Aunt Galya, my father’s sister, died. She was just over eighty. We hadn’t been close—there was an uneasiness between the families and a history of perceived snubs. My parents had what you might call troubled dealings with Aunt Galya, and we almost never saw her. As a result I had little chance to form my own relationship with her. We met infrequently, we had the odd phone call, but toward the end she unplugged her phone, saying, “I don’t want to talk to anyone.” Then she disappeared entirely into the world she had built for herself: layered strata of possessions, objects, and trinkets in the cave of her tiny apartment.
Galya lived her life in the pursuit of beauty: the dream of rearranging her possessions into a definitive order, of painting the walls and hanging the curtains. At some point, years ago, she began the process of decluttering her apartment, and this gradually consumed her. She was permanently shaking things out, checking anew what objects were essential. The contents of the apartment constantly needed sorting and systematizing, each and every cup required careful consideration, books and papers stopped existing for themselves and became mere usurpers of space, forming barricades that crossed the apartment in little heaps. The apartment consisted of two rooms, and as one room was overcome by more objects, Galya would move to the other, taking only the absolute essentials with her—but then the tidying and reevaluating would begin again. The home wore its own viscera on the outside, unable to draw it all back into itself again. There was no longer any deciding whether a particular thing was important or not, because everything had significance in some way, especially the yellowing newspapers collected over decades, tottering piles of clippings that propped up the walls and the bed. At a later point the only spare living space was a divan, worn concave, and I remember we were sitting there on one occasion, the two of us, in the middle of a raging sea of postcards and TV guides. She was attempting to feed me the chocolates she kept reserved for special occasions, and I was attempting to turn down these precious offerings with anxious politeness. A newspaper clipping at the top of a pile bore the headline: “Which saint rules your sign of the Zodiac?” and the name of the paper and the publication date were written carefully at the top in her beautifully neat handwriting, blue ink across the dead paper. Read More