The higher we worked in the old house, the farther we went back in time. If the first floor, with its giant dining room table, summoned memories of crowded, chaotic sedars from the '60s, the second floor took me back to times I'd only heard about -- my grandfather coming home smelling of work, dropping the needle on a Xavier Cugat .78, and fixing a bourbon and orange juice. The attic, though, was completely foreign -- ancient wooden trunks and barrels, ornate brass picture frames, a dusty oil painting of my great grandfather, Joseph Shapiro, who had a junk business in Boston, but apparently cleaned up nice.
The family had been there since 1922, 14 relatives sharing one bathroom. That built patience, my mother told me. And humility. Now there was no one in the house, just the stuff of 87 years. And what a lot of stuff. My Cousin Bobby, who died in March at 84, was a collector. That's the polite way to say it.
He was a hoarder, actually. We found cartons of unopened fig bars, giant bags of peppermint candies, untouched socks from discount shops picked up in bulk because the price was right. He had records of almost everything he ever bought - a home economist could map the price of gas in suburban Boston in 1972 with ease, thanks to Bobby. You couldn't breathe in the place. Out it went.
What made our job a joy, is that among this crap we found treasures - great books, gold watches, vintage protest buttons, black and white photographs of travels of Europe, summers down the Cape, his recovery in a Birmingham, England military hospital.