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.

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