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Pandemic created learning tool when time allowed for finally cleaning attic

Washington Post staff writer Jura Koncius has spent the pandemic decluttering the attic of her 1937 Colonial, where the family stores excess stuff, including their Pez and fez collections.  (Jura Koncius/Washington Post)
Washington Post staff writer Jura Koncius has spent the pandemic decluttering the attic of her 1937 Colonial, where the family stores excess stuff, including their Pez and fez collections. (Jura Koncius/Washington Post)
By Jura Koncius Washington Post

I was determined not to be one of those people who didn’t accomplish anything during the pandemic. So, I got rid of 44 boxes of stuff. Like losing weight, it was difficult work, but I did it slowly and mindfully. It feels great to have that tower of boxes gone. And the process offered moments of pure joy and laughs during a lousy time.

I frequently write articles about decluttering, Marie Kondo, Swedish death cleaning and professional organizers. A cheerleader for letting stuff go, I even started something called Declutter Sunday on Facebook, where friends posted an item they were jettisoning. But my overstuffed attic has been my dirty little secret.

I am not a slob. My little 1937 Colonial house is organized and neat. But the closets are small. Over the decades, masses of stuff came into the house, but little left. Enter the attic, which became the dumping ground for all the excess.

Stuck at home in March like everyone else, I hatched a plan. My husband, who is sentimental and fond of keeping things, agreed that we needed to take action. (He initially suggested renting a pod and getting movers to bring every single item down so we could then go through it at our leisure.)

Each Saturday for 22 weeks, I went up to the attic, did a little organizing and ended up with two boxes or bags that we schlepped down to the guest room. We then had one week to either throw the items away or find them a new home. Nothing was to go back in the attic. Each member of the family was allotted one large Rubbermaid tub labeled “archives,” where they could put anything they couldn’t part with, and there was no judgment.

My husband took care of his items, I handled mine. As for our 30-year-old son living in New York, I FaceTimed or Zoomed with him to go through his items one by one, getting a yea or nay for each item. (No, I didn’t get rid of any books, sports trophies or collectibles without permission.) His excess stuff is now in the garage awaiting more sorting by him after the pandemic is over.

In the midst of all this, I wondered: How did this dusty, cramped space accessible by a trap door and a treacherous stairway become such a shameful disgrace? Like many baby boomers, we have lived in our house for a long time: 35 years. When we moved in, I put neatly labeled cardboard boxes up there, holding our high school mementos, college textbooks, unused wedding gifts and out-of-season clothes.

As time went on, the space filled with countless shopping bags and bins full of items with no obvious home elsewhere in the house. A box (or two) of papers and mugs brought home on the last day of every job. Travel brochures and hotel bills from glorious trips. Heavily tarnished silver-plated tea sets from both sides of the family.

As life got busy in a family with two working parents and a child with many activities, there never seemed to be enough time to deal with excess, whether it was our fez collection or our Pez collection. So the contents of the attic multiplied.

We added a place to hang Halloween costumes, party dresses, ski clothes and “just-in-case” fashion. There is a whole “holiday department” devoted to lights, crèches, gift bags and wrapping paper and hundreds of Santas, snowmen and fragile glass baubles.

Then there are the 1990s collect-them-all millennial treasures: Beanie Babies, “Star Wars” action figures and McDonald’s Happy Meal toys. There are bags of CDs and 1970s platform shoes. There are old filing cabinets stuffed with every tax return we’ve filed. (Yes, I know I’ve written many times that you don’t have to keep them that long.)

And there are bags of beautifully handwritten letters from dear friends and family surrounding events good and bad: our engagement, our wedding, the birth of our son, our 40th birthdays, our parents’ deaths.

Some boxes didn’t take long to go through, while others had hundreds of pieces of paper in them. But we could spread out the work over seven days. We had a lot of laughs over some of the mementos. Every few weeks, my sister came over in her mask, and we sat in the backyard cackling and crying over old letters, photos and assorted relics from our parents.

We agonized over what to do with boxes of hand-embroidered napkins and tablecloths, many with notes from our mom pinned to them as to their provenance. Letters from my grandfather in his last days made me weep.

My college roommate and I yakked late into the night about old letters we had sent each other in the ’70s. (I’ll bring the green nail polish, you bring the Doors album.) I took photos of a lot of these old items, then let them go. We put any family documents or family tree information in desk drawers downstairs to be dealt with later.

It was joyful to pass items on to another generation. I alerted my neighbor that I had put a teddy bear or a drum or a “Star Wars” book on a bench in front of our house, and her son was welcome to come over and take his pick. I was delighted to mail an entire set of Harry Potter books (with our son’s OK) to our great niece.

A cousin in Florida got the hand-carved Noah’s Ark and most of the animals. (My husband wrote a note apologizing that the camel and donkey mates were missing. They still might turn up.)

I mailed my 1971 red, white and blue sheath prom dress bought at Loehmann’s (I still had the price tag: $89.99) to a dear friend’s daughter who thought it would be perfect for a New York cocktail party.

I immediately put deaccessioned books in my car, then, as I drove around, I deposited them into the tiny lending libraries that dot our neighborhood. I consigned a pink 1950s full-skirted dress I wore to my engagement party, a K-letter sweater, a pair of men’s 1970s Lilly Pulitzer pants and a sable boa to a vintage store.

Some weekends, I dreaded going up those stairs. It’s freezing in the winter and broiling in the summer. You can’t stand up fully. There were days I was not inspired to sort through the receipts for my wedding reception or a tooth fairy door hanger that still had a baby tooth in it. But we kept to the schedule, no matter what.

I am grateful I had the time to relive a lot of these memories without a deadline. And I’ve given some thought to my legacy list, as Matt Paxton, host of PBS’s “Legacy List With Matt Paxton,” suggests.

My list today would include my son’s christening gown with his name and the date embroidered by my mother; my father’s scrapbook of his journey from Lithuania to America after World War II; and an album of my son’s drawings.

Also, a framed original Yves Saint Laurent sketch given to by me by my mentor Nina Hyde, former fashion editor of the Washington Post; and an Elsa Peretti doughnut bangle bracelet, a gift from my husband on my 40th birthday.

We aren’t planning on moving anytime soon. But it’s a relief to not have the weight of those 44 boxes sitting right above us each night as we go to sleep.

As it stands now, the attic is halfway emptied out. The reality is, we will have to store some things up there, including luggage, Christmas decorations and the three archive boxes. And yes, the Pezes and the fezzes. We took a break over summer and for the holidays. But it’s time to get cracking. We just got our first dose of the Moderna vaccine, and the pandemic’s days are numbered. We need to go back up there and stir up more memories. Then we’ll move on to the basement.

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