08/15/2013 05:14 pm ET Updated Oct 15, 2013

Getting Ready for That Big Trip Can Be a Tough Slog

Perhaps we have lived too long -- or at least too long in the same house.

After 15 years in our Lexington, Mass. colonial, we have never cleaned out the basement. Rumor has it that some sealed boxes there haven't been cracked open since we left California in 1994, two moves back. Which is why we swore that this summer would be the one we'd finally sort through the cellar. Until, that is, clearing out the rest of the house gained a sense of urgency: Come January, someone else will be living here for six months in our absence.

After a day's hard labor, that sense of urgency has become heightened. I'll tell you more, but first, I think, the situation calls for a special plea to loved ones.

To friends and relatives: Please, no more books. Our bookcases are brimming. Our piles atop them overflow. And, dare I admit, some new books I've never read past the cover now sit in our "yard sale" pile. I apologize. You can get them back -- for a quarter.

To Kathy: Please, buy no more maps, collect no more travel brochures. OK, you're a map nut, so perhaps I should say buy fewer. But at least leave the obscure ones -- the hiking paths of the Chamonix Valley and the streets of Hokitika, New Zealand -- behind before boarding the plane home.

To our two daughters, mothers themselves now. You know I love your elementary school artwork, the swim trophies, the high school awards, the pictures of "friends forever" teammates. But do you think you could take them home this year? ... Some of them?

And to Murphy, ah Murphy. Can you please stop looking at me with those big, mournful, brown eyes.

Golden retrievers may not be known for their intellect, but Murphy knows something's up, that there's a reason for our sudden, frenetic cleaning. I can tell. First, he lay in the kitchen, snug against the wall, his chin on his front paws, his eyes tracking my every move as I walked back and forth, adding to the basement stockpile. Then he rolled onto his back his front legs frozen skyward in near rigor mortis, his rear legs spread in a position that might be considered unseemly had he not been fixed at age 1, four years ago.

Murphy knows. He realizes that the nice family with the little, friendly dog wasn't just stopping by for the Lexington garden tour a few weeks back. That when we leave for sabbatical in France for six months come January, he'll be staying behind. That, no doubt, is why he did all he could to scotch the deal. He barked. He humped the leg of their elder child. He whimpered. And somehow they still loved him. Or tolerated him. He demands a little of both.

Of course, with four people and another dog moving in, we really must move something out. Which leads me back to the Big Clean. In round one, we filled six boxes, mostly books, for a yard sale. We discarded another six big bags of trash and put more stuff in recycling. All this from our three upstairs bedrooms. And yet, the book cases somehow are still full. We'll have to do much better or our house sitters will be limited to just that -- sitting ... in the middle of each room. I don't believe they bargained for that.

Sabbaticals tend to be the butt of a joke or two from non-academics. "Going to France, huh? Tough life," is one common refrain. And then there's my colleague. ("Still working on that cookbook? How many chapters will there be on sauces?")

But getting ready... well it's really not all that easy. Those friends haven't read my grant rejection letters, weathered the silence of editors too disinterested to so much as answer my queries, stumbled through another set of vocabulary flash cards that flash into and out of this 64-year-old's mind in a matter of seconds. (Is it le pelouse or la pelouse and can I avoid getting out the mower to cut the lawn if I can't remember the right word for lawn?)

They also have not tried to cull through 15 years accumulation in our house of carefully stacked piles.

Yes, we'll be forgetting the basement again this year. Instead, next we'll turn to closets and clothing. This year, I swear, I will be ruthless, even though that may mean getting rid of the leather cowboy vest I bought for $40 in Colorado in 1973.

At my age, I think it's a safe bet that I never will be a cowboy after all. Which means it is unlikely I'll want the vest to join me and my saddle some day, 6 feet under.

Chalk up my resolve as one more small victory for our tenants-to-be. Meanwhile, let me make another pledge. I'll only sneak the bag of Goodwill clothes out when Murphy withdraws to the family room couch to take a much-needed nap.