Mary Bittner (October 1968)

Breathes there a housewife with soul as dead,
Who never to herself has said,
I don't need rooms with decor for kings ---
I need closets where I can store things!

From the beginning of time man (probably mostly woman!) has been a "saver." Though his life has been a fleeting thing, he still wishes to have something of his survive to another age. The old Egyptians carefully prepared elegant tombs for their departed monarchs, and equipped them with every possible luxury that might be required in the afterlife. But, as the years went by and less reverent persons broke into the sacred tombs, it must have been obvious that these treasures certainly hadn't been put to any hard use by the dearly departed.

The Bible admonishes us "not to lay up treasures on earth where moth and rust doth corrupt and thieves break in and steal... but rather to lay up treasures in heaven."

In our funeral liturgy we are reminded again and again that we "brought nothing into this world and it is certain that we can take nothing out."

And yet we save. We carefully wrap the baby booties and the christening dress. We save pictures, clippings, the "first day of school" dresses. We save report cards, diplomas and dried-up prom flowers. We save our graduation tassel, our marriage certificate, our postcards and souvenirs. We save things that are just too pretty to throw away and the things that "might come in hand, someday." And we save, "just because."

What is to prevent the world from becoming one gigantic closet? Somewhere, sometime, although we don't want to think about it, someone is going to throw away our treasures. Therein lies my story.

Our church and parish house share an alley with what was once a "mystery house." We often puzzled about this big brown house, an architectural reminder of a more opulent era always shrouded by the large trees and over-grown bushes about it. It seemed to have only the dimmest of lights and these were veiled by the many plants in the windows and the very nature of the windows themselves, being heavily leaded and rather like prisms. Only my husband had met the elderly occupants and then only infrequently as they came out to empty the garbage.

In the depths of winter the lady died and the old gentleman went to live with his daughter. Another elderly couple, close relatives of the first, came to begin what proved to be an almost Herculean task of emptying the house in preparation for its sale.

What a treasure trove this house was! The furniture was heavy and rich; there were sets of fine china, sparkling glassware, rare books and valuable rugs. There were chests and trunks, shelves and boxes, all filled with the collections of a lifetime of living. Both husband and wife has been active, creative people who had not only used many things, but had created many fine pieces of their own handiwork. Articles were not just "stashed" or "tossed" into closets; they had been carefully "stored" there. This was not the warren of pack rats who indiscriminately hoarded things, but the home of people how had enjoyed long full lives, and whose riches had survived them.

But what to do with all of it? Of course the surviving children took those things that meant the most to them. After getting as much out into plain view as was possible, the couple in charge held small private sales at which nearly all of the most valuable things were sold. But still there were literally truck-loads of things left. This was when my husband and I could be of help. Because we were young, strong and presumably "trustworthy," we had been among the first to be permitted in. Now we would be among the last to see the house before the new owners moved in. But in-between lay an experience that had quite a sobering effect on us.

We had borrowed a pick-up truck because the old gentleman in charge had said there were a "few things" that would have to go to the dump. As we opened the garage doors we gasped a little, for those "few things" were about the size of a small mountain!

It was a bitterly cold day and the truck was unheated so we worked as hard and fast as we could to load and dispose of this huge pile of refuse. Had there been more time I suppose we would have looked at things more carefully; there is a little "Scotch" in all of us and some things did look interesting. But it was just a load and throw, load and throw----and then it happened. My husband threw out an armload of pictures, and as they landed face up by the truck, we saw what must have been the elderly gentleman's college diploma. It was faded and yellowed, but still in its frame. There were other framed pictures, certificates and awards. He must have been proud of these at one time—they represented a long life well-spent. And here we were, total strangers, throwing his things onto a dump, and throwing other things on top of them so that all was soon a shattered, torn, unrecognizable heap.

Somehow the things we were throwing began to take on a different feeling. That box of old material scraps held not just rags, but a woman's dream of a lovely quilt. The old toys were happy lights on children's faces many Christmases ago. The old Christmas ornaments were the warm feeling and fond memories that Christmas ornaments bring each year. The old tools were worn from use by a man who loved to make things with his hands, things that brought happiness to his wife and family. We wished that we didn't have to be a part of the permanent destruction of all these worldly things. But, by the standards of the world, they were no longer useful. We had set ourselves a task and we must finish it.

We came back to our own home that day completely bone-weary. There had been six big loads of "rubbish," the last two of which had needed to be carried from the uttermost reaches of the basement. The house was nearly empty now, and ready to be possessed by its new owners. It wasn't a mystery house to us anymore, but our experiences with it left an indelible mark on our lives.

Out there in the dump we got a glimpse of the future. As surely as we were destroying the remnants of another couple's life, someone will destroy ours. Our treasures will also be dispersed and destroyed. Will knowing this make us stop saving things? I don't think so, for, although our eyes are set on heavenly goals, we still live with our earthly foibles and follies. We will hope that the strangers who throw our "pretty things" on the dump will pause for a moment and think on us kindly. In the meantime we will wish that we had more closets.

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