Putting Stuff Away

One morning, we woke up to realize we’d been living in our house for nine years.

And it had been nine years since fresh paint had spread itself sweetly onto walls.

Every room was dingy.

“Well,” I thought. “Best get cracking.”

The dining room, we decided, was in the grittiest state, so we went out and bought paint (Roasted Cashew, it was called), and bright, flat white for the ceiling, and semi-gloss white for the trim. I rounded up brushes and bought liners for the rolling pan and made sure we had rollers and roller covers and plenty of clean, soft rags. We got lots of masking tape to line off the edges.

And Friday rolled around and, remembering painting efforts from much younger days, I confidently began, sure that by Sunday evening, the dining room would be gloriously transformed.

Three weeks later, I pulled the final piece of masking tape away. The room looked good; I loved the color, and the paint job wasn’t bad.

But, oh man. It took me so much longer than I had anticipated. And my old bones ached so much more than I was ready to accept.

Still, I thought maybe painting Jim’s room would be easier. And that refreshing the little box room, turning it into a study, would be a breeze.


We painted the two rooms upstairs. They look good. Jim chose jewel-tone colors, and I was surprised at how perfectly they worked in the tiny rooms, at how precisely the crisp white trim outlined the rich wall color.

But once again, I was surprised at how thoroughly exhausted I was by the painting process. And one night, I had a dream, and in the dream, a wise mentor said to me, “You don’t have to paint your own walls.”

The words reverberated in my head on waking. (What a T-shirt they would make!) And that morning, I said to Mark, “Let’s hire someone to paint the kitchen.”

Mark, who was never too keen on us trying to paint the cupboards ourselves, readily agreed.


Some people are talkers, and some people are doers. I tend toward talkiness, but Susan, my friend and boss, is a definite do-er. So when I mentioned wanting to have the kitchen painted, she brought it up with her husband, Tom, who has his own contracting business.

By the middle of the next week, a very nice man named Jim was in my kitchen, unpacking his painting gear.


And all of this is to say that we had to swiftly pack away everything in the kitchen….the foods on the shelves above; the pots and pans and appliances, the onions and the storage containers, that have long nestled long below. The coffee maker and the coffee grinder; all the packages of tea. The cereal boxes. The go-cups and the cake pans. The snacks that love to lounge on top of the refrigerator.

Everything, each thing from every cupboard, from the tops of the cupboards, from the shelf that runs across the wall over the stove and refrigerator and appliance station—it all had to be packed away.

We used baskets and boxes and canvas bags; we stowed things in the dining room, in the family room, in Mark’s side porch office. The sheer density of STUFF—nine years worth of stuff, some of it never disturbed,—was numbing.

We packed it. We stacked it. We walked by it, looming on top of tables and shelves, and we looked away.

Jim the painter was coming on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. Not knowing quite where my spices were, or my chopping boards, having lost track of my skillets and my cookie sheets, I declared those three days a cooking-free zone.


Jim the painter is friendly and hard-working. When I came home from work on Tuesday, the little kitchen glowed with the light and warmth of a pristine white ceiling. The upper cupboards had morphed from a kind of dark espresso color to a sweet, fresh cream.

Every day brought changes. Jim took the doors from the cupboards and toted them downstairs to paint the backs. He painted the walls above the chair rail. He painted the walls below the chair rail. He started on the glossy white trim.

On Thursday, when he packed up to leave, I asked Jim about putting stuff back in the cupboard.

“Oh, yeah,” he said. “Oh, sure. I bet you can’t wait to get stuff back where it belongs.”

And so James and I waved Mark off to work on Friday morning, and we began the mindful process of putting things away.


James (James the son, not Jim the painter) volunteered to arrange spices, herbs, and meds—the denizens of the bottom row of the upper shelves on the left side of the sink. He slid two little sort of plastic-coated stair-steppy type things to the back of the cupboard, and then he started with the tall spices in the back.

“We have a LOT of herbs and spices,” he said after a very quiet five minutes of setting them out on the countertop. He decided to put them in rows by height. Within each row, he’d try to alphabetize them for easier access.

After another bout of intense quiet, he asked, “Do you have any idea how many things of parsley you own?”

I remember back in early winter making out shopping list after shopping list  and thinking, “Oh! Parsley!”

I may have stocked up five or six times.

Fortunately, that herby kind of stuff gets used before it can lose its punch.

Then Jim switched to organizing meds. He discovered several aging prescriptions, which we put away to take to the pharmacy for disposal, and he lined the over-the-counter stuff up by frequency of use and by size.

When he finished, the bottom shelf was a work of organized art.


Meanwhile, I started on the silverware drawers and on putting away the pots and pans.

And I discovered…

…thirteen spoons my mother gave me in 1976, one for each original colony. (“Cool!” said Jim.) Somewhere, probably down in the basement, there is a wooden spoon display rack. Jim thinks we need to dust it off and hang those historic spoons.

I put the spoons in the dishwasher without making a commitment.

…the whole set of extra silverware, the Paul Revere pattern. Mark and I both had a set of that to combine when we got married. I had a vague notion that it was still in a fancy wooden silverware storage box, with a drawer for the pistol-handle knives. We’d opted to use the more ornate Michelangelo design for some reason and forgot where we put the other stuff.

Every once in a while, through the years, I would say, “I wonder where we put the other set of silverware when we moved in?”

And Mark would say, “Is it, maybe, in the closet in the little room?”

We would look at each other and shrug. We didn’t NEED it; we just wanted to know it was there, somewhere.

And it was, right in the silverware drawer on the left, sorted and stacked in its own red organizer, and buried under tongs and turkey baster, candy thermometer and old potato peelers (never know when you’ll need an extra), a couple of stray cookie cutters, and a whole bag of never used wooden shiskabob skewers.

….a whole stack of disposable pie tins, from several indulgences in Mrs. Callender’s kitchen of treats over the years.


So. I empty a bin, once been used to hold Christmas ornaments, now filled with kitchen items. I wash big things by hands; I run small things through the dishwasher.

I decide to move the flat cookware—cake pans and 9×9 pans, my glass roasting pan with the metal griddy-thing that let the meat juices drip and the veggies caramelize; even my Bundt pan is flat enough—into the bottom pull-out drawer. It fits there so much better; it’s so much closer to hand.

I sort through cleaning supplies and stow them under the sink. I empty almost-used-up containers and clean them for the recycling bin.

I put the big pots in the little bottom cupboard by the window. I drag the cooler, filled with baking supplies, into the kitchen and carefully put flours and sugars, oatmeal and cake mixes, tubs of frosting and a can of blueberry pie filling, back into the cupboard next to the sink.

I return the Fiori-ware plates and the mish mash of measuring cups and the dessert plates and Fiestaware saucers to their places in the cupboard above.

And all the while, I am culling. I pack the old Christmas ornament bin right back up. There is an old crockpot in the basement; I wash that up and pack it away, clearing a space on basement shelves for Mark’s portable smoker: now, it suddenly makes sense to keep all the barbecue stuff together, out of the kitchen, on a basement shelf.

I put one of the two giant roasting pans in the bin. I offload pie tins, stacks of dish towels that I don’t need, potholders that have only just seen the light of day after ten years of kitchen drawer slumber. The roomy bin quickly grows full.

And I think to myself, “All this STUFF!” I give myself a lecture on learning to ruthlessly throw things away, on not attaching to THINGS. I tell myself if I don’t need it and it doesn’t give me joy, it needs to go.


But other things, forgotten things like the bicentennial spoons with their family-gift connection, with Jim’s delight in sorting and examining them, DO give me joy.

I find an ancient nutcracker and a matching nut pick that were in my childhood home. That nut pick never, to my knowledge, was used to dig a nut meat from a shell. It might have been used, back in the day, to pry a wedge of dried catsup from the bottle-neck grooves the catsup top screwed onto; it might have lightly traced words on a cake being decorated for a brother’s birthday.

The nutcracker was set out at Christmas, next to a bowl of nuts in the shell. Nobody used it, until, after the holidays, my mother would methodically crack the nuts and chop them, sprinkling them on top of a yellow cake, maybe, with chocolate butter cream frosting.

The bowls of nuts, I guess, was just a nice, Christmassy thing to have.

The little set, inexpensive but pretty, were never used for their true purposes. But now, finding them tucked into the mash-up of things from the thing drawer, they make me smile. THESE, I’ll keep.

Things are just things, of course, but some of them trail a smoky, sparkly, gust of memories.


We get a lot put away on Friday, James and I do, but not everything. It’s okay: on this pandemic weekend, our social schedule is pretty much open, and I will spend my early Saturday sorting and exclaiming, examining and disdaining, culling the keepers and filling the recycling pile, the trash bag, and the Goodwill bin.


Jim the painter will be back on Tuesday; by Thursday, I think, the kitchen will have completed its transformation. I have a stack of favorite things—deep red pots, plaid ceramics, a tray, a tin, ready to go up on top of the cabinets.

I am thinking about plates to put on the shelf opposite the cabinets.

I am picturing how nice the kitchen will look with its new facelift, and how nice it will be to cook in there, with its lightened load.


It’s good to purge; it’s good to appropriately dispose; sometimes, it’s good to keep and treasure.

And it’s good to have someone—a friendly, efficient, seasoned painter—paint the kitchen. Maybe now, we’ll tackle the downstairs bathroom and the back hall. Or the upstairs hallway, the walls around the stairs…maybe that’s next…the next job for someone who is not ME to tackle with brush and roller.

My job will be to keep opening drawers and climbing up to look on closet shelves, marveling at the things I find, donating what can be used, saying goodbye to what should never have been stored in the first place, and renewing a relationship with things treasured but forgotten, hidden away, just like the memories they evoke, in a dark, quiet corner…

Coming Back

Rosy and relaxed, I pushed the bedroom door open after my bath. There, sprawled on the floor, fast asleep, was Greta the dog.

Over six months ago, the dog abruptly stopped sleeping in our room after fourteen years of habit. Suddenly, she would come upstairs with me, circle around, sniff at the doors of the closets, angle her sad eyes my way, and then sigh deeply. With great effort, she would heave herself forward and head downstairs, where she’d fall soundly asleep on the couch.

Then I would wake to her wet nose snuffling at my face in the deepest hours of the night.

She’d be hungry.

She’d need to go out.

She would want her meds.

Sometimes I would get up; sometimes Mark would. Seldom would Greta sleep throughout the night…and so, of course, our sleep was constantly broken, too.

We took her to the vet.  We talked about sudden changes in habit and what that could mean. We talked about humans’ broken sleep and irritability.

The vet checked the dog for any signs of physical ailments and found none. That was good news, sort of, but it also meant that Greta’s issues were probably cognitive. At 14 human years of age, she was no doubt developing some kind of doggy dementia. We started her on meds, and slowly we increased them, adding a sedative. That reduced, but did not eliminate, the nocturnal wakings.

And then last night, there she was, in her once-accustomed place on the bedroom rug. I tiptoed around her, read in bed for thirty minutes, watched to see if she would wake when I turned off my lamp. Like there had been no interim, she slept for a full, uninterrupted, six hours.

And I slept, too, only realizing then that I had been on high alert every night, listening, even asleep, for the click click of her nails on the hardwood floors downstairs, ready (even if reluctant) to get out of bed when needed.

I got up early this morning, and Greta followed me downstairs; we went outside together in the gray light, came back in, both had breakfast. I felt as if something had clicked back into place. The dog, too, seemed strangely content.

Greta is still old. Her eyes are still cloudy, her focus still slipping. She may never sleep upstairs again.

Or she might. I’ll call her tonight when bath time looms, beckon her up behind me, see if the strange interim of spending the deep nights downstairs has come to an end.


I drop Jim off at the side door of Elson Hall, in the 15-minute parking space. He gathers his back pack and laptop bag from the back on the car, waves casually, and heads into the university, where he is taking a first-term philosophy class this summer.

He loves it. He respects and likes his teacher, a bright, engaging woman with a British accent who shares his love for Monty Python. (They can both recite the lyrics to “The Philosophers’ Song.”) She shows interesting video clips, such as one of George Carlin busting on the concept of God: Jim is particularly fascinated by the arguments for and against God’s existence.

He reads his textbook at home, does his homework, and downloads the lecture notes from Blackboard. He asks us our opinions on different philosophical constructs, wonders aloud about logical fallacies. He emails his advisor, his instructor, the financial aid director. He likes to go to campus an hour before class start—just to hang out and get ready, he says.

In the second summer term, Jim will take a health class. Then, in the fall, he’ll have a more robust part-time schedule.

It has been several years since Jim gave up on taking college classes, said, “No more,” after accumulating almost enough credits for an associate degree. He felt, he said, like he was spinning his wheels. He believed he would never be able to master the math needed. He wanted, he decided, to just get a job and work.

The job search was not fruitful, but two or three years ago, Jim did begin a small home business,–a business that helped him learn about responsibility and accountability, how to talk with and communicate with clients, and how to schedule work to get done in a timely way. And then, after the New Year, Jim mentioned that he’d like to explore going to college.

He connected immediately with a wonderful advisor, warmed to the director of disability services, felt comfortable finding classrooms and dealing with unexpected class changes and the vagaries of financial aid. And then the thing that had eluded him for years—a job—fell squarely into the deal. The disabilities director put him in touch with an opening for a student worker; James starts his job on Tuesday.

Classes that challenge him. A student job in the very field he hopes to pursue. James is back in school after a long, dry spell, excited and hopeful.


I trim the front hedge with the clippers, not trying for strict symmetry, but for neatness. Mark surveys. The hedge, he opines, kind of looks like a caterpillar.

A caterpillar, I think. That reminds me, somehow, of the bricks painted like books that I’ve seen on Facebook. I think of Eric Carle’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. I say that, if you got a copy of that book, you could make eyes and antennae for the bushes. I say you could paint a paver to look like the book itself.

You could make, Mark says slowly, a kind of readers’ garden, and the idea takes hold.

I request the Carle book on line and get a call the next day that it is in. James and I drive over to the library and pick it up.

At home, I study the cover. I find a thin piece of plexiglass and cut it in half, and search in the basement for paints. I draw eye shapes on the clear plastic and fill them in green and yellow paints. I like the way they turn out.

Mark finds me a plastic lid; we cut it to make the caterpillar’s nose.

And I go outside and heave up a big cement paver, a paver that mimics the shape of the The Very Hungry Caterpillar book. I wash it off. I brush a thick coat of white paint onto it and leave it to dry overnight.

The next afternoon, decks cleared, I gather things together—little pots of latex enamels from the basement, a thick package of art brushes that I have had forever and never opened. Pencils and Sharpies and a cup for water. Rags and a paint stir-stick. A screwdriver to lift the glued-on lids from the jars.

I do a quick sketch of the book cover, and yes, it seems like it can be done. I grab an old plastic bowl for the mixing of paint, and I head out to the patio to paint a paver.

And just like that, I am painting, after years of not.

I like the result. It is far from perfect. The colors are wonky. I have lettered the text with a black Sharpie, and the porous, bubbly surface of the cement has played havoc with my printing. But there is no doubt of what I am trying to suggest; the paver actually looks like the cover of Eric Carle’s book.

I let it dry and coat it with clear enamel.


This weekend we will wire the eyes, nose, and antennae onto the hedges. I dig out five pairs of old sneakers and set them aside to paint brown; they will be the caterpillar feet. We’ll take the very hungry cater-paver and prop it up in front. We’ll hope that passing children will be surprised into smiles—that moms and dads and grandmas and grandmas will remember warm cuddles with a special book.

We talk about garden books.

We could do, Mark suggests, an Iris Murdoch cover on a brick, put it by the irises. I find a book called A Fall of Marigolds, and I put a base coat of blue on a brick…I’ll paint the flowers in tomorrow.

We’ll make an herb garden and paint bricks to look like Harry Potter volumes—herbology, you know. What about a cover for a Wordsworth tome in a bed of daffodils? What about a paver that looks like the children’s book Chrysanthemum tucked into the flower bed?

Could I recreate the cover of Charlotte’s Web to sit next to our statue of Babe the Pig?

I sort and stack paint, gather supplies, make sketches. This is fun. Why has it been so long since I’ve done this kind of project?


Transitions happen. Habits break. Dreams defer. Pleasures get back-burnered.

There isn’t room for everything. Sometimes, the jettison is a necessary thing. Sometimes, it’s necessary that the ending be permanent.

But sometimes, a dog creeps back into a favored spot and settles into a satisfying sleep. A young person takes a leap of faith and discovers needed skills to navigate the new path. Or a hand picks up a brush and joy re-awakens.

Some doors close forever, mourned, perhaps, but set aside. But sometimes, even if only for an interlude, that lost thing can be recaptured. There’s a special joy at times like that, I’m learning,–at times when things come back.



More Than Meets the Eye

Car port
My hair is sticking to the freshly-painted ceiling as I crouch on the second step of the ladder. I wield my skinny brush, whitening the creases between beams and surface. I paint and shove the ladder forward, paint and shove the ladder forward, until I reach the other side. Then I climb off the ladder, top hairs sticking straight up in kind of a bizarre old lady’s white mohawk. Time to trade the brush in for a skinny, small roller, to coat the beams and the supports.

I am painting the carport, something I’ve been longing to do since we moved into this house five years ago. The first time we saw this place, I thought, “Ah. That carport could be an outdoor dining room.”

And I thought, “We can invite the Pasta Club here for Pasta on the Patio.”

I could see it: a little paint. Some curtains stitched up from canvas drop-cloths… Perhaps a rescued ceiling fan top and center. And maybe a derelict chandelier painted—oh, say, a funky chartreuse,—and wrapped with fairy lights and centered over a long and welcoming table. Candles and tablecloths and drinks chilling in a galvanized metal tub.

The vision percolated, a low simmer, and of course, there were other, more urgent things to do. But then we finally knew that this was the summer we needed to paint the house, and, after wrestling the idea around from all directions, we realized we’d be crazy to try the job ourselves. So, in mid-to-late-July, a nice band of painters will come and transform our little green house into a fresh and pretty, gray and white, little cottage.

Meanwhile, it’s up to us to paint the interior of the carport, and the all-over of the little garage.

The time has finally come to paint; excuses no longer register. And after all, I know how to do this.

Seems like I grew up painting walls.


When I was ten, we left the house I’d always known; we’d moved there when I was six months old. The front lawn of that house rolled a long way down to a sidewalk, and then on to a busy highway. We rolled down the lawn to make ourselves dizzy, landing by the tree that offered, in the early summer, long cigar-shaped seed pods.  We called it the banana tree, and its two main branches forked in just a way to make a kid-sized dreaming seat.

Out back there was a big backyard, bordered by an old garage, with a tin “Drink -Cola” sign on one inside wall of the loft. Beyond that was the Little Woods, then a meadowy space before the Big woods started.

My brothers brought home salamanders, baby birds, and bunnies. We wore base paths into the backyard that separated house from garage.

It was a wrenching place to have to leave, but some mysterious twist of family finances dictated the uprooting, and finding and nesting in a new home was exciting, too.

The first place we rented was a converted cottage near the lake. My mother, hands on hips, surveyed the place and turned, before my eyes, into a workplace foreman. And so, I learned to paint.

We painted walls and we painted woodwork, all of which had to be cleaned and prepped first. Not for us the wimpish reliance on things like masking tape to guide our joint lines; no, we used slender, pointed brushes where the woodwork met the wall, and if we goofed, we cleaned it up and started again.

I learned the difference between matte, satin, and semi-gloss finishes. I learned that latex paint was so much easier to clean up. We painted ceilings white; woodwork, if already painted, got a coat of glossy white, too. But the walls could be any color that struck my mother’s fancy–she might go neutral, say, a nice soft tan, but she was just as likely to choose a deep rose or a vibrant blue-green. We found places in nice neighborhoods that were sad and neglected; we changed them into comfortable homes.

(My parents never owned another house. They stayed in their last rental house for almost thirty years, accommodated by a landlord who could not believe his good fortune. When the stairs and the yards became too much, they moved, finally, into an apartment complex. It was their first home where they couldn’t pick the paint color, so they used art and photographs, books and flowers to brighten up the beige decor.)

My mother, whose forebears were finicky cabinet makers, was meticulous. We had darned well better be meticulous, too. That’s the way I grew up painting.


Mark and I agree on many, if not most, things, but we diverge on painting. “We’ve got plenty of paint!” he’ll note. “Don’t skimp! Slap it on! Maybe we won’t need a second coat.”

Okay, Bubba,” I’ll say, agreeably, and as soon as he’s done, I’ll go back to the slow, measured, meticulous method embedded in my genes. This project, though, the carport: well, he’s right. It’s outdoors, after all. We don’t have to be perfect: we just have to make things fresh and bright and new and appealing.

I’m not sure that knowledge speeds me up at all. Nor does it make a difference to the amount of paint I wind up wearing. Mark mutters things about paint magnets under his breath, and I meander inside to scrub white latex off hands and arms (arms that had been covered by my old long-sleeved Hawaiian shirt!) and ankles and knees. I’ve discovered the best way to get sproingy hair paint-free is to wet it and apply shampoo and let it soak in for the entirety of a shower. Usually then it washes out.

If not, well. Rinse and repeat.


It is so worth it, though: painting is a soul-satisfying pursuit, despite the mess and aches and pains. In the course of an afternoon, a dingy, neglected space can become airy and welcoming. Unseen potential emerges when coated with pretty color.

And after painting, then the real fun begins–the addition of lights and floor cloths, wall art and graphics. It’s why we love HGTV, isn’t it—the potential for transformation, the beauty laying hidden, waiting to be called forth?

I am convinced the inside walls of the car port look a lot like Joanna Gaines’ beloved ship lap, and I am thinking framed paint by number pictures would look like funky fun displayed there.

Oh, there’s no confusion: Mark and I are not, never will be, stand-ins for Chip and Joanna. We are reluctant, often, to embark on the mess and disruption of painting. We squabble. We cut corners. Sometimes we have a clear bright vision, but the end result is something else entirely.

But we love the act of transformation, and we love living with the end result.


So I clean the house and I change the beds and I think about making taco salad to go with the casing hot dogs we brought back from western New York, and it is all preparation for the time this long weekend will allow me: time to head out to the car port, to brush and roller, to emerge paint-daubed and muscle-achey, and very, very happy.

Such a satisfying thing, to transform one’s world with paint.