Thursday, June 01, 2017

This Old House: This Old Stuff

The series continues.

We’ve met the house. We’ve seen the crazy. We’ve pondered its genesis. We’re almost ready to discuss the renovation itself. But there’s one more bit of backstory we need to tackle first: the stuff.

Because you see, I didn’t just inherit a big old crazy-ass house. I inherited a big old crazy-ass house bursting at the seams with generations of accumulated artifacts, filling every nook and cranny and twist and turn and shelf and shed and closet and cupboard; treasures, trash, and everything in between. For mine was a family of packrats, with a deep abhorrence of throwing away anything that could conceivably be used for any purpose at any time in the foreseeable or unforeseeable future.

A sampling of the stuff, in no particular order:

  • Lots of antiques: armoires of various sizes, chests of drawers, consoles, Chips full-tester bed, a secretary desk, ornate chairs and sofas, glass-fronted bookcases, etc.
  • Lots of far less glamorous furniture
  • Several well-worn rugs
  • Photographs, thousands of photographs, dating from the 1800s through the 1990s, enough photographs to fill a large full-height file cabinet, many though not all of them my grandfather's
  • Multiple generations of defunct Macintoshes
  • A large portrait of my ancestor Cesaire Olivier1
  • Hand-drawn family trees (some of which actually looked like trees)
  • A book of Princess Diana and Prince Charles Fashion Paper Dolls in Full Color
  • A hilarious old volume, The Standard Book of Politeness Good Behavior and Social Etiquette for Ladies and Gentlemen
  • And a whole lot of other books. Old books. New books. Amazing books. Junky books. Huge dictionaries. Tiny 19th century French prayer books. Cook books. Books for dummies. Philosophy. Theology. Mysticism. Good fiction. Trashy fiction. Books, books, books, books, books, books, books. (We shipped off a hundred boxes full of non-keepers to the public library.)
  • All manner of curious old family documents from communions, graduations, etc.
  • Multiple recipes for Anisette
  • All manner of artwork, some wonderful, some less so
  • Stacks of Annou's odd and sometimes lovely paintings
  • A book of war rations
  • Old cameras in various states of disrepair
  • Old typewriters
  • Old stenotype machines (Chip worked for a spell as a court stenographer.)
  • An assortment of maps
  • An incomplete musket cleaning kit
  • A lovely old clock
  • Other more ordinary clocks
  • Annou's calligraphy practice sheets
  • An absurd number of wickerless wicker chairs
  • A half-rotted prie-dieu
  • Several bills of Confederate money, some partially burnt
  • An inoperable 1890s Smith and Wesson pistol
  • A Bowie knife
  • Every check stub for every check my grandfather had ever written
  • Every bill — it seemed — my grandfather had ever received
  • A remarkable assortment of linens
  • Boxes of rotted lace and doilies
  • Boxes of untouched office supplies
  • Boxes of untouched art supplies
  • Stacks of Chip's old records: lots of 78s, some 45s, mostly though not exclusively classical
  • My dad's old pirogue, stashed under the house
  • Orphaned pieces of now-departed antiques: ornate disembodied curlicues and brackets, indeterminate bits and bobs
  • All manner of old cookware and kitchen implements, some cool, some weird, some broken
  • All manner of chinaware
  • My grandmother's diary from the early years of their marriage
  • My grandfather's diary from when he was the assistant to Senator Ransdell
  • Lots and lots of little decorative boxes
  • Several reels of film
  • A defunct projector
  • Chip's piano
  • Chip's flute (I didn't know he played flute)
  • Boxes upon boxes upon boxes of meticulously filed paperwork (my grandfather was a highly organized hoarder), which had long ago ceased to be of any use
  • Two broken reel-to-reel tape machines
  • Various other broken bits of recording equipment
  • Antiquated garden implements
  • A hand-painted Olivier de Vezin family crest ("Olivier de Vezin" was the original fancy full-length family name which was later shortened to plain old "Olivier")
  • A receipt for payment from Hotel Dieu for my uncle Chip's birth
  • Empty bottles of darkroom chemicals
  • Empty bottles of sherry, stashed amongst the darkroom chemicals
  • Several hatchets (presumably for chopping one's way out of the attic, in case of massive flooding)
  • An invitation to my grandparents, from when they lived in Washington D.C., to hear Marie Curie speak
  • Chip's old army boots
  • Many many many rosaries (Like a hundred. No, probably not that many. But it seemed like a hundred. So many rosaries)
  • A wire dress-making form
  • A large piece of elaborate gold embroidery from a liturgical garment
  • Lots of hats
  • Lots of gloves
  • Lots of scarves
  • Lots of funky old suitcases
  • A large assortment of profoundly tarnished silver
  • Lots of Virgin Marys
  • Several nativity sets, of varying origin and materials
  • A rich assortment of Mexican curiosities
  • Every sort of basket
  • Every sort of porcelain curio
  • My dad's old homework
  • Old newspapers
  • Old magazines
  • Lots of crosses
  • Lots of pictures of Jesus
  • Lots of pictureless picture frames
  • Lots of ceramic heads
  • Lots and lots of old lady clothes

This overflowing stuff dramatically amplified the home’s sense of claustrophobic nuttiness, and it dramatically amplified our sense of stunned deer-in-headlights indecision. Because before we could do anything with the house, we had to empty the house.

And so began the Great Culling, sorting through the contents item-by-item and deciding, is it:
  1. something we keep?
  2. something we throw away?
  3. something we don’t keep but don’t throw away?
and then having made this decision, sending each item to its respective next destination:
  1. a storage unit
  2. a dumpster
  3. a new home: family, friend, charity, etc.
Some decisions were easy. We quickly purged two dumpsters-worth of obvious garbage. And we squirreled away some obvious keepers. But there were two enormous gray areas:
Gray Area #1: Is-It-Or-Is-It-Not-Trash? The stuff that sort of seems kind of cool and like somebody somewhere might have some sort of use for it, but the charities don’t want it, and we can’t convince family or friends to take it, and we don’t need it, and maybe-probably it’s just funky old garbage. 
Gray Area #2: Is-It-Or-Is-It-Not-Something-We-Want-To-Keep? The stuff that’s definitely cool and interesting and definitely not trash and that we’re tempted to keep, but there’s just too damn much of it, and if we keep all of the kind of cool interesting stuff, we’ll just be perpetuating the problem and will end up living in our own next-generation claustrophobic-den-of-antiquarian-knick-knacks.
But we pondered and deemed and whittled, and in the end we prevailed: decided the fate of every single item in that uncountable plenitude, and sent each on its way to its newly prescribed destiny. It was a huge task. (The decision-making alone was exhausting.) Sarah took off two full weeks from work at the outset just to get a running start. We spent nights and weekends sorting and hauling. Family came and helped. (We received invaluable assistance from Cousin Timmie, the resident family historian, who gave us backstory deets on many of the otherwise mystifying treasures.) And so it went, in fits and starts, for well over a year, until at last, everything had been either stored away, given away, or thrown away.

And as the Great Culling lurched and lumbered to its conclusion, we proceeded in parallel with the Great Mulling, considering our options for the house itself, enlisting The Architects, planning plans and scheming schemes, and crystalizing our vision for the home’s next iteration.

And so at last, with the stuff gone and the plans drawn, we were finally ready to get on with the actual business of making this big old crazy-ass house into a big new wondrous (though still decidedly idiosyncratic) house.

Next up: The Great Edit. Stay tuned!

And I took a whole bunch of photos of the house-as-it-was, before we cleared it out. I think I'll kick off a parallel "This Old Stuff" photo series to more fully convey the peculiar particularities of this trove.

1 When we had the painting appraised, the appraiser told us it was painted by the French painter Eugène Devéria, that it would have been commisioned when Cesaire was shipped off to Paris as a young man to get some “cultcha” — a common practice for wealthy young French colonial types — and that Devéria actually had a painting in the Louvre. We thought, that’s cool. And when we visited the Louvre last summer, we decided to look it up, expecting to find some nice little portrait in some far corner of the museum. We were therefore surprised to discover his work The Birth of Henry the IV, an absolutely ginormous historical tableau, hung in the Gallery-of-Paintings-Too-Ginormous-To-Fit-Anywhere-Else, a stone’s toss from the Mona Lisa.


  1. I love reading your house series! my grandmother had the weird habit of keeping everything (it's actually called "le syndrôme de Diogene" in French and when she died my family spent holidays sorting out her flat (which wasn't big at all) and wondering about dozens of umbrellas for instance...

    1. So glad you've enjoyed it! I'm really liking writing it.

      And "le syndrôme de Diogene", fascinating! Thanks for the tip.

  2. What happened to the pirogue?

  3. We've got it, stashed in the garage now. It seems to be in good shape. We'll have to test its water-tightness when things settle down. It may once again travel to the great beyonds of Bayou St. John!

  4. Endlessly fascinating. I would not know where to start or end. I just became more tired than I was after some gardening just reading your list. That sentence sounds weird. Must be the heat. If you have not heard of it, there's photo scan app that might be useful. I haven't tried it yet myself.

    1. Great tip! Just downloaded it. That's going to be super useful when I start diving in to that cabinet of photos (which will be its own whole large endeavor after we've gotten settled into the house).