Living by the mantra that “he who has the most toys, wins,” often leads to a messy house. When my parents sold the home where I was born, we moved the entire evidence of my childhood into my basement. And there it sat for many moons.
218 Cedar Street was a fascinating place. A giant chimney on my home’s roof had the date 1684 embossed upon it, but the house was actually built, or so I have been told, in 1659, making it the second-oldest wood-framed house in the country. Constructed at a time when relations with the native tribes of New England were understandably strained, the house had secret passages and hidden rooms built into its belly. The apocryphal story I was told is that Indians would enter the home to find a fire burning in the hearth but no inhabitants. Sam Adams (and a lesser-known cousin) signed a beam in the attic; a Civil War era rifle hung above the colonial era oven; and the Fisher-Whiting house, as it is known in historical circles, served as a station on the underground railroad.
For a house already filled with so much drama, my family did a pretty good job keeping the train rolling. When I was born in 1978, I was the fifth child in the 3.5 bedroom home. My oldest half-brother, 17 years my elder, overlapped with me for two years before he set off for Duke in the fall of 1980. During this time, my foster sister lived in the office-at-the-top-of-the-stairs many years before Harry Potter moved in with the Dursleys. Of course, I was oblivious to all the drama because, up until I was a toddler, I lived in a crib in my parents’ bathroom.
As the baby of the family, my siblings liked to torment me. There is a picture I have long sought to suppress from when I was about 4 in which they had dressed me in a bra and placed a beer in my hands. Indeed, my brothers delighted in teaching their younger sibling the most egregiously offensive nuggets of locker room talk that they possibly could. But inevitably this led me to break out my salty vocabulary at inopportune times.
After struggling through several rambunctious trips to the supermarket, my mother discovered that she could tame my overflowing energy by using the lobster tank as a makeshift babysitter. This ploy worked for a time. After a while, however, my exhibitionist curiosity and budding vocabulary got the better of me. At the end of one of her whirlwind shopping tours, she discovered a large audience surrounding the lobster tank. Fearing the worst, she pushed her way to the front of the crowd. And there she saw her little Marshall standing on the bully pulpit of his shopping cart, angrily pointing at the lobsters, and lambasting the poor crustaceans with the words, “Douche Bag! Douche Bag!”
By the time I had reached the age of sentience, 218 Cedar St. was a changed place. My middle brother was off to Northeastern, after enduring a hellish year in 1983 processing the aftermath of his mother’s traumatic brain injury that left her permanently in a near vegetative state. At the age of four, my father left the home, preferring instead to bed down at the house of his paralegal, who would soon become his third wife. That left my sister, mother, and me. My sister often reminds me that she had to take me everywhere once she was back from school. Her preferred method was to tie me to the back of her bike and lug me around to her friends. In those days, I spent much of my time with my beloved babysitter Florence, whose Boston accent I so thoroughly adopted that I had to attend speech therapy in kindergarten after which I bid a sad farewell to my Boston ‘ah’ and was introduced to the far harsher ‘r’.
Growing up, I did not have an obvious room of my own in the house. Nominally, my room was the half bedroom in the attic that had only three walls. Its wallpaper consisted of retro 70s-era posters, including a titillating one of Cheryl Teagues. But I was a loving and needy child, and the attic seemed so far away from my mother, so I was a semi-permanent inhabitant of the “guest room” on the second floor.
Perhaps because of the impermanence of my lodging, I started hoarding possessions from an early age. I inherited an army trunk from my stepfather that I used to lug off to Camp Becket in the summers but eventually filled with mementos that any sane person would have discarded. I refused to ever part with my messy notebooks from school, so my stuff grew in a linear fashion that felt exponential. My college textbooks soon joined my high school novels and were eventually supplemented with an eclectic array of Islamica as I explored my new faith.
When the house was finally sold in 2019, all these collective memories were unceremoniously dumped in our basement. Where they sat…and sat…and sat. I am made up of a curious mixture of maniacal energy and practiced sloth. I usually unpack my bags immediately upon returning from a trip, but if I miss this brief window of opportunity, it might be months before I finally open the suitcase in search of a bathing suit. The task of sorting through—and perhaps discarding!—my childhood effects had a paralyzing effect on me. Finally, it was time to call in reinforcements, and we hired a home organizer.
One-part Marie Kondo, one-part sympathetic grandma, she quickly helped us tackle our domestic entropy. The toolbox of a home organizer is remarkably simple—all one needs to make a massive change is a sharpie, some sticky notes, scotch tape, and a ruthless decisiveness. Within two sessions, everything in the basement had been unpacked, regrouped, and stored neatly away. By the time she was done with our living room, garage, and outdoor shed, it was at last possible to breathe again. The most cathartic part of her visits was filling her car with donations of lightly used and long forgotten toys, clothes, and assorted paraphernalia of 21st century life.
The moral of this long-winded story is that there is a great value in hiring a disinterested 3rd party to help you get unstuck. Usually, the tasks that we most stridently avoid are the very ones we most need to address. Sorting through the scattered remains of my childhood home has helped me forge deeper connections with my siblings. With each item donated, binned, or stored for safe-keeping, I have been able to shut doors that in turn opened up so many others. Writing these essays has been sort of a home organization of my mind, which has helped me unearth countless unexpressed ideas that have long been brewing in my psyche. While we still have too many toys, I think we might just squeak out a win.