My teenage son, Matt, watches me hopscotch Legos scattered across the basement carpet and shoehorn a puzzle into a cabinet crammed with art kits. The coronavirus pandemic has given us plenty of time to look around the house (watch out for Legos), assess the changing stage of our lives, and realize that we just have too much stuff. As Matt spies the army men at the bottom of the cabinet, dutifully obeying stay-at-home orders, he utters a thought that hits me like a ton of building blocks:
"We should have a garage sale."
Ah, the garage sale, that All-American rite of summer where materialism, capitalism, and kitsch collide, where one person’s trash is another’s treasure — “treasure” being something that can be negotiated down to a buck and a quarter.
I’m no Marie Kondo, whose passion for decluttering took Netflix by storm, but I did hold a garage sale years ago. I was about to get married, and as some married men know, once the ring happens, her stuff becomes our stuff and your stuff becomes gone.
My main objective at that sale was to unload a pair of couches, and I arranged the merchandise so prospective buyers couldn't see the hole a mouse had chewed in the back of one of them.
I got that tip from a friend who often borrowed my pickup truck for garage sales just in case he bought something large, such as a couch without a mouse hole in the back.
He would take my truck, and I would take his car, which happened to be a royal-blue Mazda Miata convertible. I always had more errands to run when I had the keys to a royal-blue Mazda Miata convertible.
This time around, we don’t have couches to sell, but we do have stuffed animals. Over the course of two decades, my children, now 18 and 13, have accumulated stuffed otters, and dinosaurs, and lions and tigers and bears, oh my. The next time we have a flood, forget the sandbags. We can line the house with Beanie Babies.
I’m already imagining the discussion I’ll have with my daughter, Katie, about culling this herd, yet I don’t exactly have a paw to stand on; I still own a stuffed bear I got on my first birthday.
We also have cars. There’s no royal-blue Mazda Miata convertible, but we have a Corvette, a Mustang, and about 50 other Matchbox cars. There’s a little wear on the tires, but they still handle well.
And, of course, we have army men. No longer performing maneuvers in the living room or mounting a beach offensive in the sandbox, they are encamped at the bottom of the cabinet. They need a new captain.
Then there are the books. These are not the books in the kids’ bedrooms or the living room, the ones we read often or want guests to think we read often. These are the books that, sometime before our last move, we boxed up because I insisted on keeping them. In the past eight years, they have moved exactly zero inches.
As I contemplate unloading these books, I already know how this will go. I will open a box of books, pick one out . . . and four hours later, dinner will be ready. In a time of so much uncertainty and so few social opportunities, it’s comforting to sit down with an old friend, even when that’s a character in a book.
I know it's past time for this housecleaning, but parting is such sweet sorrow. I ached when I packed up baby clothes or shoes the kids had outgrown. When I see that bin full of cars, I see a toddler's hands racing them around the family room, the sound of a motor sputtering from little lips. I blinked, and now that toddler is driving his own car. Those Matchbox cars traveled miles I can't get back; can I just keep two, or six, or 10?
Indeed, this garage sale business involves some tough decisions. I envision my family sitting like an ancient tribunal, prepared to render thumbs-up or thumbs-down verdicts as toys and games are called to judgment on our ping-pong table (definitely not for sale). I expect intense, UN-type negotiations, and I wonder what the kids will say if I propose veto power.
Certain things are off limits, though. We aren't selling the doll crib my brother made, or the kids stove I built for Katie. They could end up under the next generation's Christmas tree.
We have considered holding a garage sale before, but for the past decade we have been held captive on weekends by another slice of Americana: Youth Sports. Soccer season merged into basketball season merged into baseball or softball season. My wife and I spent our weekends shuffling two kids to three fields for four games in a car that is about as far as you can get from a royal-blue Mazda Miata convertible.
But Matt goes to college this fall, and Katie's games are now on Sundays. The Saturday calendar is as blank as the white-board easel that, yes, will be for sale. It's as if the earth has shifted on its axis.
Whenever this pandemic subsides and we can safely have people in our driveway again, we will be ready to dust off sports gear, bring army men out of retirement, and give that Matchbox Corvette another spin.
Bo Smolka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.