filling for a chipped tooth, they’re checking on insurance.”

And that’s when he called, to get my OK for the $50 co-pay. Before I hung up, I told him how nice it was having him join my lunch meeting.

By the time I was Hugo’s age, I’d been on my own for years. Even then, I often wished I’d had someone to turn to as a young woman navigating adult decisions for the first time.

Hugo navigated the complexities of insurance coverage but understandably had questions. We soon commiserated over the amount of time it takes to get medical bills properly processed.

Apparently, Hugo and I are a lot alike. People regularly tell us as much. We’re both direct, extroverted and energetic. We have choleric temperaments, which is to say we are fiery.

Perhaps that is why he was the hardest kid for me to raise. His last two years of high school, I counted down the months until he moved out. The spring of his senior year he was so frustrating (not in my eyes alone), I had him move into a room at one of my rental homes.

Like me, Hugo values his independence. Moving him out early was reactionary on my part but, as it turns out, just what he needed. On his own, Hugo is more responsible and even tidier.

I drove Hugo back to Rochester so we could have time together before he left the country. Nobody makes me laugh like Hugo makes me laugh. We stopped at a Wendy’s in Erie for Cokes and when I asked for a biggie, nobody knew what I was talking about.

“These are our sizes,” said the cashier as she swept her hand under the row of cups.

“Okay, Mama, what’s with the baby talk?” asked a giggling Hugo. I looked it up on my phone and showed the two of them that Wendy’s did once, and for a long time, have a “biggie” size for a variety of items.

As soon as we were in the car, Hugo, a skilled raconteur, called Claude and retold the story, making it funnier and far more interesting than it was.

Still chuckling, we stepped into a T.J. Maxx to look for some things he needed for his trip. As we searched for backpacks, everything became hilarious and we found ourselves holding on to a fixture, belly laughing until tears rolled down our cheeks. When we finally stopped, we sighed loudly — several times.

Hugo, Claude and Jules Christensen all watch James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” with Paul McCartney. (Credit Max Thomas)

“You know,” said Hugo when we were back on I-90 East, “a lot of people have best friends they’ve known for years. I have good friends from when I was growing up, but my best friends really are Claude and Jules.”

Hugo will be a senior this fall, so it’s not like we aren’t used to him being away for months at a time. But there’s something different about him being so far away. Claude and Hugo especially sought to spend as much time together as they could before Hugo left. I had to tell Claude he could not call off work to hang out one last night with his brother.

It’s not always pretty. My boys will call each other out on transgressions in a hot second. But what a gift to have someone who will never walk away, who will always be in your life, point out when you are screwing up. Not to draw blood, but to push you to be your better self.

The armchair psychologist who lives in my head tells me I had five children because I was a lonely child. Funny thing, I love time alone. I enjoy a quiet house, including a week with only one child to feed. But that’s because the other four always return to fill it up. With a noisy mix of emotions all rooted in, yep, you guessed it, an abiding love.

This was first published in the Akron Beacon Journal on July 1, 2018