Like my mother, the Roman God Janus — for whom January is named — had eyes in the back of his head. In fact, he had an entire face on the back of his head, so he could look backward and forward at once. This feature earned him the distinction of “god of doors.” He ruled comings and goings.
I could use some Janus juice about now. This January I am starting a job I've been dreading: Going through my parents' home.
Last May, Mom and Dad, both 90, moved into assisted living. We've decided to sell the home where they lived for more than 40 years. But first, I must sort their worldly possessions into callous categories: toss, donate, sell, keep, and can't bear to look at it.
Last November, I got a sense of what was coming. While in California, I visited the four-bedroom, ranch-style home I grew up in. It was the first time I'd been inside since my parents moved out. They took with them a little furniture, some art, and their clothes. What remained looked like a balloon bouquet minus the air.
I walked the scene, assessing, and discovered a person can drown in sentiment. There was the mar on the bathroom Formica, where my teenage self had left a cone of incense burning. Mom had smoothed it all over with a flower sticker.
As I stood in the home's various doorways, familiar smells hung in the air — my mother's ubiquitous L'Air du Temps perfume, something like Pendleton wool — all against the dated floral wallpaper, and damask drapes.
But if I've learned anything during my own upheavals, it's that nothing busts a bout of self-pity like getting good and busy.
I called Miller Gaffney, one of the hosts of Market Warriors, (which airs Mondays on PBS). Gaffney is also a certified, Sotheby's-trained art and antiques appraiser.
“I don't know where to start,” I say.
“You're not alone,” she assures. “A lot of downsizing is going on right now. Lots of people are sorting and selling.”
Then she offered me, and anyone else about to clean out an elder's attic, basement, garage or home, these pointers:
• Don't rush. “The process takes longer than anyone thinks it will,” Gaffney said. You have to organize, sort, appraise and market. “Rushing through, you could miss a treasure you didn't realize you had, sell it for 20 bucks, and find out later it sold for a million.”
• Do your homework. Ask your parents what they believe is valuable. Ask for the history and sales records of potentially worthy items. Separate items that might have value, from items you know don't (that broken television).