I walk into my daughter’s room clutching a 30-gallon trash bag. I am putting my old Victorian by the harbor on the market, and I am determined to be ruthless. This room, however, vividly illustrates my difficulty with change. On my walls are two floor-to-ceiling Dr. Seuss murals, a clown and a Drum-Tummied Snum, which pounds out the beat on its belly.
The space has been a guest bedroom for years, and I should have painted it over in a quiet beige rather than kept the screaming electric blue and the reds and yellows of the murals. I sometimes wonder whether guests have nightmares about being strangled by strange-looking creatures chattering in verse.
But now I am determined, so I open the closet door and see my daughter’s ax. It has a wooden handle and a papier-mâché blade, and it’s covered with multicolored glitter. Alyssa carried it when she played the Tin Woodman in one of her first school plays, “The Wizard of Oz.’’ I pick up the ax and grip it firmly, preparing to drop it into the trash bag.
But something strange happens. I can’t do it. I call my daughter and ask if she would like the ax. She says her house is crammed with her kids’ stuff, so she hasn’t got room. So I put it back in the closet. In my new digs there will certainly be room for a glittering ax.
A bigger cleanup problem than my kids’ memorabilia is the mountain of paper. My late husband was Globe columnist Alan Lupo, and we never threw out as much as a comma of what we wrote. I have tossed into trash bags what feels like 50 pounds of book manuscripts, the older ones replete with Wite-Out. These are not the Shakespeare folios, and the Library of Congress will not want them. One I did not throw out is a novel Alan attempted in his early 30s, a roman à clef about a working-class Jewish kid growing up in a small town near Boston. An editor at Houghton Mifflin told him the writing was just beautiful, but asked “When does the plot begin?’’
“Plot? It has to have a plot?’’ Alan asked. His forte, he decided, was nonfiction. But the writing was indeed lovely, so I’m keeping it.
One decision is a no-brainer. The downhill skis in the basement are going. Many New England families have memories of happy days on the trails. Not ours. I remember falling off the J bar at Wachusett Mountain, desperately grabbing on and being pulled up the hill as teenagers sneered in derision. My son, Steve, broke his collarbone horsing around with his friends at a now-closed hill in North Andover. Once we went to a charming ski lodge in New Hampshire, decorated with homemade pillows, antique quilts, and expensive pillow shams. Out daughter, Alyssa, got a stomach bug and projectile-vomited on every bit of fabric. As for Alan, his attitude was that Amnesty International should be informed every time a person is pushed down a steep, snowy hill with boards strapped to his or her feet. Once he fell while cross-country skiing and jammed a ski pole into the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. It was only a minor wound, but it bled like crazy. He had to wrap a wool scarf around it to stanch the bleeding. Walking back to the lodge, he felt like Napoleon’s troops retreating through the snow in Russia.
And then there are the pictures, drawers full of them, crammed into boxes and spilling out of folders — birthday parties, vacations, school plays, sporting events, junior proms. Photos of the adults illustrate some of the worst fashion excesses of decades past. There is Alan with sideburns, or wearing the leisure suits and the flowered shirts. For me there are the miniskirts with white boots and the bellbottom pants and the fake long hair that never stays on straight no matter how many bobby pins you use. Why, I wonder, did we not throw out the photos that were so bleached they look like snowstorms or so dark no one is recognizable or the ones that have 13 duplicates? Out they go, finally. The old family pictures I will take with me. I especially love the one of my father in his World War II Navy uniform — slim, tall, and handsome — and my mother’s graduation picture in which she looks blond and lovely in her mortarboard and black gown. There are pictures of Alan and his parents in the old Jewish neighborhood near Winthrop Beach that is no more. The kosher meat markets have been closed for years, but they live again in the pictures. They are fragments of the past in little squares.
Photos we took while writing stories give tiny glimpses of history: the Mandelbaum Gate in Jerusalem that used to divide the Old City, speakers in Hyde Park in the 1960s when Britain was debating whether to let more citizens of the Commonwealth immigrate to the country, snapshots of San Francisco during the Mondale-Ferraro Democratic Convention. I especially like one of Alan strolling along with a very young mayor Kevin White, listening intently.
I also come across the photo of Jane, our beloved dog, a mix of unidentifiable breeds. She seems tranquil and happy in the picture, but Jane was a creature of many moods, most of them irascible. She loved us, but she threw herself, foaming at the mouth, whenever Alan’s dad, Max, knocked on the door. Max would yell “anti-Semite!’’ at Jane as we dragged her away to the kitchen. Jane drove away clam diggers from the mud flats with her fierce bark, and she ate furniture — an armchair and a chaise longue, to be exact. She lived until 17, and when she was blind and having seizures, we had to put her to sleep. We held her as the vet injected the needle, observed that “her heart is still strong,’’ and lost it, both of us sobbing. If there had been a clam digger nearby, she would have left teeth marks on his butt before drifting off to doggie heaven.
Alan wrote a column about our last days with Jane, and the next morning a woman with a huge bouquet of flowers rang our doorbell. “It’s for Jane,’’ she said as we looked on, astonished. “I just lost my dog, and I know how you feel.’’
The photographs stir wonderful memories, and I both laugh and wipe away tears as I go through them. Alan loved this house with a fierce attachment. He never thought he would actually own a big house by the sea in the town where he grew up in a small apartment. In the first home we bought, I sit down in front of the big window that overlooks the harbor, and I see that the sky is an exact duplicate of one of my favorite Georgia O’Keeffe paintings, little puffy clouds on a canvas of perfect blue. Then a silver airliner rises toward the clouds, and the sun glints off the edges of its wings, making it seem like a magic chariot headed toward the sun. I watch for a while as the sky grows pink and deepens to the color of a fine merlot, turning the harbor into a wine-dark sea. I talk to the house as if it were a person, and I apologize for having to leave. “But you’ll always belong to us, to Alan and me and the kids. Our voices and laughter — and even Jane’s growl — have seeped into your crevices and your plaster.’’ That’s true of all long-lived-in houses, I believe. Their “DNA’’ sucks up some essence of the people who have inhabited them, and it stays forever.
But the reverse is also true. The house imprints itself on the people who have stayed a very long time, and it coils someplace in the brain where artifacts are stored, This house, I know, has occupied me like the aliens in the old “Invasion of the Body Snatchers’’ movie.
I will carry it with me wherever I go.
Caryl Rivers is a journalism professor at Boston University and an author best known for her New York Times bestseller, “Virgins.’’ Send comments to [email protected] and a 550-word essay on your first home to [email protected]. Please note: We do not respond to submissions we won’t pursue. Subscribe to our newsletter at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp.