Getting the most leverage from a redo of a room.
I can't believe I'm writing this, but I have actually cleaned out one-half of my overstuffed attic.
After seven weeks of sorting, discarding and organizing, half of the 700-square-foot space is nearly empty, with a few boxes neatly stacked against a wall. Everything is labeled and sensibly grouped, and there is enough floor uncovered so I can walk around and make inroads on the rest of the room.
In the next few weeks, I have a big job ahead of me: going through photographs, old letters, paperwork, newspaper clippings, plus financial and medical records. Bags and boxes of paper currently take up about one-quarter of the attic space and are likely to be one of the most time-consuming (and memory-intensive) parts of this project. So this week I tackled something bulkier but faster: furniture.
Caitlin Shear, the professional organizer from Fairfax who has been showing me how to deal with years of accumulated clutter, was especially helpful during this week's session. Though there wasn't too much furniture stored away, most of it was inherited from my parents, both of whom died in the past several years. I discovered that it's surprisingly hard to be objective about furniture you lived with every day of your childhood. A passing glance can bring back years of memories of the room where that table stood holding the photographs of my mom and her mom in the 1950s or the chairs we sat in while we talked for hours when I came home on college breaks.
My parents were proud of their furniture, whether it be the tables and lamps they found at antique stores in Manhattan or the rugs bought decades ago in downtown Brooklyn. So it was especially hard to look at these items now and admit that not only do I have no use for them, but, honestly, I don't even think they're worth keeping.
This is especially true for a wooden table with a marble top that I never liked. Big, dark and heavy, this table was set in a key spot in the four-room apartment in Brooklyn where I grew up: It was the first thing I saw when I walked in the door every day. On top was a basket of photos, or, around the holidays, Christmas cards. Caitlin had all these ideas about painting the base white and using it in the dining room of my house here in Upper Northwest Washington. She even persuaded me to place it in the dining room for a few weeks to see if I would warm up to it. So far, it hasn't worked.
I was even more emphatic about moving out two fusty side tables and two lamps that were in my parents' living room for at least a decade. My parents lived a far more formal lifestyle that I ever will, and there is enough of their furniture and artwork in the rest of my house that it's really time to shed some of this stuff. It will go to Upscale Resale, a consignment shop in Bethesda. I'm not expecting to receive very much money for it. I just want it out of my attic.
I donated to Goodwill a 6-by-9-foot cotton Dhurrie rug my mother bought me for my first apartment in Hoboken, N.J. That was 21 years ago, and the rug looks its age.
But I did keep two other rugs and intend to use them in the attic to cover the splintering wood floor. One, a hand-loomed red Bokhara, sat in the foyer of my parents' apartment. It's good quality but just not my taste. The other is a Karastan rug from the turn of the 20th century that belonged to my Armenian husband's great-great aunt, known to me only as Horkoor. The rug is nearly square at 11-by-12-feet, and it looked great when Bob and I lived in a loft with 17-foot ceilings and exposed brick walls. It doesn't fit in a single room of our American University Park center-hall Colonial, and the brown-and-rust palette looks dark and dour.
Caitlin and I spread the Bokhara rug across the attic's freshly cleared floor space, and topped it with a round, Shaker-style kitchen table from my apartment in Michigan in the mid-1990s. It was strange to see the rug unrolled for the first time since my father died five years ago. It evoked memories of walking into the apartment and stepping on the rug, day after day, as a teenager, a college student home for the summer, a visiting adult, wondering if my parents were home from work or cooking in the kitchen or reading the newspaper in the living room.
More to Goodwill: a backgammon set with a nice wood design but pieces so big it makes it impossible to actually play the game; a mantel clock we got as a wedding gift nearly 11 years ago; a lamp I bought at the Laura Ashley store in 1993 that needed to be retired; and a small pine table from Ikea that also had seen better days.
I also sent Goodwill one of the large stock pots that had been gathering dust in the attic, though I kept the second one and moved it to the pantry closet in the basement near the kitchen. Caitlin says she often encounters things that are not kept near the place they would actually be used in her clients' homes. Every closet, garage, basement and attic in a house offers storage space, and it will be put to best use if what's put there makes sense in that location. Kitchen equipment, for example, should not be stored two floors above the kitchen.
I was so quick to get rid of stuff that Caitlin stopped to ask if I was sure about what I was doing. Isn't this rich, I thought: the professional organizer asking the messy packrat to reconsider getting rid of stuff. "It's my responsibility to make sure you don't regret what you're doing," she said, but I barely heard her as I kept burrowing through the piles, clearing a space big enough to lay out Horkoor's rug.
A word about last week: I received more than 70 e-mails in response to my column about sorting through china, crystal, silver and linens. I had no idea how many people were struggling with whether or not to keep inherited tableware, and how to store it properly. Judging from the e-mails, many of you readers are no better than I am at shedding stuff. Almost everyone who wrote counseled that I should keep mom's china.
PHOTOS: Organizing - James M. Thresher; COPY BY: Liz Seymour - The Washington Post; WEB EDITOR: Janet Bennett Kelly - washingtonpost.com