On November 30, 2020, we sold our house in East Nashville. Now we are embarked on a Great Adventure — driving a Nissan cargo van out to the desert Southwest and then north until we say, “Let’s just go home.”
But before we sold the house, I had to winnow the detritus that had piled up over the course of 12 years in the beautiful house we named Agnes as soon we moved in, just days before Barack Obama was elected president in 2008. Agnes was filled with the accumulated stuff of my whole life, along with quite a few keepsakes from my mother and father.
As soon as we put the house on the market, I came bang up against my genetic inability to let things go.
The challenge wasn’t just the spice drawer with the unopened 30-year-old jar of coriander and the multitude of little packets of red pepper delivered with more than a decade of pizzas. Not just the UCLA T-shirt I bought in 2007 on my son’s college tour. Not the second-best stew pot. Not my mother’s scrapbooks from when she was a girl in the 1920s, eerily similar to my own scrapbook from when I was a girl in the 1960s.
No, when I got right down to the bone, it was the last tangible relics of my father I had trouble letting go.
My father, who both my brother and I always called Bill, died in 1999, only weeks before the new year he had been looking forward to. When I started the winnowing process, I still had some of his most precious possessions, including a rolltop desk, the remnants of his stamp collection, and a bookcase with glass doors and a drawer at the bottom that always stuck when you tried to open it.
I stored Christmas wrapping paper in that bookcase’s drawer. I never worked at the rolltop desk, which was a shrine for my father’s things — a few of his old pipes and tobacco tins. The bookcase held my collection of OZ books and was opened rarely, loved but lonely.
Finally in early November, after weeks of struggle, I put the rolltop desk on the local Facebook marketplace. Within minutes offers started rolling in. I told the first person who texted that the desk was his. He proceeded to hang me up for 10 days, finally deciding he wouldn’t be able to get it in his SUV, even though it disassembled.
When he backed off, I chose one of the “let me know if it falls through” folks — totally at random.
She was the perfect person.
On a mild October evening she and her partner came by to get the desk. I hovered and squeaked as we disassembled it, explaining to them that the carpenter who repaired the desk 20 years before had cautioned me that the rolltop was like the lungs of a very old gentleman and not to roll it up and down too much.
I jabbered at them about my father and his stamps and how much he loved this desk. Within minutes they starting calling the desk Grandpa.
They treated Grandpa carefully but competently. They asked for a flat-head screwdriver. They carried Grandpa to their pickup truck piece by piece. I followed with old towels to wrap him in. When they drove away, I ached.
The next day I got an email and a picture.
Grandpa is safe and sound.
I answered: Oh my! He is so happy and comfortable. Thank you for sending this!! A working desk!
She replied: “Yes ma’am. Similar to you I was going to die in my job (versus the house) if I didn’t get out, so I recently mid-life retired from my day job to find my true passion. This desk means more to me than you realize. I’m hoping to be a writer in some form or fashion. Enjoy your travels! I hope to do the same as you are doing one day!
I replied: I will send you writerly vibes whenever I think of the desk, which is a strong metaphor for me as well.
Then I turned to another painful parting: the remains of Bill’s stamp collection. I called every place in Nashville online that listed stamps, silver, gold, and coins. I soon learned that taking them to a local dealer was impossible because there aren’t any. There’s no money in it, but search engines still include stamps on half these listings.
So, I put out a plea to all my friends:
Do any of you know a stamp collector? I have just pulled out the last remnant of my father’s collection that my brother shoved into a bin 20 years ago and sent to me. He was a serious collector in a small way, and when he died, we sold the bulk of his collection … to help pay for my son’s tuition. It’s a motley bunch of stuff, but I’ve tried and there are no stamp dealers anymore. The advice I’m getting is to ask around at stamp clubs to see if anyone has a dealer they work with. There’s also a HipStamp website where you can sell individual stamps. I don’t have the bandwidth for that right now. So, if anyone knows someone who might want them, let me know.
Within an hour I heard from a friend that a friend from her hometown was a stamp collector. I got in touch with him, and he said he’d take them. I could tell he was just being nice, but I sent them anyway. Within days I got from an enthusiastic message about the charm and value of the collections, soaked with tobacco smoke and carefully sorted and loaded into old tobacco and candy tins.
My spirits rose again. The desk and the stamps I had neglected were living on past me, stroked and petted and loved.
Finally, the house was nearly empty. The POD had been hauled away. The closing was in the afternoon, but we had already signed everything and were halfway out the door when our realtor showed up to check on the house. He relaxed when we opened the door. The house was clean and empty of everything except some furniture the new owners said we could leave.
Our agent took one look at the old glass-fronted bookcase in the entry hall.
“You’re leaving this?” he asked.
We nodded. He pounced.
So now even my father’s bookcase had been claimed. And will live on with a person I believe will love it and take care of it.
We got into the van with our dog and a pile of bags and bedding and plastic boxes filled with food and bathroom stuff, sleeping bags, a tent, and a brand-new mattress on a plywood platform, leaving the agent in the house with his new bookcase.
Then we weighed anchor and began our voyage into an uncertain future.
It’s uncanny how quickly I sailed away from Agnes and Grandpa and the OZ case. Just sweet memories without the power to hold me.
I burn to see wild places before I die.
Copyright (c) 2021 by Lyda Phillips. All rights reserved. Lyda Phillips is a veteran journalist who grew up in Memphis and has earned degrees from Northwestern, Columbia, and Vanderbilt universities. The author of two young adult novels, she worked for United Press International before returning to Nashville.