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.
Janus, where are you? Come to think of it, I could also use the powers of Minerva, goddess of wisdom; Vesta, goddess of the home; and, for sure, Bacchus, god of wine.
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 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 de temps perfume, something like Pendleton wool — all against the dated floral wallpaper and damask drapes.
I walked, because if I stood, moving again was near impossible.
Shake it off. It’s just a house. It’s only stuff. Easy to say. 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.
Because Janus didn’t answer my call — I called Miller Gaffney, one of the hosts of Market Warriors, (which airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on PBS).
“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. When going through a home or attic, separate items that might have value, from items you know don’t (that broken television).
• Don’t believe all they said. Heirlooms have a way of gathering unwarranted value as their legend grows. A friend told me about a Tiffany lamp her grandmother cherished, and said was worth a mint. An appraiser delivered the bad news: The lamp was a fake.
• Don’t do it alone. Once you’ve separated out what might have value (furniture, jewelry, artwork, porcelain, other collectibles) ask a certified appraiser to do a walk-through inspection with you and identify items worth a closer look. Then get those items appraised. (Beware of fraudulent estate sales companies, warns Gaffney. Check credentials.) Get a sense of what some items are selling for on eBay.
• Know the value. That helps assure you’ll get a fair return if you sell the item at an estate sale, auction or to an antique dealer. It also helps make the fighting fair if siblings are dividing up possessions. “Often, when family members know how little something is worth, they let go of it more easily,” Gaffney said.
• Not worth it. Just as that piece of junk you thought was worthless could be a hidden treasure, more often items family members believe items have value, don’t. For instance, almost no market exists for figurines, which often disappoints those who’ve collected Lladro and Hummel. Signed and numbered prints also don’t usually fetch what owners paid, unless the artist became well known, she said.
• What to keep. The toughest call, however, is not what to toss, donate, sell, or have appraised, but what to keep. When keeping an item for your home, consider condition, quality, lines and how difficult it would be to ship Beyond that what to keep is a highly personal decision, said Gaffney. “Some people don’t want any reminders, and just want to liquidate. Some just want the cookie jar. But others have a strong emotional connection to many furnishings. You have to find your sweet spot. When it gets too emotional, step away. Take some time.”
As I go through the process, and am tempted to keep too much, I’ll remember the Janus, god of doors, whose domain not insignificantly included the gates to heaven. And there he reminds us: You can’t take it with you.