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Saturday, March 20, 2010

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American gomi yashiki


I was recently asked by a Japanese person if we have gomi yashiki (trash houses) in the United States. In Japan, such houses refer to those whose inhabitants hoard things to the point that their stuff is overflowing onto the streets, sometimes impeding traffic.

News photo
This 9 X 5 meter room is filled with genealogy papers. AMY CHAVEZ PHOTO

We do have gomi yashiki in the U.S. I should know — my parents' house used to be stuffed to the brim with junk. Things were not flowing out onto the streets, but that's not because they didn't have enough stuff to "flow." It's that their house was big enough to hide it all.

As each child "left the nest," my parents would fill his or her room with stuff. At 80 years old, my mother and father were still living in a six-bedroom, two-story house with a swimming pool. "How could we ever move to a smaller house?" my mother would say. "Where would we put all this stuff?"

When my mother died, I tried to arrange for a sarcophagus for her burial as she had accumulated so much stuff, she must have thought she would need it in her afterlife. But the funeral home said they don't do sarcophagi. Since the funeral home was run by my cousins and has been in our family since 1870, I know they would have gotten me one if at all possible. Who knows, maybe trade relations with Egypt aren't so good right now. So we settled on an urn.

With no sarcophagus to help in the disposal of my mother's stuff, I had no choice but to go through it myself. It took me two months, but I finally had most of it cleared out. My only worry was that my mother's most expensive piece of jewelry, a piece appraised at $40,000, was missing. I never did find it. It's probably hidden in the floor boards.

And then there was the genealogy collection. Our family goes back to the 1700s and we even have an original diary written by our first ancestors who came over on a ship from England and then traveled across to Ohio in a covered wagon.

Every generation since then has been handed a rather large collection of original documents that the Historical Society has designated a "very valuable collection" since it is so complete and thus useful to researchers trying to put together the lives of the first settlers in America.

However, for my mother this was a paltry collection at best, so she dedicated the last 20 years of her life to finding out more about our family's history. The result was a 9 × 5 meter room full of genealogy papers.

Although the cause of death on her death certificate reads "metastatic lung carcinoma," I suspect it was the genealogy that really did my mother in. She spent a lot of time snooping around cemeteries and investigating gravestones to validate family connections.

When she wasn't doing that, she was poring over death certificates of relatives (the funeral home connection is a real bonus here). The ultimate gravestone discovery was one of a close relative who was a Revolutionary War hero (1775-1783). She found this grave sitting on a plot of land all by itself in the back of a fast food restaurant just off the highway.

Needless to say, it now has been professionally cleaned, a white picket fence put around it and American Revolutionary War flags stuck into the ground around it. Whereas no one ever noticed the grave before, now people say, "What the hell is that?" as they sit in their cars waiting to bark out hamburger orders at the drive-through.

Someday, I will go through all of that genealogy and, well, try to fight the urge to heave it all on the next orphan I come across. "Here," I'd say, "take this family!" But I did promise my mother I would go through that room, file and catalog all the information someday.

Someday.

In the meantime my father still lives in that house. It's not quite a gomi yashiki anymore, but he wants to move to a smaller house. "How could you ever move to a smaller house?" I say. "Where would we put all this genealogy stuff?"



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