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It is 3 days before my scheduled move and I have arranged for Housing Works to come and pick up most of my husband’s clothing, that my son and daughter decided they would not hold onto, along with the wood kitchen table, which didn’t fit in my new apartment and which neither offspring needed.

Going through my husband’s closet and dresser was, unquestionably, the hardest experience in this entire downsizing episode.  Everything was untouched from the day of his leaving for the hospital to go in for the heart surgery, including even the white dress shirt he wore with the tuxedo on the evening of our daughter’s wedding, 4 days before the surgery.

In my past 2 years of widowhood, I have met a number of women who were able to accomplish this task almost immediately.  One woman, in a bereavement group that I joined within the first 3 months of his death, said she “got rid of her husband’s clothes at once.”  Without being spurred on by this move, I’m not sure how or when I would have accomplished it.  Luckily, both my son and daughter came by on a Sunday to help with the sorting and, eventually, putting all the well-made suits, sports jackets, sweaters, etc. into big black contractor trash bags to be taken by Housing Works, a non-profit that uses the proceeds from its retail stores to pay for research to cure AIDS.  I would have preferred for the research to cure Polycystic Kidney Disease (PKD), but the PKD Foundation has no pick-up trucks or such a well-organized donation operation.

In addition to the 4 bags of clothing, Housing Works was also scheduled to pick up the rectangular oak kitchen table that was just too big for my new apartment.  It was certainly the one place in the entire house where very important events, decisions, announcements, plans, stories and, even, meals happened.  It’s where we had our family birthday parties (complete with a “Happy Birthday” plastic birthday tablecloth that the birthday person would autograph in permanent marker on his or her birthday).  It’s where my husband would sit down and help our daughter with Latin translations for homework, sometimes after we’d come home late from an evening out. It’s, of course, where we enjoyed family dinners or meals on weekends, plotted out trip itineraries, and even where our son and daughter worked on college applications because all the papers could be spread out.  It also had leaves which extended out from each end to accommodate large family gatherings for Thanksgiving buffets or dinners for 6 or more in front of the kitchen fireplace.

The 2 guys from Housing Works walked into the kitchen, each holding a tape gun, and began fiercely taping the ends so that the leaves couldn’t possibly slide out.  Perhaps they thought the leaves would spring out to protest the removal of the table from the house.  After a few seconds, I  had to stop watching.

The Kitchen Table About to be Taped

 

There are certainly those for whom possessions are supposed to be meaningless.  For me, these are my links to the past.

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My husband and I often took walks on Sunday afternoons along the Brooklyn Promenade, an esplanade cantilevered over the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, offering breathtaking views of the Statue of Liberty, the Brooklyn Bridge and the skyline of lower Manhattan.  The walks were, unquestionably, an excellent form of exercise, since the entire walk was over 2 miles, back and forth, from our house.  They were also a time we could talk about the myriad things that we enjoyed talking to each other about– our children, work, current events, anything.  They were always an important time together on our weekends in the city.

The evening of September 12, 2001 was a walk to the Brooklyn Promenade that was truly unforgettable.  Hundreds of residents of the downtown Brooklyn neighborhoods converged there to quietly stare at the still smoldering skyline across the river.  We were among them.  People cried openly, hugged and just stared west.

In late December, a few weeks before my scheduled move ,  I decided to walk up to the Promenade on a relatively mild Sunday afternoon.  About midway along the fence that extends the length of the approximate half mile walkway, there is a wreath that has been there for at least the two years of my widowhood.   On it, in wire, is inscribed: “September 11, Broken Sky”.  I typically pause in front of it and look out at the now invisible Trade Center towers.   That Sunday afternoon, I stopped again, and this time remembered my husband and my coming here the evening of September 12.

Wreath on the Promenade

A few days after that Sunday afternoon walk,  I happened to be invited to dinner at a friend’s brownstone in Brooklyn Heights.  Her house was a short block from one of the streets leading into the Promenade.  The sun was setting and I walked over, sat down on one of the benches and took in the brilliance of the sky over the harbor.  I decided it would be my last visit there as a resident of the neighborhood, and as good time a time as any to say my formal, and difficult, goodbye.

Brooklyn Waterfront

The best comparison I can make to my going through the 30 or so years of our family’s possessions to decide what to pack for my new apartment, what to pack for my temporary apartment, what to hold out for my son and daughter or my daughter-in-law and son-in-law, what to donate and, finally, what to throw away is one that’s similar to walking through a field with buried land mines.  Every so often I would come across something that was so full of memories of the past as to be emotionally overwhelming.

My initial plan with any mover I chose was for them to pack the books.  They would grab big stacks of them off the shelves and plop them unceremoniously into boxes. Then I decided that it would not only be less costly if I packed them, but I could actually handle all of my husband’s books and fine-tune my decision-making process of whether I was keeping them or giving them to my kids, who very much wanted them.  Many were inscribed with his name and, occasionally, a quick scrawl that indicated what grade he was in (elementary school and high school) or dorm room number (college).  Those were prized family heirlooms for all of us.

Going through a shelf of poetry books, I came across one with a protruding yellow sticky note. It was a book of poems by Robert Browning.

Book of Robert Browning Poetry

I opened the book to the page with the sticky note.  It was the poem entitled, “Rabbi Ben Ezra”.  It was heavily annotated in my husband’s handwriting and probably dated back to notes he made in a college class.  But the first two lines of the first verse were ones he had quoted to me on several occasions, certainly as we aged:

“Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be.”

The most recently was after we returned home from a big family celebration marking our 40th wedding anniversary in September 2008.

The heart surgery was 10 months later.

"Rabbi Ben Ezra" Poem

I am giving unsolicited plugs here to Angie’s List, brightly colored sticky notes and Staples 14″x14″x14″ cartons.

The Angie’s List website was truly invaluable when it came to tackling the problem of finding a mover.  The cream does rise to the top with the companies getting the most “A” ratings right out at the top of the list.  It’s also very helpful reading people’s (usually very detailed) postings, because you get an excellent sense for whether your move is similar (big vs. small; complicated vs. easy; etc.)

I set up 3 appointments, with 3 companies, for an estimator to come and see what I had and to give me a quote.  The last time I’d moved was in 1981, 31 years before, almost like the Jurassic Period in the moving industry.

My plan was to try to pack as much as possible myself and leave the movers to pack all the fragile things (anything in a frame behind glass, dishes, glasses, lamps), weirdly shaped things (pots, small appliances), the books, and furniture.  I would tackle everything else.

Lamps Waiting to be Packed by the Movers

The move was complicated by the fact that some things (books, pictures) were going to each of my two children and the mover’s would need to know who was getting what.  The best advice I was given was to “think like a general”.  Since I couldn’t be everywhere in the 4-story house, I would need to leave things clearly labeled. Brightly colored sticky notes (on which I subsequently wrote each of our names in black marker) would make it pretty fool-proof, one of them told me.

Sticky Notes on Everything

The biggest issue after interviewing all 3 was the matter of storage, since I was still struggling with whether to move all my stuff into the new apartment, around which the contractor would have to work.  The big living room could accommodate it but it would be an impediment.  Ultimately, I decided on a storage warehouse.  It would cost more for the per month rental and the double move, but it would, in theory, make the renovation go more smoothly and quickly.

When it actually came to starting the packing of  linens, clothes, etc., I went to Staples and bought (60) 14″x14″x14″ cartons–a size I thought I could easily handle and that would accommodate most of what I was packing myself. It was a good size. My one recommendation is to get the best, and strongest, tape you can. Some cartons initially packed with some tape Staples was discounting started to become “untaped” in about a week.  Repacking them was no fun.

In the end, I wound up packing the books myself.  I’m glad I did because it turned up some real treasures.

I am a self-confessed writer of To-Do Lists.  Unfortunately, the lists I compiled for the first two weeks of December were stubbornly hard to cross off:

1. Find a temporary place to live during the renovation.

2. Find a mover.

3. Pack!

4. Decide about storage warehouse.

I got any number of recommendations for furnished apartments and looked at several more that were ridiculously expensive, or noisy, or gloomy.  I decided I wanted an apartment that wasn’t somebody’s sublet, that would have some regular housekeeping, and in a building in a residential neighborhood so there would be a supermarket nearby, with a doorman, a business center (in case I needed to send a fax), a laundry room, and a gym.  Also, and most importantly, it couldn’t be more than I wanted to spend.

My son sent me an email with a list of furnished rentals aimed primarily at business people and one, in particular, looked appealing.  It was in Midtown, in a mostly residential neighborhood.  I called, made an appointment to see it and, sure enough, it  completely satisfied my checklist–and then some.  What was pretty breath-taking  was the view from an apartment on a high floor that I was told I could rent starting in mid-January, a post-holiday-season-slow time in NYC.  (In real estate as in everything else in life, it’s all about the timing.) The fact that it also had a small washer-dryer in the 1 BR apartment was just wonderful.

View from Bedroom Window in Temporary Apartment

There was even a garage a half block away (a shorter distance than the 5 blocks I walked in Brooklyn) that would only charge me $25 more a month than I was paying.

I signed a lease for the apartment with the written understanding that I could cancel the entire agreement or, more importantly,  change my move-in date up to 5 days before the target date I gave them of January 13, 2012 to begin the lease.

Sometimes, all the stars just line up and I was finally able to tackle the next  thing on my list.  Finding a mover.

I knew I would need a furnished apartment in which to stay for the time after I moved out of the house and while the renovation, with its demolition and major electrical work into plaster walls, was going on.  The building where I bought my apartment was also a coop.  To add to the usual renovation delays were the front-end delays  to have the renovation plans approved by the coop board,  and the permit issued by the NYC Building’s Department. I also needed to find a good contractor.  Friends warned me that the whole experience of a renovation in a New York City building is unpredictable at best.  At worst, it takes triple the time you think it will. They urged me to find a comfortable place to wait it out.

I picked a few days in early December to start looking for a temporary place. My search on the computer was initially for a furnished studio and I wrote down 2 addresses, one downtown near Battery Park, the other on East 57th Street, near York Avenue.  Both places were not wildly expensive, given their more remote Manhattan locations. I called  to make appointments to check them out.

The first place, I discovered as I walked toward the building, was in a building adjacent to Ground Zero. I soon learned that many places that rent furnished apartments do so for business travelers, who leave early in the morning, come back at night, and don’t care about seeing daylight. The apartment I saw would have been perfect for such a traveler.  It was indeed quiet but the only window faced a gloomy air shaft.  Since I design and write most of the time at home, I needed to see daylight and, preferably, a patch of sky.

Furnished Studio with the Air Shaft View

“I have a 1-Bedroom,” the building manager said. It’s higher up and you’ll have more light.”  We went up to see it, opened the door and there, beyond the large window was Ground Zero, a brilliantly lit hive of construction activity that the manager said is active 24/7.  A moderately noisy thrum seemed to be the background noise.  “It’s historic what they’re doing,” he said. True enough, but I’d prefer to not have that first hand historical experience.

Sublet with Ground Zero View 24/7

The 57th Street building that I visited next did have a light and airy studio and I would have considered it except for 3 drawbacks. The monthly parking charges in nearby garages were upwards of $500 a month, walking around those nearby blocks seemed perilous, with drivers aggressively maneuvering onto the access ramps for the 59th Street bridge, and a dearth of supermarkets and other residential land use meant crossing all those nasty streets more often to head east if I needed to pick up a quart of milk.

Back to the computer, I thought. This will take more looking.

Room with a View

At a certain point last year I decided that living by myself in this 4-story house made no sense and that sooner or later, I would be better off living horizontally in an apartment.  The decision to leave Brooklyn was harder, because of friends and the vibrancy of the neighborhood. But during the past 2 years of widowhood, I had spent so much time in Manhattan going to classes, to museums and the theater, that it just seemed to make sense to be looking only at Manhattan apartment listings.

From the moment I saw this apartment on the Upper West Side, that I ultimately bought in early October,  I was hooked.

It had 6 rooms. It faced west over the Hudson River and Riverside Park, north towards the GW Bridge and east over rooftops. It had all the charm of a prewar building, with crown moldings, 9 foot ceilings, “wasted” hall space and generously proportioned rooms. The river views, from most of the rooms, were mesmerizing.

The River and the Sky on a Cloudy Afternoon

The apartment needed some renovation.  The 2nd bedroom was divided into 2 smaller bedrooms for the prior owner’s young children and the maid’s room was a third bedroom.  It  made sense to me to demolish the partition in the 2nd bedroom so that it would once again be one larger bedroom, and to eliminate part of the wall that divided the kitchen from the maid’s room in order to have a bigger kitchen with a table.  The current kitchen was more of a galley with a butler’s pantry with no room for a kitchen table.  In addition, all the electrical needed to be re-wired.

Kitchen As Is

Butler's Pantry

Dining Room and Foyer

I’m not sure how easy my move from Brooklyn would have been if I hadn’t this very nice apartment to be moving to.  There was only one problem.  I’d have to adjust to the fact that my husband wouldn’t be coming with me.

The Wedding Cake Topper

It is just amazing how many things you accumulate in a lifetime: children’s drawings, pasta necklaces,  college notebooks, awards, scrapbooks.  They’re put lovingly into dresser drawers (where they inevitably get pushed to the back), or into boxes on the top shelves of closets. They are the artifacts that we hang onto because we want to remember.

I think many of us are loath to throw things away because, at the decisive moment to keep or not to keep,  we can’t really decide on something’s worth to us in the future.  Maybe our grandchildren someday will want it.  Or maybe it will be valuable someday. Or maybe it will help us remember that person or experience.  At that moment, we have decided to not make a decision.

I had set mid-January as my target moving date.  Since I was also hosting the family Thanksgiving, I decided to wait until Black Friday to start my serious downsizing campaign.  After all, there was no way the contents of a 3,000 square foot house could fit into a 1,600 square foot Manhattan apartment with limited closet space.  I thought there was some irony in my starting on that Friday after Thanksgiving.  As most people were bulking up with possessions, I would be trimming down.

If you are reading this and have ever engaged in this process, you know it is both emotionally and physically exhausting.  On the emotional level are the constant decisions you need to make about whether what you’re looking at has a future for you or someone else you care about.  If not,  you have to then decide whether a charity might want it or whether it needs to be trashed.   Then there is the physical labor involved in actually hauling away heavy trash bags, collapsed boxes, or stacking other boxes that you may want to move or store.   I am 65, and reasonably fit.  I had many thoughts during these daily pruning efforts but one kept coming back.  I wondered how people much older than I am managed to do this without constant help.

One of my first forays was into a closet on the 3rd floor next to the master bedroom.  My husband’s sweaters were still on a shelf  (as were all of his other clothes in a bedroom closet and dresser). On the top shelf was a brown carton. I got onto a stepladder and pulled it down.  At some time in the distant past, I stuck it up there and had written “Wedding Memorabilia” in black magic marker on top.

What I found as I excavated the time capsule of this box was the  cake topper from our wedding, a luncheon for 50 at the Waldorf Astoria in mid-September 1968. I carefully liberated the occupants: a bride and groom smiling under a styrofoam wedding bell, framed by an arch of artificial flowers.  Some dried frosting from the cake had possibly stuck to the groom’s left eyebrow.

My first thought as I stared transfixed by the plastic groom was that he had lasted longer than the actual groom, who died during heart surgery.  My second thought was, “What should I do with this?”  I thought  of the amount of closet space I had in the new apartment and how this memento from our wedding would not have the same emotional resonance for our son and daughter as their own wedding cake toppers. I reached for the black trash bag, closed my eyes and stuck the topper in.  Somehow closing my eyes just made it easier.

I believe Jane Austen gave us all good advice, in Pride and Prejudice, when she had Elizabeth Bennet tell Mr. Darcy, “You must learn some of my philosophy. Think only of the past as its remembrance gives you pleasure.”

We bought the 4-story brownstone in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn in 1981, when our son was 3 and our daughter not yet born.  The house was built in 1870 and has some historical lineage.  It’s possible that Clarence Birdseye, progenitor of most of the frozen peas we eat, was born in the study.  It was certainly the Birdseye family home.

We didn’t buy the house for its history as much as for its beautiful, and remarkably intact, Victorian details–plaster ceiling medallions, a 14′ ceiling height on the parlor floor, intact crown moldings, 2 marble fireplaces, pier mirror,

The Parlor

pocket doors and brass door knobs.  It also had a lamp in the shape of a voluptuous female nymph, attached to the newel post on the parlor floor staircase.  It was probably originally for a gas fixture but had been updated for electricity.  It was captivating.  We subsequently named her, “Gladys”.

"Gladys"

The deal-maker was probably the light, that streamed into this 50′ deep corner brownstone on 3 sides, unlike most of its dark neighbors that can rely on light only at either long end.   A 3-story bay window, facing south, was a contributing light force as were the generously-sized windows, which were over 7′ on the parlor floor. I bought a small ficus tree, originally about 2′ high, that eventually took over the rear corner of the parlor and which I had to keep pruning back and, finally, had to cut down a few days before my move.  Storage warehouses do not offer optimal growing conditions for trees and I couldn’t easily take it with me to my little 1-bedroom sublet. Nor did any neighbors seem to have big enough spaces for it.

The house was narrow–just a hair under 15′. The kitchen was on the ground floor and 4-stories below the top floor where our son and daughter had bedrooms growing up.  To save me a trip up to their rooms on school mornings to make sure they got up with their alarm clocks, I gave each a different colored bean bag which they dropped down the 4-story center stairway.  The bags would land with an enormous thud in the ground floor hallway, invariably causing me to jump.

It was a wonderful house.

I am widowed for just over 2 years after an extraordinary marriage that lasted almost 41 years.  I’m embarking on some challenging transitions.

In October 2011, I purchased an apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, near Columbia University, where my husband and I met.  In November,  I sold our 4-story Brooklyn brownstone that we owned for three decades but worked out an arrangement with the new owners to stay in the house for a few additional months to be able to sort through its 30 years of contents.  Movers came on January 12th and moved my possessions to a storage facility in the Bronx while a 3-month renovation on the new apartment begins.  I moved on January 13th, a month ago today, to a temporary apartment in Midtown to wait out the renovation, due to begin now.

To add to the huge seismic shifts in my life, before my husband died, I sold a company I started 25 years ago.  My daughter once told me that most people have only to cope with the enormity of their spouse’s death and can then, if they’re still working, return to the familiarity of their work.  I needed to re-invent myself on all fronts.

This blog will tell my journey to try to accomplish that.