Boxing with my wife


One of the first decisions that my wife and I faced after selling our longtime home in New York’s Westchester County was what to do with all the art done by our now-grown children back when they were in single digits. Sensibly, we decided to keep only a representative sample, and I started working through the collection, making hard choices.

That evening, I found my wife going through the garbage. “How could you get rid of this?” she demanded, holding up our son’s rendering of an American F-14 shooting down an Iraqi plane during the Persian Gulf War. She had a point -- or would have, if there hadn’t been 10 more exactly like it in the pile for saving. Following what diplomats call a “frank exchange of ideas,” we ended up keeping almost every finger painting and painted bit of clay, sticking it all in a couple of mammoth plastic tubs.

Thus began our long slog through 26 years of accumulated stuff. The campaign was marked by many skirmishes. Did we really need all those dishes on the dining-room floor? Which was the worse millstone around our neck -- her unbelievably vast hoard of books or my reasonably sized collection (all right, closetful) of political and historical memorabilia?


We moved into the house in our early 30s and are now within hailing distance of Social Security, and each crammed drawer and packed closet revealed something of the life we’ve shared. Clearing out the kids’ rooms brought many happy detours into reminiscence, but also intense emotion. More than once, some rediscovered object -- a decades-old report card, say -- revived long-dormant quarrels over who had done what wrong.

Of course, we realized that we had no right to complain. Not only were we fortunate to sell the house in this economy; we also had temporary access to another house while plotting our next move. And since we’re writers, with portable careers, the possibilities were endless. “Are you going back to the city?” we were repeatedly asked. For many of the questioners, any other possibility seemed inconceivable. But while it sounds insufferably smug to say that you’ve had it with New York, and it’s boring to go on about high taxes and the nanny state, these things were true. Some people want to wake up in a city that never sleeps; we want to wake up someplace where no one’s ever heard of Paul Krugman.

“Actually,” became our stock reply, “we’re looking for some adventure before we go,” and, for emphasis, we named exotic locales like Vietnam, southern France and (OK, our likeliest destination) Arizona. In fact, where we go next seemed far less vital than our real preoccupation: finding enough boxes. We came to know not only which supermarket and liquor store had what but the precise times they broke them down for disposal.

Not that we kept everything; far from it. We donated enough books, clothes and kitchenware to a local church to stock its entire fall rummage sale. And at our own garage sale -- featuring mainly stuff we’d bought over the years at other garage sales -- people kept showing up breathless, saying, “We hear they’re giving away stuff here!” My wife was -- literally -- which provoked a horrified neighbor, a small-business owner, to stage an intervention, pretending to be a relative and taking over the negotiations with our customers.

A week before the closing, we both finally cracked. “I’m putting this in your box,” announced my wife, brandishing an 8-by-10 photo that had turned up belatedly.

“No, that box is for my work!”

“The others are sealed,” she said, defiantly slipping it inside.

“Stop!” I bellowed, sending a pillow hurtling at her.

Later that night, half-asleep, I moved to cuddle beside her -- and she punched me.

The stuff we didn’t get rid of -- her books, my political stuff, all the rest -- is now in an extra-large public storage space on Long Island, stacked in boxes, floor to ceiling. And we realize there is a strong possibility that none of it will be opened until we’re gone. Like President Obama, we’re passing on our problems to the next generation.


Harry Stein, a contributing editor to City Journal, is the author of “I Can’t Believe I’m Sitting Next to a Republican.” This piece is adapted from the 20th anniversary issue of City Journal.