Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles in which Carolyn Newberger explores the emotional consequences of selling the long-term family home, downsizing and moving into a much smaller house and cabin in the woods of Lenox, Massachusetts.
When I was a girl, I gave no thought to time. I flowed effortlessly from my house to the Froneks’ next door, across the street to Mary’s house, and up the road and back from the Julia Ward Howe elementary school, where the lovely Miss Horne taught us to read about Dick and Jane and Baby Sally, flowing through comfortable suburban childhoods like ours.
Sometimes playground conflicts did emerge, usually heated assertions of rights of ownership that were met with an indignant “Why?’
“Because, that’s why.”
“Because, because why?’\”
“Because, because, because.”
End of argument. She who could keep track of the most becauses won. That was usually me. Confident of my becauses, I was not a particularly likeable child.
Much later, as a young woman, I began to think of time in a different way. A millennium was looming, an enormous, monumental, once-in-a-thousand-years event. I calculated the years. I would be fifty-nine years old. Fifty-nine seemed impossibly far away. With a clenching stomach, I realized that I might not live to see the millennium. I deeply hoped that I would, but something had shifted. I realized that time’s markers would continue whether or not I was there to experience them. I am not capable of a string of becauses long enough for me to hold onto time and keep it mine.
The good news is that I did live to see the millennium, and it was a big disappointment. It just came and went. Time does flow, after all.
Or does it?
Einstein predicted and recent discoveries have confirmed that time and space are not linear, but are dynamic forces that expand, contract, and fold across eons. Yet we humans on planet earth experience time as an orderly progression from nanosecond to minute, minute to hour, hour to day, to month, to year, to millennium. In our construction of clock time and calendar time, we break our lives and the life of the planet into pieces of equivalent duration. A minute is a minute now and forever. I turn 75 on March 11, 2016 with the firm knowledge that the year from birthday 74 to birthday 75 was the same as the year before and the year before that, and that I can count on the birthdays that hopefully will come to firmly ground me in the space-time continuum that tells me who, where, and what I am.
Except that this year wasn’t the same. The year from March 11, 2015 to March 11, 2016 has an extra day. Uh oh. Even our small time on our small planet in our large universe expands and contracts, reminding us that we superimpose our orderliness on a messy world.
The messiness of the world is especially apparent in the woods. Eleven years ago, counting with human time, we bought a property in the Berkshires with two cabins on a small lake, a former lime quarry, surrounded by woods. For many years I nurtured a fantasy of a cabin in the woods. In my mind’s eye I saw deep shade, granite rocks, and big trees, among which I would stroll, communing with nature. Rising city property values and the power of home equity made that fantasy a possibility, so that now I enjoy the privilege of a piece of private wilderness. Which, it turns out, is extremely messy. Birches crash into the forest and rot, invasive vines strangle native pines, poison ivy snakes up in unexpected places, tangles of fallen branches litter the landscape. During one torrential rain the beaver dam burst a mile upstream, sending torrents of silt down the brook that feeds the pond, changing the shoreline forever. And there was nothing I could do about it but accept the inevitable, when the only thing one can count on is change.
And back in the city, in that mortgaged house that purchased our sliver of wilderness, change is happening fast. After 44 years, that house is about to go on the market. We will compress our 7000 square feet plus two small cabins into two small cabins, embarking on a new chapter where small will be our new normal. To fully understand the magnitude of this change, you need to know something about our house.
In 1972, my husband Eli was finishing his residency at Children’s Hospital, and I was finishing the first leg of my psychology studies at Harvard. We were 30 years old with a four year-old daughter and the shared belief that this was the moment that adulthood began, and adulthood for us included owning our own home.
I was the designated searcher. After viewing one charmless box of a house after another, I said to the real estate agent,” I want to see something with character.“
“Do you like Victorians,” he asked?
“Sure,” I replied. And he took me to an enormous Brookline house that had been taken off the market by an elderly couple who just couldn’t bring themselves to sell their home of 35 years. They let us in, and the staircase took my breath away. Its variously turned balusters and curving mahogany banisters framed a staircase that rose between soaring Doric columns to a mirrored landing, overlooked by a six-foot stained glass window, under which the staircase split and doubled back, ascending to a second floor landing with more curved Mahogany, turned balusters, carved this and decorative that.
I’m 4 feet 10 inches tall with a tendency toward plumpness. Women of my shape and size do not descend such staircases. So I knew that we could not buy that house. But I wanted Eli to see it because it was the most beautiful house I had ever seen. A few days later Eli entered the foyer and said quietly, “This is our house.”
And so, at the age of 31, with very little money, we begged and borrowed and became the owners of a 7,000-plus square foot 1909 Federal Revival home.
Now I believe that life, like time and space, has periods of expansion and periods of contraction. Imagine the universe of one’s life as shaped like a top. It begins with the point of conception, expands through birth and into childhood, continues to expand with physical growth, with what we learn through education and experiences, with the acquisition of relationships and offspring, if we have them, and with the amassing of possessions and the memorabilia of our physical and spiritual travels. At some point, we round the curve of the top’s apex and enter the realm of contraction, which is often a much steeper curve inward than the expansion’s curve outward.
We have been expansion champions. In the Peace Corps, well before we had a 7,000-square-foot house to fill, we fell in love with African art. With the guidance of the director of the Upper Volta national museum, who had the right of first refusal, we amassed a collection of over 400 masks and statues. We gave no thought to the practicalities of bringing our collection home, and were rescued by the American embassy, which thanked Eli for his service providing medical care to their staff and families by offering to ship our art back to Boston, our next home. Harvard’s Peabody Museum agreed to house and catalogue the collection until we bought our house and finally had a site where it could be displayed. Over the years we’ve donated much of the collection to museums, but much still remains.
Our house has provided inexhaustible space to souvenirs from travels, Eli’s collection of monkeys, clowns, frogs, cowboys and just about everything else playing the tuba; yard-sale rugs, tables, chairs, china, kitchenware; my parents’ tchotchkes, Eli’s parents’ tchotchkes, Eli’s Aunt Martha’s tchotchkes; grandchildren’s baby toys; our daughter’s elementary school, high school and college papers; our elementary school, high school, college and graduate school papers, our books and reprints, my mother’s antique walnut bed, four rosewood dressers, Chinese carved wood and marble end tables, coffee tables, desks, lamps, books, records, cds, turntable, tuner, cd players, routers, sheet music, instruments to play the music, music stands to put the music on; a grand piano to accompany the instruments playing the music on the music stands; wedding presents, birthday presents, anniversary presents, graduation presents, indoor furniture, outdoor furniture, my drawings and paintings, art supplies, sheets, towels, laundry detergent, closets full of clothes, handbags, and maybe 50 pairs of shoes purchased between 1972 and 2016 by me and my EBay-loving spouse.
“Whoa,” you might be asking, “How can you sell this house? Why are you doing it?”
Well, the answer is very simple. A tree in the forest is energy stored. When it falls of natural causes, it releases energy in its decay, transforming itself into loam that enriches a new crop of growth. When it’s cut down and burned, its energy is released into fire and heat. Maintaining that energy in the living tree, however, is costly. Trees require sun, water, nutrients, protection, maintenance.
A house is also stored energy. For 44 years we have enjoyed living in our home. The forty-foot living room with the grand piano hosted many concerts. The big table in the tapestried oval dining room sat our extended family around many Thanksgiving and Passover feasts. Several brides have descended that grand staircase, including our daughter who, over twenty years ago, returned from the Peace Corps with a new fiancé whom she married in our living room alcove festooned with sparkling lights. Living on our third floor for fifteen years, they brought our two beautiful grandchildren into the world, established themselves professionally, and saved for a home of their own.
This house has sheltered us, nurtured us, delighted us, and exasperated us. My mother loved to say that a house is like a baby bird, its mouth is always open. So true. Storm windows need repairing, the yard needs maintaining, the driveway needs plowing, porch boards need replacing, appliances need updating, ceilings need repainting.
We find that we mostly divide our time between two rooms: the kitchen sunspace and the bedroom. It’s time to release the energy contained in this house and to direct that energy into our grandchildren’s education and the comfort of our years to come.
The problem is, this puts us face-to-face with the apex of our top-shaped lives. We are sliding over the curve from expansion into that slippery slope of contraction. We look back over 44 years in our home and it seems only yesterday that we moved into those empty rooms. As our lives contract, time appears to accelerate.
But we must face the contraction of space and the acceleration of time, and it begins with getting our house ready to sell. I bought Marie Kondo’s book on tidying up, and jumped right in.
Eli and I filled bag after bag with shoes and clothes for Goodwill. We discovered that our closets and drawers have archeological layers. Because we forget sometimes what we have, we buy more, and forgetting those, buy yet more. I found hidden caches of turtlenecks in the backs of drawers, partners to socks that had been missing for years, pants that are too big and pants that are too tight, a bustier for a long-forgotten evening dress with décolletage I wouldn’t be caught dead in today, and a cashmere sweater that my mother bought for me when I was 16 that has absolutely no moth holes and looks terrific.
I found lids to pots, old kitchenware, broken chairs, boxes in the basement for ink jet printers long ago discarded. What I hadn’t counted on was my pleasure in throwing and giving things away.
Throwing things away has an edge of dangerousness to it, bordering on violence. Pulling folder upon folder of old research papers and reprints from the basement file cabinet, I felt anger as I threw them into paper bags, hauled them frowningly up the stairs, and heaved them into the recycle bins. I felt as though I were saying to them, “You thought you were important, but you’re not, see? You mean nothing to me now.” And shredding! You can only imagine the satisfaction!
I’m reminded of research on the relationships between parents and children during the year before they leave for college. The kids often push back against their parents. There is increased conflict. Once safely out of the home their relationship improves. The interpretation is that by creating external conflict with their parents, the children feel less internal conflict about leaving them.
Giving things away, on the other hand, has a completely different feeling. Finding an old EBay-purchased Gucci wallet for my daughter, jewelry for my granddaughter, giving my mother’s Relax-a-back chair and my cedar hope chest to my son-in-law, and the Thorens turntable that was in Eli’s college dorm room to our college bound grandson fills me with bliss. Our history is embodied in these possessions, and is finding new life in the next generation and the next. How good is that!
Even the long history of the house yields second chances. In the basement I discovered a box of children’s books with the name Connie Demeter inside the cover. Connie, now in her eighties, grew up in this house. We bought it from her parents. Imagine her surprise when I called her with the news of the forgotten box of books, languishing in the basement for over 70 years. She came over with her son, bearing an orchid for me. We spent several beautiful hours reminiscing, and looking at her wedding photos taken on the curving staircase so many years ago.
Tidying up and clearing out has yielded other pleasures and memories as well. One was our daughter MH and her 14-year-old daughter Leila sprawled on the basement floor going through MH’s old school papers, laughing together over her minuses, and knowingly recognizing her adult passions in the papers that earned her As.
Perhaps the most poignant moment was when I discovered a card to me from my mother, who died 11 years ago at age 93, written perhaps 25 years ago. My mother rarely telephoned me. She waited for my calls, letting me know that I had failed if I didn’t call her soon enough. I grew up feeling that I never quite measured up to what she wanted me to be. In her last year she grew more and more distant, and we never had the kind of end of life talk that heals and reconnects.
In her card, that I had saved but not remembered, my mother wrote of how proud she was of me; that I had exceeded all her expectations. As if she were reaching to me from beyond the grave, this has enabled me to see my mother in a new light, as generous and loving to the best of her ability despite the disappointments of her own life that left her ambivalent about my opportunities and accomplishments.
After all the cleaning and sorting, tidying and reorganizing, clearing of vertical surfaces, packing of boxes, and giving and throwing away, the house has, little by little, been de-cluttered and de-Newbergerized. Last week it was staged, with artificial plants tucked behind the perfect chair in the perfect place. My studio is now a sitting room with a potted plant on the flat file, and a sisal rug under the soft green fold-out couch newly moved from the upstairs guest room, where there’s now a new coat of paint and a queen-size bed covered in decorative throw pillows.
The house looks fabulous. Eli and I look at each other and say, “Why didn’t we do this a long time ago?” Now we’re starting to de-clutter and give away and throw away the accumulations of eleven years in our Berkshire home. Rounding into this next phase of life on the contraction slope, we have discovered the joys of less is more. As matter contracts, even as time accelerates, space expands. I like to think that I am embarking on a Buddha-inflected life. I want to know personally every article of clothing in my closet, every sock, matched, in my drawer. I aspire to nothing that I don’t need and everything that I do, which includes love, learning, creativity, communing with nature in all its messiness, and an appreciation that the only constant is change.