Part II, The House-Packing Dialogues: The Temple of Doom

The last load of trash, awaiting the Happy Hauler.

The last load of trash, awaiting the Happy Hauler.

At last we have emptied our Seattle house of all our belongings. We drove carloads of things to Goodwill and gave some to friends, but all the rest are on a truck headed east, or so we hope. Given the chaos of this move, it is hard to be certain. There were delays, dropped boxes, exclamations of surprise (“there’s a basement?”), and a near catastrophe involving a piano, as a succession of people who did not seem to know much about moving passed through our doors. But as a friend of mine said the other day, there is something very liberating about seeing all your things being driven off by five guys in a truck. And she is right. Our souls now feel very light.

Our things are gone, and frankly among those items on the truck there are only a few whose permanent disappearance might prompt us to grieve. One such is that piano, a baby grand made by the Estonia Piano Co., in Tallinn, Estonia, which I acquired after a long search and loved upon first touch. The piano is signed by the president of the company, Indrek Laul, a renowned pianist, who during a concert tour of America came to our house for brunch one Sunday morning to sign the soundboard and play an impromptu concert. We would miss as well several framed photographs of our children taken when they were very young, capturing moments that never fail to make me laugh, like the one of my eldest and middle daughters just before they went trick-or-treating, looking at each other as if they are about to explode from excitement.

And then there are the boxes of personal mementos that have followed us for decades. I tried to cull as many of these as I could before moving, because really, why on earth should anyone hold onto a collection of 20-year-old bills and receipts, let alone an income tax filing from 1989, a year in which I made $9,000 and survived an earthquake that destroyed the San Francisco neighborhood where I kept my office. The earthquake did provide some mirth for my eldest, however. She was nearly two years old. In the midst of a major aftershock that night we woke to hear her maniacally laughing and calling out, “Do it again! Do it again!” Now that I think of it, the next year wasn’t very good either. My wife and I became the only two people in the history of California to lose money on the sale of a house.

I did not get very far in this culling of my past. The number of items that could be discarded at will, such as rental-car receipts or hotel bills, was minuscule compared to the many others that promised to bring forth full-blown Technicolor memories, and I did not want to race through them just to beat the arrival of those five guys and their truck.

Here, for example, was a piece of cardboard on which an angry daughter—my eldest, again—had scrawled, “Dad is a jerk.” I do not remember the thing that triggered this outpouring of adoration, but I do recall that being a jerk was an important part of my job as a parent of young children. Marie Kondo, author of The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, says you should keep only those things that somehow spark joy. This sparked joy. I kept it.

One daughter's opinion.

One daughter’s opinion.

Here too was an Aeromexico ticket for a flight back to California, after a nearly tragic bus trip to Cabo San Lucas on Mexico’s Baja peninsula. I never made it to Cabo. I returned home with three severed tendons in one ankle and a weird infection that took a month to culture and cure. Such is the power of time that the plane ticket now just made me laugh. More joy. I kept it. I also came across a number of greeting cards that a former girlfriend had sent me every Halloween for years after each of us had gotten married (to different people). I read these with delight. She had a lovely wise-cracking sense of humor, reflected in her choice of card—always funny, always mocking—and in her fun-poking observations on life. These gave me joy. I kept them. I also shared them with my wife. They did not give her quite as much joy, but, there you go.

Then, in what fate clearly meant as a challenge to my new rule about discarding old bills and receipts, I came across a manilla envelope marked, in my handwriting, “Temple of Doom.” I knew at once what had to be inside. Here were receipts for wall paint, a ceiling fan, wallboard, and nails, and a number of how-to articles about stripping old paint from window sills. The envelope also contained several photographs of the first house we owned. In 1988, with a newly arrived baby, we moved from our Baltimore apartment to a house in the city’s Original Northwood neighborhood, which had curvy, well-forested streets lined with a mix of single homes and townhouses built in the 1920s. Our house was at the end of a row of four attached homes. It had three stories, a basement, and lots of windows, including several banks of mullioned casement windows that flushed the living room with light.

I loved that house—especially the back deck, a squirrel’s den of weathered wood that soared high over a ravine. The house cost us what at the time seemed a fortune, $129,000, but it had more than enough space for the three of us, and, importantly, it had room for an office on the third floor, well removed from the chaos caused by a demanding baby, which by the way is an oxymoron if ever there was one, because all babies are demanding, albeit to varying degrees, though I like to think that ours at the time was at the upper end of the demanding-baby spectrum. She is the one who eventually notified me on cardboard of my status as a jerk.

The death toll was later reduced to 63, though injuries topped 3,000.

The death toll was later reduced to 63, though injuries topped 3,000.

Next to her room was a larger bedroom that we decided would be occupied by my mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and was at the time trying to decide what treatment to pursue, and where to pursue it—on Long Island, where she lived, or at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, where my wife was a neonatologist. We hoped she would come live with us for a while, regardless of which path she chose. First, though, I had to get the room into more livable shape. It was old, with window sills so laden with paint they looked as if they had been coated with frosting.

Raising the do-it-yourself herald of battle, emblazoned with the motto, “How Hard Could It Be!,” I set to work. We nicknamed the room, “The Temple of Doom,” which would have a less funny resonance in weeks to come, but which for now accurately captured the difficulty of doing a full-scale renovation of a bedroom during a Baltimore heat wave when temperatures each day topped out at one hundred degrees—higher, actually, if you included the zone of trapped air just under the ceiling, which is where I ended up spending a good part of each day, because who knew that putting up crown molding could become an endeavor of self-hating magnitude, especially in an old room where the walls and ceilings veered from plumb like the flanks of a circus tent.

The high point of this adventure came when I affixed my first-ever piece of Sheetrock to the ceiling joists. I did this alone. I muscled the wallboard up the ladder, propped it against the joists with two braces that resembled rural telephone poles, then nailed the board in place. I used dozens of screw-like nails, the kind specially made to hold wallboard firmly in place and make it almost impossible to remove.

With some anxiety, I removed the braces. The wallboard did not fall. I climbed down to better admire my work, and only then realized that I had installed the board with the wrong side facing out.

Without pause, I climbed back up and ripped it down. All the nails remained in place. The wallboard disintegrated around them, as I tore at it with a crowbar. This was so fun. I could not wait to start again the next day.

One happy discovery: A long lost stuffed animal, cleverly named, "Goosey."

One happy discovery: A long lost stuffed animal, cleverly named, “Goosey.”

Eventually I finished the room. I painted it a soft powder blue, with white trim and white ceiling. The wood floor gleamed. I installed a ceiling fan. I bought a dusky blue area rug, and furnished the room with a dresser, night table, lamp, and a double bed with a simple headboard. It was a very pretty room.

My mother died before she could move in. She made it through surgery just fine, but soon afterward while still in the hospital she threw a clot, and died in an instant. My older sister was with her.

These documents did not bring me joy. But I kept them anyway, because when you survive something difficult and look back on it later, there is often comfort in the recollection, like hearing a sad song played at just the right time in a bar.

And that is the kind of thing that comes leaping back to mind when  you open the old cardboard tombs that follow you through life. I have vowed to go through them all, once they arrive at their new destination. But I concede that possibly they will still be unopened by the time we decide that another move may be in order.

A last look through the windows of my office--a tiny space, but one that worked nicely.

A last look through the windows of my Seattle office–a tiny space, but one that worked nicely.

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Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times bestsellers, most recently The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz, which examines how Winston Churchill and his “Secret Circle” went about surviving the German air campaign of 1940-41. Erik’s The Devil in the White City is set to be a Hulu limited series; his In the Garden of Beasts is under option by Tom Hanks, for a feature film. He recently published an audio-original ghost story, No One Goes Alone, which has been optioned by Netflix. Erik lives in Manhattan with his wife, who is a writer and retired neonatologist; they have three grown daughters.

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