Post 31: Quest to Divest

This week’s post is by my dear friend of more than 30 years, Marge Pellegrino. Not long ago, she participated in the task of moving her mother to Michigan from her apartment in Tuckahoe, New York, where she had lived most of her life. For Marge, the move meant finding new lives for all the furnishings that wouldn’t be making the trip.

In this blog, here and there, I’ve advocated “finding new homes” for unwanted stuff. The reasons Why. Here, Marge details the How—going beyond what most people can imagine. What surprised me is that the practical experiences and tips she writes about—which could be dry and uninteresting—somehow come together in a beautifully moving story—one of friendship, community, and family. Learn and enjoy.

Marge and I cowrote Neon Words, a writing book for young people based on prompts and projects from her lifetime of teaching.

~ Kay

Before my friend Pamela died, she bequeathed lots of her stuff to refugees. After sorting with others for days, I delivered three truckloads to nonprofits to be distributed to families. So during the ebb of the Delta wave last June, when my mom’s health took a turn and she needed to divest from what she and my late father had accumulated during 70 years of marriage, I traveled to New York with a little experience to help tackle their apartment, which was full of memories—and also full of stuff.

If you’ve ever had to find new homes for stuff, you know doing it responsibly can be time consuming. If you’ve done it from an apartment building with lots of rules, you know it can be complicated. Add a pandemic into the mix, and there are fewer options available. But it is doable!

Kay’s blog, the one you’re reading, has shown why consuming new stuff is problematic, but what I most appreciate about newstuffsucks.org is that inspires me to stretch myself and do better by the planet. So I see my contribution this week as a way to share in that quest. It includes strategies we used to keep Mom’s stuff in use and out of the dump. Maybe our story might inspire you to give stuff another chance, too!

There will be stress. Pinpoint where the stress comes from so you can try to mitigate it.

Connecting with others, finding ways to be helpful and ways to serve, was how both my parents lived their lives in Tuckahoe, New York. In both elected office and volunteer projects, they networked with others to make good things happen. My intention to share stuff felt perfectly aligned with the way they valued community.

Both of my sisters had divesting experience, and brought their own intentions to this project—they had both been sorting things with Mom on their visits over the last few years. But when we converged, our intentions weren’t aligned. All three of us wanted what was best for Mom—but they were in a hurry to get her moved and out of her place. We didn’t agree on what items were still useable. Their need to get things done quickly sentenced any items they considered questionable to the garbage chute or dumpster room. Granted, we absolutely had a lot of stuff to get through. And while sometimes stuff placed in the building’s dumpster room was rescued by workers or other tenants, it wasn’t guaranteed. Anything still there when the garbage truck arrived would end up in the dump, whereas I felt passionate about finding places where this stuff could serve. When I committed to staying extra weeks, the sister-stress and secret trips to the dumpster room disappeared, with the remaining objects given a reprieve.

Rules to navigate

Some apartment buildings have strict rules. My mom, who often had to remind her daughters of the rules, knew we needed a private meeting with the Super, Tony, to understand the building’s regulations. We had already gotten in trouble one evening with the by-the-rules apartment porter when my son, brother-in-law, and I used the building’s dolly to remove a file cabinet from the storage unit. “You can’t do that!” we were informed—after we’d already done it. We needed clarity to avoid future errors.

Communication was key. Mom had the meeting with Tony take place in her apartment so no one would distract him, and we could take notes. We would soon discover that any exceptions to the rules we needed to make had to be in writing, especially if a pick-up necessitated a weekend or evening time slot, when the rules stipulated that nothing could cross the lobby but groceries.

Texts seemed like a good strategy, until they weren’t. One Saturday my bee-keeper friend, her guy, and their friend, had come down from up-county to pick up a cabinet at a prearranged time. They called me from the lobby. “It’s not happening,” the porter told the guard.

Me: “Tony said it was okay.”

Porter: “Everybody says that.”

Me: “But I texted him. See?”

Porter: “Tony didn’t confirm the text.”.

Me (with the slightest hint of begging): “Please call him.”

I stood with the three young people, who were ready to retreat. I made one more case to the porter. It cost them time and resources to be here—they worked during the week. How could they possibly come during by-the-rule hours?

The porter finally, reluctantly, agreed to contact Tony. When he returned a few minutes later, he was apologetic. The sweet young couple got their cabinet.

My rules

Once my sisters and mom left, I set some of my own rulesto make me feel safe. I made appointments with people I knew, or who were vouched for by someone I knew. My stranger-danger worry eliminated places like Craigslist and Freecycle.

Years ago, my husband Steve and I had an estate sale for his parents’ stuff—but today, the pandemic and the rules wouldn’t make that option feasible. I avoided having more than one family present at a time by asking people to commit to a time slot. I was firm on masks and kept windows open to keep the air circulating.

Networking

In Tucson, I have a handle on where things could gobut in Tuckahoe, during a pandemic? Successful sleuthing started with a message on social media asking for ideas. A few people “had a guy.” A few suggested nonprofits—and we were off!

Right off the bat, the Department of Public Works guys helped us connect with a women’s shelter that uses furniture donations to set up displaced families in their new, safer apartments. Perfect! We even found volunteers to move it.

Logistics

Lamps on their way to their new home.

We marked each piece as it was spoken for with a Post-it note identifying the recipient. If I had to do it over, I would put its departure date on the visible side, and the person the item was going to underneath, avoiding possible scrutiny and affording privacy to the recipient. (“Oh, Tony is getting the microwave?”)

Mostly, people needed to come get their stuff—with a few exceptions. We mailed an afghan Mom had crocheted to the new great-grandson. We delivered books and food to my shut-in cousin. Two of Mom’s African violets were delivered to a gardener friend in Hawthorne. Combining a few farewells with a perfect stuff-match was a delight.

Individuals

The strategy that seemed most forthright as we sorted was: if someone pops into mind, follow through. My great aunt’s charm bracelet got mailed to the niece she was closest to. Grandma Ree’s cane flask went onto the pile for cousin Ken. Beautiful flowers in a vase I walked to Mrs. Callender at her care home. I didn’t know if she would remember me, but knowing the flowers would bring beauty into her room was gold.

Early in the process, we had offered stuff to the Super, and to others who worked in the building.

When we invited the head guard over—she was a kick, and always helped my parents meet their goal of making one person laugh each day—she refused to come up and look. But after my mom left for Michigan, she finally surrendered. A weekend guard said he had come up just to be polite, but he wasn’t in the room 30 seconds when he found the toilet part he needed! (Mom planned to leave it for the new owners, but she totally approved of the change in plans.)

One of the new guards wouldn’t leave the desk until her shift was over at 11pm. Since I wasn’t going to be awake, I put together a selection of what I thought she might like in a gift box—Mom loves gift boxes, so there were plenty to choose from. The guard didn’t take everything, but the knives and Guatemalan purse were a hit.

The girls shopped the floor when their parents came to take home a dresser.

Mom also likes gift bags, and when three little ones arrived with their parents, who were picking up a dresser, they were each given an empty gift bag so they could shop the floor.

We offered stuff through the building’s website. My sister was a whiz with posting photos, texting, and keeping track of that first flurry. All the bookshelves went quickly, most within the building—which we welcomed, as there were no lobby rules to contend with.

I asked Chris, a neighbor in the building, to take on the care of the one remaining plant that had been in the lobby of the 8th floor since my parents moved in eons ago. “I’m not sure it will be safe in my hands. I don’t do plants,” he said. But he later relented (out of pity, I suspect). I left the watering pail with a thank-you note at his door.

Some of the suggestions for individuals were top shelf; a few didn’t work out. One of the weekend guards really wanted the desk that she remembered playing on as a kid (her grandfather and my father had been neighbors). We were heartbroken that we couldn’t figure out how to get it to her. But each suggestion led somewhere; a lot of people knew a person or organization that might want what they didn’t.

Ninety-nine per cent of all the gifting felt good. One that didn’t sit well with me involved a friend of a friend who took two laundry carts full of stuff. I helped her walk it to her apartment down the street. She insisted we empty one of the carts onto the front steps. When I saw her jam-packed car in the driveway my heart sank. Was I contributing to someone’s hoarding?

But more than a few times the timing was magical, like when Eve, a dear friend of the family, called to offer a ride for some drop-offs just as I finished erasing a hard drive. “You don’t know someone who could use a laptop, do you?” I asked. “Yes!” Stand Fast, a nonprofit she worked with, was looking for one. My mom couldn’t have been happier.

Organizations

A computer search for “household items to charity” laid out our challenge. A lot of places that ordinarily take donations weren’t accepting during the pandemic. Hopefully by the time you read this, things will be more flexible.

Ya-Hoo for the places that accepted and were nearby! We made use of Goodwill—mostly before my sisters left, because once they were gone, I was limited to what I could fit in a collapsible shopping cart and/or carry on my shoulders in totes.

Habitat for Humanity wasn’t taking, but a handyman was pleased with Dad’s collection of miscellaneous hardware. The trundle beds and linens delighted a summer-camp director. A therapeutic riding program welcomed towels for their barn. A Girl Scouts troop leader was thrilled with all the activity supplies. The medical stuff was set to go to AFYA, which ships all kinds of medical materials around the world, but we were saved the trip to Yonkers because all the bandages, pads, braces, splints, and the walker were taken before the planned delivery.

The Tuckahoe Library head and her office manager had first dibs on the plastic storage bins. Mom loves plastic organizing bins. The library folks chose enough of them that it took three porter carts stacked full with bins to transport them across the street. Since it took two to maneuver each cart, we had to rely on the graciousness of the guard on duty to allow them to take one cart at a time. It was pouring rain, so the guard took pity.

Mom is a chronicler, and the scores of scrapbooks she created were about events in the village. Those, along with tabling supplies, were delivered to the Tuckahoe History Committee, which she and my dad led for more than 20 years. We know that their successors will scan and archive what’s important.

Wonkier stuff took time. Mom was worried about particular things, like her stash of Eastern Star books—her own, and three she inherited from aunts as well as her mother, who also belonged to the sororal organization. She had been trying to return them for decades. “They’re supposed to be sacred. They can’t be donated,” Mom fretted, “they have to go back to the correct chapter.” With no contact online for the chapter my mom had belonged to, I sent queries, networked with the Manhattan group, and finally found the correct mailing address from a newsletter at the bottom of the tin box the books had been stored in. Mom received a thank-you note in the mail at her new address, confirming that this duty, which had weighed on her for some time, had been fulfilled.

Save time, verify information

I planned my rounds based on how much I could carry and what errands I could group together in a particular direction. One morning, after I had already emptied my load of nonperishable food at Eastchester Community Action Project, I was on my way to the police station to drop off some eyeglasses for the Lions Club “Recycle for Sight” program. But before I got there, I ran into the police chief. It turned out my information was off—the police station didn’t have a glasses drop-off for the Lions Club. Thankfully, he offered to make sure the gift bag of eyeglasses found its way to the Lions Club receptacle at Crestwood Station. His kindness saved me at least 40 minutes of unbudgeted walk time and allowed me to still get to my meet up with a friend of 60 years to say goodbye.

Curb it

Some of the big stuff could’ve been put out on the curb in Tuckahoe on Tuesdays. My uncle used to make rounds on Monday night, looking for useful items he would use or resell at yard sales. But there were no guarantees an Uncle George was out there. I didn’t want to risk putting stuff on a Tuckahoe curb if it might be taken to the dump.

Books

As a public library lover, I was heartbroken that no area libraries were taking books because of the pandemic. We topped up the free libraries within walking distance. We shipped history books to the family’s “historian in training.” When Goodwill finally said, “No more books!” we faced them in stacks by Mom’s apartment door so when people came, we could invite them to browse, coming and going—which is the perfect segue to:

Merchandizing and performance

My first real job (post babysitting, gardening, and ironing) was as a stocker at DePinna’s. Here I was introduced to color organizing and selling techniques in upscale retail. At Peck & Peck the following summer, I also learned to close out at the end of the day, and how to do window dressing, which involved moving items around—going outside to see how the combination and placement of the chosen clothes, purses, scarves, belts, and jewelry looked through the window. Once, dressed in an accessorized Lacoste, I played dummy in the window with the other high school part-timer. We got a kick out of the response of those passing by who noticed the live dummies! That job was a fun way to learn the power of design. 

Putting that power to work was still fun—at Mom’s. Move an object, give it attention, and it seems to become magnetized. The wig I placed on the windowsill was exactly what the next woman needed to dress up her dog for an Instagram audience. I also had a shtick. Using Vanna White moves, I gestured toward items stretched out across two rooms. Though she didn’t talk, I did. “Ray, wouldn’t this durable plastic sheeting work as a drop cloth?” He took it.

And the part I learned about closing out? Or reporting in? Most people let me snap their photo along with their haul—so each night I shared with Mom who she had gifted that day. It was so much more exciting than closing out for Peck & Peck. (And gratitude to those who sent Mom photos of her stuff in its new place.)

Prizes

For a few days we offered every person who came in a box of tissues (until the Costco stash was gone). Then we switched to umbrellas—Mom is a sucker for a good-looking umbrella. That supply lasted a few days, too. 

Do-over?

If I could have, I would have had a no-returns policy. A woman on another floor brought back a brass floor lamp after having had it for four days. “I couldn’t make it fit,” she said. Returned just two days before the end of our efforts, that one lamp added to what was left and felt like a boulder crashing into the flow. But not for long. When Eve came up for the computer, scrubbed and ready for her nonprofit, she took the lamp. The lamp limbo lasted only a few hours. I should have trusted the flow.

The best part: Have fun!

Mom held the compost on the way to deliver!

Tuckahoe History Committee has Geocaches, hidden around the village, hooking people up with the history of the site where each is planted. Mom and I used that almost-hidden treasure idea as inspiration.Before she left, we carved out some time one evening to distribute random items from the day’s sorting. In a borrowed transport wheelchair, we rolled to the park and planted a pinwheel in the ground beside my brother Phil’s memorial tree. We rolled around the corner to Assumption Church, where my dad had been a parishioner. Mom never converted, so the scapular and rosary were easy to give away—we hung them off the praying hands of an angel in the prayer garden. On the 9/11 memorial stone, where a friend’s name is etched, we placed a small, polished marble slab with a metal relief of Christ. And at the foot of the statue of one of the three Fatima children who faced the Virgin Mary, we placed a chunk of polished mineral. Energized, even as the light began to fade, we rolled passed the railroad rowhouse Steve and I had put a bid on in 1978. We passed the Triangle Park where the cannon stood before WWII, when it was melted down for munitions and replaced by a beautiful gazebo. We walked as far as the edge of the village to an entrance to the Bronx River Trailway, where we filled up a little free library with books.

Across the street at the Yonkers-side entrance of the village, as the sun set, we had the chance to examine the newly placed marble pillar that will one day hold Tuckahoe’s history of marble that we had helped to write. My Dad, co-historian of the village who died a year earlier, would be so delighted! When Mom is in her new home far from here—and the news arrives that the plaque is finished—it will mean more to both of us for having visited. We rolled home along familiar streets that would soon be distant and inaccessible. As we travelled past the park along the first parkway in the country that my steam-shovel operator grandfather worked on, past the Parkway Casino, where FDR stopped for a drink on his way to Hyde Park. We passed the former Burrough’s Wellcome site, where scientist Gertrude Elion earned a Noble Prize. We rolled over the bridge whose widening my dad had been passionate about. (My son and I sat with him at 4 a.m. on the morning the crane placed the wider span.) We passed Depot Square, the original Village Hall, now the Pope Foundation Italian Cultural Center. Then I pushed Mom down Columbus Avenue past the Tuckahoe Public Library, whose Block Grant was another of Dad’s passion projects.

All the sidewalks we traveled were crowded with memories. The whole way back, Mom slowly swept her flashlight left and right to light our way in the darkness.

What I took

I had room in my suitcase for a small fry pan, some of my dad’s handkerchiefs (which would be especially helpful with my winter drippy nose) and scrapers for the kitchen—fancy red blades—because I use scrapers daily. Leaving no food behind is also part of my waste-not-want-not ethos.

Schedule strong for closers

Two days before my departure date, Eve drove me for stuff-and-compost drop-offs. The last full day, Lois drove me to my cousin’s to deliver some refrigerator food. She also offered a quick farewell tour. It was a twofer—awesome to be able to fit more into my days because of their help, and so nurturing to spend time with friends!

On my last morning in New York, my son Evan and his soon-to-be wife, Andrea, swooped in to help close out. We worked until all that was left was a few pieces of furniture that would be taken within the next few days and the cleaning stuff reserved for the women who would arrive after that to really clean. By late afternoon, the almost empty apartment echoed as we took one last walk-through.

I felt so full at 50 Columbus, wrapping up, tying the bow of the end of this era. Dad had been born in Tuckahoe 93 years earlier, and now our family was leaving for good. A social-worker friend who had helped us with the move remarked that what we had accomplished was monumental. But it’s really the community that’s monumental. It has enriched our lives. How well our community helped my family close this chapter!

Brooklyn curb offerings

Remember the Tuckahoe curb dilemma? You can curb things in Brooklyn anytime! My last night in New York, hours after closing the Tuckahoe door, Evan, Andrea, and I walked to dinner. Along the route, Andrea leaned Mom’s bulletin board, broiler pan, and cookie sheet against wrought iron on her lucky corner. On the way home from dinner, we saw that the broiler pan had disappeared into its new life. It felt like icing on the cake!

(We’re still looking for a home for my parents’ post card collection and ideas for where worn clothes might be useful. If you have any leads, don’t hesitate to share in the comments!)

7 thoughts on “Post 31: Quest to Divest

  1. It’s funny (and somewhat odd) how we often spend the first half of our life accumulating—stuff, information, physical skills, firm beliefs—and then the later part of life, letting go, transforming, “divesting.” I was moved to laughter and tears by Marge’s story. Wow, what an exercise in appreciating and savoring what is nourishing and sacred. I bow to a deep writer, an engaged family, and so many opportunities to learn and grow. In gratitude, Wanda in Tucson

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  2. I loved your story. I hope I can do as well with my treasures when the time comes. I helped clean out my parents home when they both passed. My sister ‘n I did a pretty good job. We have a large family and the grandchildren were a big help in taking what they could use.
    My husband ‘n I also had the job of doing our son’s home. He wasn’t married, had no children, we lived in PA and he lived in OR. It was quite a job and we were very conscious of giving away to help others.
    I don’t think people realize how helpful they can be, but it really does take effort, and it is very rewarding.

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  3. Writing through teary eyes. Sweet and loving care as you helped to transition your mom. Loved the story and all the great tips!

    Like

  4. Thank you for thinking of my mother and brining her the beautiful vase and flowers.

    My mom thought very highly of your parents.

    Beautifully written blog!

    Like

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