Too Big on the Inside

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Once upon a time, in the leafy, rugged terrain of West Slope, a lot was created and a sprawling house was built on it. We know little about the original builder other than he or she left behind a sensible and spacious layout with lots of room left over outside for gardening.

In the late 1980s, it was occupied by a family which possessed three things for certain: a ton of money, a love of things Oriental, and a total lack of decorating sense. Seeing the lot bounded on three sides by streets, they put up a wall with a mixture of stonework and PVC pipe for a sort of bamboo-ish effect. A Japanese temple-style gate stood over the end of the driveway. Coming to the front entrance, one discovered massive double doors fronted with slate, with the doorknobs at their centers to make them extra-hard to open.

Inside, every room was given its own unique look. One bathroom was done over in grey marble with brass fittings, for instance; another was wallpapered with trucks. Faced with a windowless hallway, the unnamed occupants decided the best thing for it was black wallpaper. What had clearly been a little girl's room was done in four mutually clashing shades of pink.

Where there had probably been a yard at some point, there was now a shed done up as a teahouse outside the master bedroom. Another chunk had gone to a new room built to no clear code standard attached to what had been the back door by the dining room. The last remaining open space by the pool had been covered with astroturf.

To this hideous palace my grandmother came on a house hunt in late 1989, and saw exactly what she was looking for: space, a location near one of her kids, and a desperate realtor willing to offload the thing at a bargain price.

Now, my grandmother was a master puppeteer. When she needed space, it was because she had a lifetime's collection of self-built puppets and piles of supplies for building more. So puppets were stored in one room; another got stages, lights and other equipment; another had all the various sewing supplies; the power tools went in the teahouse; and there was still space for a couple of guest rooms. After a few years, my aunt moved in to support her. Where Grandma collected fabric, notions, and other things she thought might use to make puppets with, my aunt collected books nonstop. After my grandmother died, my aunt stayed in the house, and so it was when my aunt died last year that the house was subjected to a thorough inventory for the first time in 20 years.

The word "hoarding" may spring to the reader's mind while reading what follows, so a quick distinction: A proper hoarder can't bear to throw out even things that are clearly trash. What we were dealing with here was the aftermath of two people who simply accumulated far more than they could use or maintain. Most of it was in excellent condition, in fact, because it had never seen use.

But the sheer quantity of stuff was overwhelming to everyone involved. My aunt had kept the front rooms from getting too filled, and it was only after the first round of attemped sorting through that we began to realize just how much the house contained. One cousin, for instance, had wanted the cookbooks-but changed her mind when she heard that the cookbooks had filled 20 boxes so far and there were entire rooms where the books hadn't been categorized yet.

Worse, it was as though the house itself was working against us. Just when we thought we were getting a handle on everything, it would throw up another jam-packed closet (the marble bathroom, for one, turned out to have one of the biggest closets in the house), or someone would notice a new set of cabinets that hadn't been searched yet. The garage developed an entire new province in the back corner that I don't remember having been to before.

And then someone found the key to the basement. I never went down there myself, but I remember that when I asked one of the first people to go down there about it, the answer was a look of dull-edged horror and the words, "It's more of the same."

Nothing in this staggering pile was junk. Indeed, we found treasure after treasure: Family documents dating back to the turn of the previous century. An entire series of collectible silver conis celebrating famous artworks. Two full-size handmade looms. Kitchen tools whose purpose I can only guess at. And on and on and on.

Then there was the library, starting with sf magazines going back to the 1940s, collected by my grandfather. Galaxy, Astounding, If-- they were all there.There were a gazillion cookbooks, a gazillion gardening books, a gazillion and one pop-science books. We found textbooks in Spanish (my aunt and grandmother had studied it), German (my mom had studied it), and Russian (no one's sure), and most of the book-length output of Edward Tufte and John Campbell.

Yours truly was tasked with sorting through the books and organizing them, with the promise that if there was anything I saw and wanted, I had first claim on it. I tried very hard to only pick out a tiny selection that I absolutely, positively, definitely wanted, or that Chris absolutely had to have, and yet it still came out to several boxes. There was the reprint of a Victorian book of recipes for "ices & ice cream", for instance, that I couldn't let vanish into obscurity. Or a couple Fu Manchu books, because the numerous references on The Goon Show had gotten me curious. Then there was One Circle, a book of crop information and nutritional tables for trying to construct a garden to feed one person in the smallest space possible (1400 square feet, for the solution it came up with).

Some of the other particularly interesting titles that made it into our library were:

Sneaky Uses For Everyday Things
Sneakier Uses For Everyday Things
The Art of the Catapult
The Forgotten Art of Building a Stone Wall
Everything Tastes Better With Bacon
Baron von Leftover, the International Turkey
A Museum of Early American Tools
Moving Heavy Things

After everyone had had their chance at the books, and my uncle had carted off a POD full of furniture, books, and other things, and countless pickup-truck loads had been hauled off to Goodwill or the recycling center, there was still enough stuff left over for a two-day garage sale that raised over $5000 for charity. The house went, again at a bargain price, to a contractor who plans to make an personal project out of renovating it. I wish him luck.

There is much to be said here about rampant consumerism, collecting more than you can handle, and all that. But the most urgent point I feel compelled to make is that I now have a pile of boxes full of ancient sf magazines, and would anyone like to have them?

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