When moving or traveling, pack last the things you'll need first.
From the Notebook of Maggie McDonald
Simplicity Itself Organizing Services
Thursday, August 28, Morning
wesome! I bet it has bats!” My fourteen-year-old son, David, exploded from the car and mounted the steps of the old house three at a time. He peered through the grubby porch windows.
“Is it haunted?” Brian, my twelve-year-old, leaned into my side as we stood in the front yard. I eyed the dust motes cavorting in a light beam that had escaped the shrubs and overgrown trees surrounding the 100-year-old California Craftsman house. I put a reassuring hand on Brian's curly mop of hair. “I doubt it, honey.” I hoped it was true.
I swallowed hard and watched my husband, Max, ease his long legs out of his Prius. Like my minivan, Max's car was overloaded. We'd packed both cars with everything too fragile to transport in the moving van. In among the breakables, our two kids, one golden retriever and two cats, we'd tucked picnic food, cleaning supplies, and sleeping bags.
Today was Thursday. The plan was simple. The movers would arrive tomorrow. Since Monday was Labor Day we'd have four days to get settled. The kids would start school on Tuesday, and Max would begin his first full day at the new job the same day. I was giving myself a month to focus solely on house and family. After that, I was determined to restart my career as a professional organizer.
Two minutes into the plan, it was unraveling.
“Max, didn't Aunt Kay's lawyer say the house was in turn-key condition? Is this the same house we looked at in February?” I stared at the weedy front yard, dusty porch, and drooping gutters. I wondered what we'd gotten ourselves into and what had happened to the spotless house and garden I'd last seen five months earlier.
Max's feet crunched dead leaves that covered ruts in the gravel drive. Belle, our two-year-old golden retriever, bounded to him.
“Hmm.” Max tilted his head and squinted at the house. “His exact words were âshines like a showpiece.'” He scratched his head. “A handyman was supposed to be coming a couple of times a week to fix things. The house looked perfect when I saw it in April.”
Max picked up a dead branch from the walkway and swiped at a weedy flowerbed, beheading some wild carrots. “Needs a little work, doesn't it?” He took my hand and squeezed it gently.
“A little work? I'm not sure it's safe.” I looked at the house again in professional terms, calculating how big a team I'd need to whip it into shape. At first glance, I could tell it wouldn't be easy. A film of silt covered everything, but that was normal for a dry August day in Northern Californiaânothing a hose, broom, and some window cleaner couldn't fix. But I counted three broken windows.
David poked his battered sneaker at a gaping hole in the floor of the porchâa hole that begged to break the leg of an absentminded new homeowner. I wanted to gather the kids, jump in the car, and hightail it back to our plain vanilla split-level in California's Central Valley. I was scared. Afraid of spiders, bats, and the huge to-do list this ancient house presented. I was even more terrified that Max and I had made a terrible decision and were in way over our heads.
Max put his hand on my shoulderâhis calming gesture. “Maybe it's better on the inside and the problems are superficial. It was fine a few months ago. How bad could it have gotten? Let's wait, take a breath, and check things out before we panic.”
That was Max. Always confident that things would work out. My approach was the opposite of his. I tried to anticipate problems and organize my way out of them.
I took a deep breath and pulled my shoulder-length hair into a ponytail. I should have checked the house out more recently myself. We'd peeked in the windows in February before we had the keys, and Max had done a walk-through in April. Both times, the house looked fine. After that, wrapping up Max's work, my business, and everything else had consumed every spare minute. Pressed for time, we assumed our earlier examinations of the property would suffice. It looked as if we'd been wrong, but there was nothing we could do about it now.
Today, my job was to move my family into this house and get started on our new life in Orchard View, a small town in the hills above Silicon Valley. Efficient organization is my passion and my profession, and I was eager to get started.
I clutched my binder filled with the phone numbers I'd need to set up the phone, Internet, cable, electricity, and gas. It held the kids' birth certificates and school records and my growing list of the things we needed to accomplish in the next few days. It was my security blanket.
“Honey, wait,” I called to David, who tugged at the windows and searched for a way in. “Dad's got the key. Let's go in together.”
Max patted the pockets of his rumpled jeans like a caricature of the absentminded professor he'd been until a few weeks ago. He held up the key, tied to a grubby cardboard tag with gray twine. The steps creaked as he joined David on the porch. Sidestepping the hole in the floorboards with a dance move worthy of Fred Astaire, he brandished the key and flung open the door, bowing low and waving his arm to invite us in. This houseâMax's great-aunt Kay's homeâfeatured large in stories from his childhood. He'd grown up here and loved every inch of the house, the grounds, and the surrounding countryside.
I squeezed past Max and peered up at the oak-beamed ceiling and the fireplace that dominated one end of the expansive front room. I hoped the skittering noises I heard were dry leaves and not mice. From Max's stories and from our earlier sneak peeks, I'd imagined the house with polished wood paneling and comfortable, welcoming rooms that were free of rodents and insects. I shivered. I hate spiders. One encounter with a web makes my face itch for a weekâor a couple of minutes, at least.
I crossed my arms, gripping my elbows with my palms. This was the first room we'd seen. What lurked beyond? If the visible parts of the house were this neglected, what did that say about the parts we couldn't see, like the electricity and the plumbing? I needed a house inspector. I needed to find a hardware store. I needed my head examined.
“Max . . . honey? Didn't the title company require an inspection?”
“The lawyer said he'd be out of the office the rest of the week, but I'll call him. We'll straighten this out.”
I took a deep breath to center myself and stall my runaway thoughts. We had to make this work. There was no going back. Max had left his job at the university in Stockton to take an upper-level management position in software engineering at Influx in Santa Clara. He'd worked part-time from home since wrapping up his teaching responsibilities in May.
This move was a dream Max and I had shared for ages: Getting away from Stockton. Leaving the university community where I'd lived all my life and Max had lived since his freshman year in college. Where my parents were part of the fabric of the university and everyone knew me and still thought of me as a child. Max wanted proof that his knowledge base wasn't ivory-tower nonsense and was valuable in the global technology marketplace.
Max grew up in Orchard View, a small town straddling the freeway between San Jose and San Francisco. He'd always wanted to go back. For years, his only relative had been his reclusive great aunt Kay. She'd died in her sleep just shy of her 100th birthday in February, and left the house and the rest of her estate to Max. At Silicon Valley property rates, the house, barn, and two acres of land backing up to an open space preserve were worth more than fifteen million dollars. Without Aunt Kay's generous savings we wouldn't have been able to afford the taxes, let alone the house.
As soon as Aunt Kay's house was officially ours, we'd put our Stockton house on the market. Max resigned his job at the university and I stopped taking on new clients. Once launched, the plan took on a life of its own. Our belongings were sardined into a moving van that would groan up the hill tomorrow.
I rubbed what I hoped was an imaginary spiderweb from my nose, turned to Max, and gave him the best smile I could muster.
“Are you going to introduce us to your dream house?” I said. The only time I'd been inside for any length of time had been years ago, before we were married. I'd been preoccupied with wedding plans and meeting Aunt Kay and barely spared the house a glance. After that, knowing how busy we were with kids and work, Aunt Kay had come to visit us. Before we knew it, years had passed and she'd moved to assisted living. A Stanford professor had rented for a while, but the house had stood empty for several years since then.
“I know this isn't what we expected, Maggie,” Max said. “But it's got good bones.”
“Even good bones get broken,” I muttered under my breath. I tried to drum up something more positive to say to Max. Tried and failed. I sneezed. The house was stuffy, dusty, and smelled as though a squirrel, rat, or bird had died somewhere. I crossed the room, unlocked a window, and struggled to push up the sash. Max helped open the rest of the many windows and a pleasant breeze wafted into the room. Chalk one up for old houses. In the absence of air-conditioning they relied on thick walls, graceful porches, and cross-ventilation that worked whether we had electricity or not.
“Mom, Mom, Mom,” called Brian, rubbing at the tiles on the fireplace, his hands and face covered in greasy soot. “There are knights!” Nearly a teenager, he was still 85 percent small boy.
“Knights! With lances! On horses! Fighting!”
Max dashed across the room, knelt next to Brian, and rubbed at the copper tiles himself. Sure enough, armored knights on horseback charged full-tilt across the top of the fireplace.
“I'd forgotten about these guys,” Max said. “Aren't they great? In the firelight, it can look like they're moving.”
Brian beamed at Max and Max grinned back. I knew that if there were knights on the fireplace, the house undoubtedly had other hidden treasures, and I'd need a lance and armor of my own to get anyone out of here tonight.
Belle barked in the back of the house. Her insistent, needing-to-go-out bark. I remembered the cats in their carriers in the car had similar needs.
“Brian, can you find a room upstairs where we can get the cats settled?”
Brian leapt up from the floor and wiped his hands on his jeans, smearing black handprints the length of his thighs. With feet huge like a growing puppy's, he clomped up the stairs to join his older brother. David, running from room to room over our heads, sounded as though he'd invited a herd of elephants to help him explore.
“This is going to be my room,” David called down the stairs. “It's got its own fireplace. How much you wanna bet it's got bats?”
I looked at Max, still gazing at the knights. I could tell that he wanted to show me the world that encompassed his childhood dreams, but we had a ton of work to do.
“Max, can you check on the electricity? And see if we've got hot water or any water at all? I need to let Belle out and I want to clean at least one room to sleep in.”
“Yes, m'lady,” said Max, still inhabiting the world of Camelot. “I'll see if I can round up the knights-errant and arm them with brooms, mops, and paper towels.”
“I brought some of that stuff in the car,” I said. “I think it's close to the top layer. Don't bring anything else inside until we've got a clean place to put it down.”
Finding my way through the gloom to the back of the house, I opened windows as I went. I felt overwhelmed. Fixing up this house would be the largest project I'd ever undertaken, and the condition of the house had shaken my confidence in my ability to get it all done. My Stockton organizing business had been busy, but my projects were smallâbringing order to the offices of absentminded professors. They were nothing like this house with its dignified historical significance and rapidly expanding list of renovations.
The dining room had nice windows, a built-in sideboard and china cabinets, and a long oval table surrounded by a dozen chairs. To my right was a swinging door that I expected led to the kitchen. I pushed the door, which opened halfway and stopped. My forehead wrinkled and my mind scurried in wild directions as I imagined what I might find on the other side of the door.
Get a grip, Maggie! You've watched too many episodes of
. I peered around the door, relieved to find an innocent pile of old newspapers. I'd heard they were good for cleaning windows, so we were set if we ran out of paper towels. I was working hard to stay positive. As soon as I'd scooted the newspapers out of the way, the door swung open into a narrow pantry connecting the dining room to the kitchen. Each wall was lined with cupboards and a long counter. I'd dreamed of having a room like this for projects and homework and storage. No one designed houses like this anymore.
The kitchen was well lit with windows over the sink and across the south wall, opening the room up to the vista of a sloping lawn, an old red barn, a creek, and golden rolling hills. The gnarled trunks of coastal oaks dotted the hillside. The view was drop-dead gorgeous. Soothing. A red-tailed hawk soared and glided on thermals. A breeze started at the house and moved downhill across the grass, rippling it like someone shaking out a silken roll of fabric. No wonder Max loved this place.
Belle barked sharply. I unlocked the back door and pulled at the knob. The door didn't budge. I braced my feet and pulled, praying that the knob wouldn't come off in my hand and send me sailing across the room. The door screeched open as a jagged piece of flashing caught on the metal threshold. I added
Get back door to fit
to my growing mental list. But I pushed the list away for a moment and stood on the covered back porch, imagining bringing my coffee out here in the mornings and sitting with a blanket on a rocking chair while watching Belle explore. I had no rocking chair, blanket, coffee, or even a mug, but I enjoyed my delusional moment.