Clean a Crawl-Space

When I awoke, it was nearly noon, and a calendar alert chimed on my phone– “Help K. Move.” This was the final hurrah, the last weekend to help my friend reinvent herself in her new home, no small feat for a woman with the remains of what was once a very full nest to sort out. A week ago we moved boxes enough to fill a 5×7 storage locker to the brim with supplies for the theatre, and now we needed to clear out the rest of the house.

Assuming I’d be the only one there, I knew I was in for a doozy. So I strapped on my Keds, wore some beat-up skinny jeans, and a loose tank, ate some leftover pizza for breakfast and drove over. An enormous moving truck was sitting outside, a 20 foot dumpster in her driveway. Overdue by nearly 15 years, this was the purge.

I parked and walked towards the house, reassuringly packed with our theatre tribe. It was a relief and inspiring all at once. One member even brought his three sons, ranging from 12 to 23, all sweet hearted boys.

We all tackled the house, taking assignments from the President of our Board of Directors like we do at the theatre: upstairs, downstairs, new place, Goodwill. We were all in and out of the house in synchronization, placing things according to their next destination.

I was assigned the downstairs, which my group completed all except for the laundry, and the crawl space. I went upstairs to have some lunch and water, and asked my friend’s sister, “So what’s the ruling on the crawl-space?” Her tiny body retracted all it was made of in horror, “The crawl-space?” She shuddered, “I am NOT going in there, that’s all of her ex’s old stuff and I will not touch it. Ohmygod dead things must be in there, that stuff’s been sitting so long.” Clearly prone to her own kind of dramatics in parallel to her sister, I texted K. “Crawl-space?” She said “All of it’s garbage.”

“I’m on it.”

I shouted up the stairs to the second floor, where our group had migrated since the other half was on their way to move her in to the new place. “Hey! I’m heading downstairs to the crawl-space, so if you don’t hear from me in a while, check.”

“The crawl-space?!” Her sister shouted, “You’re NUTS.”

And off I went. Grabbing a pair of working gloves off the kitchen counter on my way down. I started to pull things over the edge of the space, clearing out the initial loose items, boxes of mugs, camping gear, tarps, and then came across far more heavy boxes that couldn’t be pulled. I’d have to climb up into it.

I shrugged, “No dead things so far.”

I vaulted myself over the crawlspace wall with the help of a sturdy shelf, and landed into a mesh of small tan stones. I’m not very familiar with crawl-space lingo, but an accurate description came from the 12-year-old, “It looks like a giant cat litter box,” which he articulated upon finding me contorted in the basement.

“What are you doing down here? Or, I mean, up there?” He asked.

“No one else can do it, so I’m doing it,” I explained simply. He looked at me like I was crazy.

“Can I help?” his little voice a hopeful squeak.

“Sure thing! Can you grab some garbage bags?”

And off he scampered upstairs only to come down waving a bag through the stagnant basement air making “swoosh” sounds. “Here you go!”

He held the bag while I shoved the garbage of yesteryear down into it. What took more doing were rotted Craftsman tools, apparently from the distant past, the box they were housed in eaten through and broke upon lifting, tools scattering into the litter box. But with his moral support, sense of humor, and ability to make it up and down stairs in lightning speed, the litter box was cleared, and I managed to fit it all right into the dumpster.

As I walked through the house, the walls emptying in stages, I noticed a penciled growth chart of K’s two sons scratched on the wall by the foyer. I took a picture. ‘Something she’ll want to keep.’ Her life has been the definition of chaos this last year, and something like that I wasn’t sure if she’d remember that she’d want it in this last minute rush of a short-sale.

I stopped to reflect on the day, all the objects that summed up her life in this house. All the objects that were donated, or just thrown away, once bore memories, memories meaningful enough to squirrel away in hiding places, lacking feasible use, but still retaining an essence too great to throw away, maybe even saved for another generation. It occurred to me why, in addition to the chaos, my friend had waited so long to let us in to help, this outcome impending for the last year. Emptying her house, every nook and cranny made bare, is seeing my friend at her most vulnerable, her house the expression of her living heart. This was the place she made a home and reared her boys with limited help, the place she kept a home for them to return to when they flew the nest, the empty nest she filled with homeless animals. This was the place now to be flipped over and emptied, gallons of water dumped all at once into a mason jar.

Happy today meant tackling the crawl-space, the cavity of the basement with all his things. Things I could touch without cringing. Things I could throw away with no remorse. The memories rising from the dank dark into consciousness, for me only dust.




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