I’m not sure when I first read Robert Hellenga’s 1994 novel, “The Sixteen Pleasures,” but it has stayed with me for many years. Not because it’s great literature; it isn’t. And not because it’s a well-researched, informative story about art and love set in Florence, Italy after the 1966 flooding of the Arno River, although it is. What keeps this book lodged in my mind is its central themes of change and continuity and the extraordinary gift of being able to “let go” — of assumptions, of relationships and, especially, of things.
Hellenga’s American protagonist, a professional book conservator who joins the international response to rescue priceless artifacts and works of art from the ravages of the floodwaters, learns valuable lessons about letting go while she’s in Florence. Literally and figuratively, she releases treasure after treasure into “the river of beautiful things,” knowing they will be transformed by the passage of time but never lose their truest, most inherent value.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the river of beautiful things this week. First, my BDN colleague Julia Bayly wrote an article about how to sort through a lifetime of belongings in the effort to downsize as we age. She points out that there are people — bless them — who make it their business, literally, to help us in this process, bringing a clear objectivity to an otherwise emotionally fraught time.
Then, Facebook sent me a “memory” photo from three Aprils ago. It’s a shot of me standing in front of a bright yellow forsythia bush near my parents’ house in Virginia. It was full-blown spring there — mockingbirds, redbud and that soft, sweet, southern air — and still sleety and grey here in Maine. “Almost like a vacation,” I wrote.
But it wasn’t a vacation. My brother and I had gone down together for a week, meeting up with our step-sister for the milestone task of emptying the house our parents had occupied since the early 1970s. We all dreaded the prospect, for a variety of reasons, but it needed to be done. My mother had died 20 years earlier. My stepfather stayed on there alone, until he reached 100, when he finally agreed to move in with his eldest daughter. The house was our problem.
It was bulging with furniture, books, art, photographs, dishes, kitchenware, paperwork, tools, knickknacks. The attic. The basement. The garage. Some of it was deeply meaningful. A few items were worth some money. Some things were complete mysteries to us. There was a lot of junk.
My brother and I gave ourselves that week — time we had taken off from our jobs and away from our families — to work through the things that had been our mother’s and were now ours. Fortunately, we were on the same wavelength about both the process and the stuff. We had done our homework before we went down, scheduling a variety of professionals to help us.
Each day brought someone new to the house. First, on Monday, came the highbrow antiques appraiser, and the next day, a work crew in a fancy, padded truck to carry away the things we had agreed to sell. Then came a dealer in rare and antique books, who found a few volumes that interested him; a garden-variety used book dealer took away the other titles we didn’t want. Thursday afternoon, a local church group arrived with a truck big enough to haul off the still-useful, everyday items that could help a low-income family get on its feet. Friday morning, a cheerful father-and-son team backed down the driveway to load up a massive pile of abject trash — old mattresses, broken appliances, ancient wall-to-wall carpeting and so, so much more.
We did a lot of hard, dirty work that week and made many difficult decisions. Thanks to advance planning and a surprisingly great team of unrelated helpers, the whole thing ran like clockwork. We came away with just a few special pieces to treasure and hand on to our own children. But the great, great majority we dropped with gratitude into the metaphoric river of beautiful things, knowing they would in some way enrich someone else’s life. Even the trash guys went home with a good day’s paycheck and a handsome tip for their good humor and can-do spirit.
What lingers in my mind from that week is the important rite of passage I experienced with my siblings and the satisfaction of having dealt thoughtfully and respectfully with the material accumulations of our family’s history. Now, as I await the arrival of spring in Maine and the blossoming of the small forsythia in my own front yard, I am grateful for the river that runs past my door, bringing beauty, simplicity and serenity to my life.