Saralee Perel

Award-winning columnist, Saralee Perel, can be reached at 

Her novel, Raw Nerves, is now available as a paperback and an e-book on

Chaos and Combat in a Collector's Attic

Do you think there’ll ever be a time when you’ll feel organized?

Me neither.

Oh, I’ll go through a periodic tornado style put-things-in-order blitz, but like my weight, nothing will stay in its ideal state for more than ten minutes.

Last week, I decided it was time to tackle the mother lode of all flea markets - my attic. Like an archeological dig, there are layers upon layers of artifacts depicting various eras and their corresponding oddities that I had deemed vital to my existence during each period.

There has never been a time when my husband and I have entered the attic without a fight ensuing. Primarily this is because we can’t actually walk around up there. It’s like a squished Stonehenge with pillars resting against each other. If we ever move one pillar of junk, at least four others crash to the floor.

I decided this was going to be the August that I really took substantial control of the attic. This decision was the result of going through my parents’ estate and doing something about every single item they had collected in their long lifetimes. I know this sounds sad, and of course it was. But after a while the sadness was replaced by furious conversations with the ghosts of my parents that would have resulted in three day arguments had I ever said these things to them while they were alive.

“Mom,” I said out loud, opening the tenth box of things from her owl phase. “This owl coffee urn? It’s a must-go.” I kept opening packages to see big, wide owl eyes staring at me from salt and pepper shakers, candle sticks and vases. “Thank God I didn’t inherit your taste.”

By the time I got through organizing their things for the very last time, I was naturally very depressed. But I did realize that there are just so many things that we, in our brief collectible period on this earth, need to keep.

Hence  . . .  here we are in the attic.

“Saralee,” Bob said. “I think your mother’s been up here. Looks like I just unearthed her chicken phase.”

“That’s mine.” I grabbed the chicken soap dispenser from him. “The soap comes out its beak.” I cradled it in my hands. “Mom had such lousy taste though, didn’t she? Remember the owls?” He looked at the chicken, then at me as if he was about to say something but knew better.

He continued to dig through my chicken motif period. “Do we really need to keep this timer with the crossed eyes?”

I took it out of his hands. “Its eyes aren’t crossed. The paint’s worn, that’s all.” And I gently removed an earwig from its beak. Then I started to cry.

“You can’t start crying about everything,” he said. “How are we going to get through this whole attic?”

“You’re right.” I dried my eyes with tissue wrap and in the same movement quickly squirreled away the chicken timer into my back pocket. 

Then we found the two boxes of waxed fruit. You know what happens to waxed fruit when it’s been in a really hot attic for fifteen years? I do. And it’s not pretty.

We hit Bob’s old bank collection. He unwrapped a blue pig that was sitting on a commode. It was missing its two front legs.

“That is the ugliest thing I ever saw in my life,” I said and took it and put it in the garbage bag. 

From behind me, I heard Bob crying. “You can’t throw out Mr. Piggy.” He pulled up his tee shirt and wiped his eyes.

“It’s Mr. Piggy’s time to go, Bob, while he’s still got some dignity left. He doesn’t want to go on this way.” I tied up the garbage bag. “It’s for the best, sweetheart.”

I went through the other banks. I found a clear glass one and handed it to Bob. He held it to the light. “This says ‘ESSO’ on it.”

“That’s a beauty,” I said. Then I remembered with immense sadness finding the beautiful Wedgwood china that my mother had never, in my recollection, used. And now, she’s gone. Too many things were put away for “best”. What the heck was the point in that? I took the bank from him. “That’s going on our coffee table.”

“Someone could break it.”

“So what?”

As the afternoon sun heated up the room, our sentimental emotions became replaced with impatient rage.

I picked up an art deco lamp. I turned to Bob with fire in my eyes. “What have you done with the lampshade?”

“Look around,” he said, his own fury brewing. “We have thirty-five lamps up here and not one of them has a shade. You’re the one who keeps buying these things thinking we’re going to find a matching shade  . . .  someday.” Then he added, “Someday, someday, SOMEDAY! Whenever I hear you say that word at a flea market, I want to scream, ‘YOU’RE BUYING MORE CRAP?’”

“I suppose you’ve been keeping a lot of things inside, Bob. I never knew you felt this way.”

“There’s more.” He snatched the deco lamp from my hands. “Look at this! Who wants a lamp with a hula dancer in a grass skirt on it? And you know what else?”

I covered my ears. “I can’t hear you!” I started singing, “JEREMIAH WAS A BULLFROG,” as loud as I could.

“You’ve got your mother’s lousy stinking taste!”

“Oh yeah?” I stormed to the opposite end of the attic, resulting in banging my head on five consecutive rafters. “Well, I’m the one who broke off Mr. Piggy’s legs when I moved the box last year. And I didn’t even care! As a matter of fact, I laughed when I did it!”

Unfortunately, that made Bob start to cry again and then I felt really terrible.  “I didn’t mean it,” I said, as we moved among the pillars to get to each other. “I think we’ve both had enough of this hot crowded attic for one day.” I hugged him and gave him a long, tender kiss. “Let’s go downstairs and do what always makes us feel so much better,” I teased, and took his hand as I led him down the stairs. Then we pigged out on Reese’s.

Three days later, I realized that two thirds of my things fall into the “we will never use, sell, donate or throw away category.” So why do I store them up there? Because apparently I have a problem with finality. You see, once they’re gone, they’re gone. And somehow, it seems like the times in which they were used will be gone forever too.

I think the answer here is to learn to separate the “thing” from the memory.

I know I will never use any of the dozen or so of my mother’s ten foot long tablecloths. When I was little, we had a huge dining room with a gigantic walnut table. I can still see my Uncle Lou as one of about twelve family members around the dinner table. He got the biggest kick out of singing, “Napkin in your lap. Napkin in your lap. Hi-ho the derry-o. Napkin in your lap.” But you know? If I give away the tablecloths, I can still picture Uncle Lou - plain as day.

So once I realized that my hoarding problem was based on the fallacy that the items were as important as the memory, I could begin to let things go.

But not everything.

On the last day of the attic cleaning, I came upon the powder blue jewelry box my grandfather had given me when I was five years old. He had gone to Woolworth’s and picked out dozens of bracelets, necklaces and pins that he thought I would like. My favorite was, and is still, a bracelet with a dangling miniature square music box that has a lamb made of tiny pearls on it. It plays “The Anniversary Waltz.”

I could hear Bob downstairs in the kitchen as I sat by myself and softly sang, “Oh, how we danced  . . .  on the night  . . .  we were wed,” as the little winder slowed down before the song was through.

I’ll never wear the jewelry. And all the pieces aren’t worth more than five dollars. But to this day, this jewelry box that was put together with an old man’s understanding of a little girl’s dreams is still the best present I’ve ever had. And it’s one I will always keep.

I took it with me downstairs and put it on the mantle. There are certain treasures that shouldn’t be left in the attic.

And so, even though I was able to weed out a lot of things, the upstairs is still crammed and I’m basically a failure as an organizer. But I learned three things.

First - it’s simply and absolutely fine to preserve what’s meaningful even if it has no apparent use or monetary value.

Second - this organizational bit is highly overrated.

And third - grilled cheese sandwiches taste even better on my mother’s exquisite Wedgwood China.