Dirt, Dust, and Duty: Clearing My Grandmother’s Attic

Black hands from cleaning out my grandmother's attic

Me, climbing into my grandmother's attic.

I spent this past summer and this winter break helping to organize and move my grandparent’s house into storage. Their attic is a combination crawl-space and torture chamber: room to hung crab-like balancing on widely spaced, narrow beams, and avoiding the ceiling and walls because they are fletched with 3 inch nails coming in from the roof. And it was hot. And there was Pepto-Bismol pink fiberglass insulation everywhere, including my palms and lungs. Reached only by means of a 12 foot ladder positioned under a stained-glass skylight, a quick jump, and prayer.

As the smallest willing relative, my wiser middle-school-aged cousins claimed age-appropriate boredom and dodged the work draft, I got to wiggle my way to the back of the attic where I found my uncle’s skis from the 1970s, vinyl records from the middle of this past century, and a chair carved by my great, great grandmother.

Emptying their house was nearly nothing but sad. It was a space that represented who they were and are and wanted to be. It was where I learned to use a slinky, draw a human face, and pet a craven rabbit (carefully). But occasionally, I could see glints of the bones of my family’s life: decades of teaching celebrated with awards, the continuing influence of now passed bohemian friends’s art, a lurking collection of Russian vodka left over from a Middle Eastern diplomat house guest, a carefully protected photo of Ronald Reagan.

I haven’t found a good quote, or way of thinking that makes my grandfather’s passing less disorienting or less sad. But I, and my family, cling to these symbols of lives proudly lived, thoroughly lived, visibly lived. I hope I can leave a similarly eccentric pile of artifacts at the end of my life.

Inspirational Quote:

“We cannot banish dangers, but we can banish fears. We must not demean life by standing in awe of death.”–David Sarnoff


  1. My favorite bumper strip:
    “I do not intend to tiptoe through life only to arrive safely at death.”
    When I had to clean out my mother’s (and grandmother’s and great aunt’s) large house I found the most interesting remains of lives well-lived. Some would have made great sculptures (a cut glass crystal punch bowl filled with stem ware and with a dead rat draped over the top), others were just dirt and junk to clear up, bag and throw away. I did not feel depressed to learn about their lives from their detritus: I hope I leave such an interesting record.

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