Letting go

Our house

Ever since we returned from Mongolia in July 2019, Emma and I have been talking about moving overseas again. We had a plan even before that, but it was a generalized plan. When Emma finished eighth grade, we’d move away from southern California, maybe to Switzerland (where my mother was from), or to some other country, or even to another part of the US with a lower cost of living and fewer people. When Mongolia happened, we knew for sure we wanted to move overseas. When we got back, we started the process of getting rid of our things in preparation for that. Not quite aggressively enough at first, but the summer and fall saw a steady stream of possessions heading out our door, donated to various organizations or given away to friends.

When we decided that we wanted to go back to Mongolia, we had a real destination and plan. It was towards the end of February, and COVID-19 was on the horizon. Mongolia had already closed down schools, from kindergarten through university, and declared a state of high alert because of their proximity to China. I was teaching online for Mongolia International University (MIU), anyway, so it wasn’t a big change for me, but all of the university’s courses would now be online, and the students and faculty who had gone overseas for the winter break were unable to return to Mongolia. Still, we were hopeful that things would open up again and we’d be able to travel there in the summer.

I also had a plan for getting rid of nearly everything we owned. When we were in Mongolia, we had very little with us—just what we brought in our suitcases and a basic functioning household. We realized how little we needed to live a perfectly good life, so we planned to get rid of a lot of stuff when we got back to the US. Of course, I was teaching at both MIU and UCSD in the fall, so I was busy, but we did regular purges of clothes, books, kitchen equipment, papers, and toys. Some things I knew would take more time, so I held off on them. I was going to sell a lot of my academic books on Amazon, aside from what I needed for teaching my MIU courses and what I would donate to the MIU library. My plan was to continue teaching at both UCSD and MIU for the academic year, until June 2020, but then spend the early part of the summer really clearing out to sell our house.

That changed when I received notification that I was losing my health insurance, which I had through UCSD. When I took my leave of absence to go to Mongolia in the fall of 2018, the woman I talked to in Human Resources had said my status would freeze and I would be eligible for benefits when I returned. At the time, I had full benefits from UCSD, including health, dental, and vision insurance, disability, and pension. Knowing that I would be able to keep that after I returned from Mongolia helped me to make the decision to go in the first place. My idea was to come back from Mongolia, teach at UCSD for one more year (2019-2020) to give Emma a chance to finish 8th grade at her school, and then retire. But at the end of December 2019, I got an email notification that I was losing our health insurance at the end of January 2020. In a subsequent exchange with Human Resources, it emerged that I’d been misinformed about the effects of my leave, and by their new method of calculating benefits eligibility, I was no longer eligible, even though I had a 12-month contract and was teaching more than enough hours to have benefits. This is the life of contingent faculty.

Almost overnight I decided to leave UCSD a quarter earlier, in March, and focus on selling the house and getting us ready to go overseas. In hindsight, it was a good decision because it saved me having to figure out how to move my UCSD courses online, as the Chancellor announced that spring quarter would be conducted remotely. My last class at UCSD was March 13, and after that I would grade some 80 final papers, and then concentrate on getting us ready to get out and head for Mongolia in July or August. I knew Mongolia’s borders were closed, and they kept extending the closure month by month, but I thought it was still worth taking the extra time. I could make more money selling things than I could teaching, and if I wasn’t getting benefits, the intense work for little pay wasn’t worth it.

Emma’s school also moved online at the same time. The morning of Friday, March 13, her school’s director sent an email saying that they would be closing the physical school and moving classes online the following week. By the following Wednesday, they had done so, and she was “in school” every weekday after that. She is starting her last week of eighth grade tomorrow. As sad as we were to have the school closure, it ended up being fortuitous because she could help me a lot more with the sorting, packing, and moving than she would have been able to if I’d been driving her to school every day.

The thing was, our house (a 1600 square foot three-bedroom home) was pretty full of stuff. Part of it was the way I had moved my parents’ things first into storage and then into the house when I sold their house and bought mine in 2011. My father had died in 2007, and my mother in 2009, and my brother and I had kept the house so that he could stay there for a while after a move back from Texas. Then Emma and I stayed at my parents’ house in the summer of 2010, after we moved back from Pittsburgh. The thing about my parents’ house, though, was that it was in a retirement community, and you needed to be 55 or older to live there. We talked about renting the house until one of us was old enough, but neither of us particularly wanted to live there anyway (when I turn 55, Emma will be 15, and it would be really unlikely we’d want to move into a retirement community in the California desert).

So we decided to sell our parents’ house, which would mainly fall on me because of the two of us I’m the one more inclined to handle practical matters. It was an emotional time, going through their things just over a year after my mother had died, deciding what to keep and what to donate, sell, or give away. And I had a four-year-old child to “help” me. It’s no wonder I just ended up packing up a lot of their things (mainly papers, photos, movies, and personal effects) and moving them out to San Diego where I lived. I was in a one-bedroom apartment with Emma, so I rented a storage unit to move their things into. As for the furniture, my mother had specified that she wanted my brother to get the dining and living room furniture that she had brought from Switzerland, while I was to get her grandfather’s desk (which she always called “the Bernese desk” after its provenance) and the bedroom furniture my parents had bought from a furniture maker in Flüelen, on the Vierwalstättersee—two twin bedsteads and matching night tables. I also took a small hand-carved chest that had held my mother’s sewing and knitting supplies, two wingback chairs my parents had bought for the house in the desert, their kitchen table and chairs, and a sleeper sofa.

Eventually, all of this ended up in my house, mixed in with our own possessions. I didn’t have a lot of free time, so most of the boxes ended up in closets or the garage. The furniture, we used. So part of the clearing out process I began after our return from Mongolia was going to be finally going through my parents’ things and deciding what to keep. The antique Swiss furniture has ended up in storage, partly because I am not ready to part with it, and partly because I would rather try to sell it than donate it. In fact, my plan for almost everything was to sell it or donate it, and then have a yard sale at the very end to get rid of whatever was left.

COVID-19 put the kibosh on all that. As events unfolded and it became clearer that this was a serious pandemic much worse than the seasonal flu, I decided it wouldn’t be worth the risk to have people come to the house and buy things. Also, the organizations I usually donated to were no longer taking donations. I had a pick-up with Vietnam Veterans of America scheduled for March 13, put everything out in the driveway, and then put everything back in the garage because as of that day they stopped their donation pick-ups. Timing is everything.

The garage at some point

I continued to go through everything, clearing boxes out of closets and going through them one at a time. Between my papers and my parents’, I spent hours shredding documents and filling our recycle bin with bags of shredded paper. It turns out I had their tax records going all the way back to 1994, the year before they moved to California from New Jersey. And a lot of other things. I must have just emptied their filing cabinet and desks into boxes. I know at the time I was clearing out their house, I wasn’t emotionally ready to be getting rid of their things. Even their 17-year-old tax records. Even now, 11 years after my mother died, I felt weepy when I found yet another file box filled with their records in the process of clearing out my garage. It contained papers from the 1968 purchase and 1995 sale of their house in New Jersey, as well as the purchase of the house in California.

One of the reasons I find it difficult to part with things like this is my training as a historian, and my historical inclinations. I have gone through things from my parents and their childhoods (more from my father than my mother there), my own childhood, and Emma’s childhood. I have gotten rid of a lot, but I keep thinking that this is my archive. Our archive. And archives are irreplaceable. They become the basis for stories, for future tellings of past events. If you get rid of the archive, the historical evidence is gone. Some people are fine with this. They gladly walk away from their history. I have a harder time with it. I tend not to remember things very well, but if I have a physical cue, the memories come rushing back. And history matters.

So, we have a storage unit, a 10 ft. x 10 ft. room on the second floor of a warehouse in Carlsbad, full of our archive and some antique Swiss furniture. There are some things we’ll have to go through again, this summer while we wait for our Mongolian visas (whenever we can get those; see my previous post on that).

And we have a one-bedroom apartment. We kept the family room armchair and loveseat, coffee table, two twin mattresses, and our television. There is also an elliptical exercise machine, Emma’s considerable LEGO collection (which she’ll organize and sell) and boxes of family photographs, slides, and movies from both of my parents and myself. I also have a few boxes I didn’t have a chance to go through before we had to have the house empty; they await their contents’ final disposition. I keep thinking that having all this stuff is a form of madness, but we are digging our way out of it.

Emma’s theory on getting rid of everything is that you have to do it when you are in the right mood, when you are feeling detached from your life and can look at your things almost as if they are someone else’s. She’s absolutely right. She’s been quite amazing in her enthusiasm for giving things away. I know it hasn’t been easy for her; once or twice she mentioned how difficult it was to give her childhood away so quickly: “I got rid of everything all at once.” But she was the one who kept me on track when I would waver in my own purging. She has thoroughly embraced the idea of moving overseas, and also of not acquiring more stuff. The only thing she still can’t resist is a good t-shirt (she got three with LGBTQ+ rights messages for her birthday this year). But at some point when we were in Mongolia, she suddenly stopped acquiring or even wanting new things. This has made me very happy.

Getting rid of a household was more difficult than I thought it would be, especially because of the pandemic. I ended up having to make an appointment with Junk King. It hasn’t happened yet, but in theory they will send me a tax receipt for everything that I gave them to be donated. They are storing donations until organizations can come and pick them up. The first pick-up was the hardest. First, everything was happening all at once, with the painters there and the folks arriving to take some of my furniture across the border to Mexico. There was one piece they didn’t want, a wooden dresser I’d had since I was a baby. My parents had bought it at a yard sale just before I was born, and I’d had it in my bedroom my whole life. I decided it was time to give it away. In the end, Junk King took it to add to the donate pile. I choked up when I saw it go on the truck, and again when I watched it go down the street to an unknown future. Another piece of my life, gone.

And now we are on the other side of it, mostly. The house is empty, except for a few things in the garage. I ended up giving almost everything away, since donation centers only opened this past week. There was a family whose relative runs a re-sale shop across the border in Tijuana, and I gave a lot of furniture to them. At least we were contributing to the Mexican economy. Also, now that it’s almost too late, I was notified that Vietnam Veterans of America is picking up donations again, so I scheduled two pickups. The last one will be June 19, to give me a chance to go through a lot of what is in our apartment and get rid of still more.

I was joking with Emma that she was seeing an example of a terrible way to move. Partly because of the pandemical circumstances and partly because of how I just seem to do things these days, I ended up hiring movers only for the stuff that was too big for me to put in my car: the furniture going into storage and the furniture coming to the apartment. I was still sorting through things when we “moved” on April 29, and we didn’t actually end up living in the apartment until May 8. So it was a protracted experience, with carloads of boxes and other things going from the house to the storage unit or apartment over several weeks. I still have two or three more boxes and our bicycles back at the house. And then there have also been boxes and small pieces of furniture going from our apartment back to the house as I’ve realized we don’t have enough room for them and don’t really need them anyway. Definitely not the best way to organize a move.

The months of April and May were a drawn-out, emotional, exhausting farewell to our life in our house in California and very likely the USA. Pieces of me, of Emma, of my parents, were boxed or bagged and sent away. It was tumultuous to revisit the different stages of my life and let go of them, to let go of Emma’s childhood, and finally to let go of my parents. Some evenings I felt like I’d been flayed alive. Other evening were peaceful. And almost every morning I’d wake up with my excitement for the future restored.

Now that the house is empty, I have more time to worry about the future and getting to Mongolia. And there will be another purge when we finally can do that. Hopefully it will be easier, with an organization able to pick up the last of our furniture and whatever we don’t take with us. At that point, we’ll be down to a couple of suitcases each and our storage unit. And, one day, I’ll probably let go of that.

My dresser

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