Friday, June 14, 2013

Ghosts in the Attic

I'm cleaning our attic.

Guest room from Coastal Living.
Not my attic.
Guests are coming, and the finished, air-conditioned attic is our guest room. Ideally, it should look like something dreamed up by Martha Stewart, with fresh flowers, bottles of mineral water, plump pillows, chocolates (why should the hotel-goers have all the fun?) and a general atmosphere of restful sweetness. The reality in our attic is somewhat different. We have lived in this house for thirty years, accepted a number of unwanted gifts, taken up and abandoned many messy hobbies, and raised a son to manhood while heaping him with toys and enshrining all his schoolwork and youth baseball trophies. All this stuff finds its way to the attic.

Then there are my papers. When I heard some years ago that Toni Morrison's house had burned with all her old papers, causing her unutterable distress, I thought, Lady, you don't know how lucky you are. Of course, scholars want her papers. They don't want my papers. I'm going through my papers right now, throwing out things. I found a padded brown envelope from Little, Brown with the original manuscript of UNBALANCED ACCOUNTS, together with a little note from Ray Roberts, my first editor, may he rest in peace. It read:

October 31, 1986

Dear Kate:

Here's the original manuscript of UNBALANCED ACCOUNTS. You must be sure to put this in a vault. It will put the baby through Harvard one day.


I did not put the manuscript in a vault. Eventually I put it in a box under the guest bed with some early drafts of various books I wrote later. Nor did the baby go to Harvard. Now I have dug out the box and thrown the drafts away. I'm keeping Ray's note, and the manuscript from Little Brown. But not in the attic.

A list of things to address is posted on my old sewing project bulletin board up there. The papers came first. Next comes the sewing. I once used the attic for a sewing room, collecting attractive dress patterns and beautiful lengths of fabric until I had more than I could do anything with in several lifetimes. Eventually one faces this. I have an absolute maximum of ten more projects left in me. So now I have to select ten patterns and ten hunks of yard goods and let all the rest go, probably to the church flea market, along with most of my knitting yarn.

Thymes Frasier Fir:
a Really Good Air Freshener
After that I tackle the toys. I'll hang onto enough to keep visiting little ones amused, but most of the toys will have to be given away. Perhaps I'll paint the walls, hang a few more pictures, make curtains. Already it smells a lot better up there than it did, what with finding and cleaning up the cat dump under the bed and putting out a really good air freshener.

You might say, all this is too much trouble for a few overnight guests, Martha Stewart to the contrary notwithstanding. Perfectly true. The guests create a more or less artificial deadline for a task that has to be done. You see, I have to clear all of this crap out of the attic so that my heirs don't have to. No, it's okay, I'm not sick or anything, but who wants to wait 'til they're sick to clean the attic? This way I get to linger over all the old bits of my life, find a place for them or throw them out, get comfortable with the past.

When I'm finished with this work I'll scatter sea salt on the floor and say some prayers to take care of the ghosts. One of my friends told me there were actual ghosts up there.

Kate Gallison


  1. Enjoyed your humor! But come now, don't lump us all together! I never owned a dress pattern or length of fabric in my life! Um, on the other hand, I used to buy odd pieces of cloth from stores that did chairs and sofas, etc. and with my one rather huge needle made up costumes in the woods by the lake near Suffolk, Virginia. They looked pretty good in the tree shadows, and though my stitches were about an inch long nobody knew!! TJ Straw

  2. I'm positively counterdomestic and despite my husband's best efforts to keep it this side of tidiness, my living room probably looks like your attic. I like to think of it as Bohemian.

  3. Kate, I cleaned out the twenty-seven year accumulation in the attic of the country house when we sold it just over a year ago. There are still boxes of memorabilia in a corner of my apartment--mostly photographs. I still have the yarn. The fabric went in the yard sale. My collected papers--mostly old tax records--are in Chelsea Mini-storage, where my heirs will find them and discover how very little my writing career contributed to their inheritance, if any.

  4. Thelma, the mind boggles at the image of you flitting through the shadows in the woods by the lake in casually handmade costumes. What were you doing there? Was it a theatrical performance, or some sort of strange hobby? Did it involve Wiccans?

    Steph, Bohemian is good. Or you might call it Eclectic. Our house was mistaken for a Hippie hangout by some young folks not long ago, though we haven't been Hippies in forty years.

    Annamaria, I'm trying to pretend we might move, too, in order to achieve the right mindset. The other thing is, all my clothes from the summer of 2011 went missing before the summer of 2012, very nice things, some of them, and I'm rather hoping to find them.

  5. Not exactly Wiccans... never heard the word til I migrated to sin city here! I was a camp counselor at the Girl Scout Camp Matoaka ( of Norfolk, VA) for tons of years, while growing up, in charge of drama and group singing and pageants, etc. Later, when I was old enough , I worked as Assistant Camp Director... my real claim to fame was - I killed copperheads with my trusty hatchet! God's Truth! Today, if I even saw one - I'd die of fright instantly! tjs

  6. I never owned an attic till I moved into this house in Albany five years ago. I don't know what's up there now but I remember climbing the pull-down ladder to hoist up boxed Christmas decorations once. I took my body up there once to look around at the emptyness, and to check the roof hatch; way out from the fire down below, you know. To my dismay, I couldn't pull myself up the four feet from the floor to daylight, so no need to revisit the attic. Then, they're are the bats who settle in once the summer heats up (little buggers drop down after dark into the hallway between bedrooms where I'm typing away at my desk) so only Batman from BatControl of Greater New York goes up now. Hell, if there's fire, I'm out the front door! Bob K.