Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Nostalgia: Why Do We Keep "Stuff"?
I wrote this after being inspired by Jack Urquhart's post "My Life in a Box." It really struck a chord.
My mother and I lived together almost my whole life. Her stuff was my stuff. And she had a lot of stuff. She was a high school teacher of Spanish and English, and she taught in a lot of different schools when I was growing up (hence, I attended a lot of different schools). She always called herself a gypsy -- she enjoyed moving around. She said working in different places was the only way she got to see anything new. However, she always said that every family ought to have a big family house with a big attic where all the possessions of generations could be stored forever.
During our peripatetic life, she left most of belongings at my grandparents' house, in the basement. Well, grandparents don't live forever. After my grandmother died in 1957, my uncle continued to live in the house and my mother felt obligated to remove her stuff from the premises. And she may have gotten rid of some things during that process, like a lot of my baby clothes. I really don't know because I was a freshman in college and didn't have much time to help her. She didn't need help at that point.
But she was still left with a large hoard, and she rented storage space for it. It included her college textbooks and various mementos from her earlier life, along with quite a few of my grandmother's possessions shipped out from Missouri in the early 1920s.
A few years later, the storage space was going to be torn down, so she was faced with finding another alternative. That was about 1963. I had my first library job and we bought a house. Yay! We had a basement and an extra garage at the back -- a place to store things!
Then in 1966 I decided to go back to grad school and continue working on my Ph.D. with the intention of becoming a rare book librarian. We sold the house. And that's when we started hauling all that stuff around the country with us. When your possessions are out of sight in a basement or garage, there is very little inclination to rid anything out, and then when you're faced with a move, there's no time to do it. It's easier to just box everything up and ship it.
We had a whole roomful of boxes and wherever we moved, we always had to rent a place with an extra bedroom so we could store the stuff. And my mother never ridded it out. She got older and everything gets harder as you get older. Besides, you acquire even more stuff as the years pass. She had her stroke in 1983 and after that it was hopeless. After we bought the house where I live now (in 1987), I tried once to make a beginning. I hauled out a box and opened it and took out items and showed them to my mother and I would say, "Can we throw this away? What about this? How about getting rid of this?"
The answer was always "No, I want to keep that." It took forever to look at the things and think about them, and I just didn't have time. Finally, in considerable impatience, I just put everything back in the same box, sealed it up again, and returned it to its niche in the spare "bedroom."
So my mother never got to go through her things, but she would have kept everything anyway, so I guess it doesn't matter too much. My grandmother had something of the same experience. As she got older, she would say to my mother, "Genevieve, I've got to get out on that sleeping porch and go through some of those things." My mother would offer to help her. But the older you get, the harder it becomes to accomplish anything. My grandmother never got around to looking through her stuff either.
I try to learn from vicarious experience. After my mother died in 1997, I spent the next two and a half years ridding out that bedroom. It was like opening up a buried treasure -- it was fun, actually. I never knew what interesting thing was going to emerge from the next box. I had at least half a dozen yard sales (and by then this included all my uncle's stuff as well), and I sold things to an antique dealer. I made about $3000. At the end of all that, I actually had a guest bedroom! But I kept quite a bit myself, like my grandmother's Indian head, and a lot of really old family pictures, many of which I framed and hung on the walls, and my grandmother's jewelry (like cameos and jet beads), and also a lot of nice china and glass pieces (I did sell some of that).
Now I'm considering getting rid of more stuff, although I'm reluctant, because everything I kept has sentimental value. Books are a serious problem. I never get rid of books, except maybe a few textbooks and some mysteries and other things I'm not attached to. But I also tend to keep magazines. I have Smithsonians dating back to about 1990. They are such a good resource, but I have no index to them, so I can't access them. I'm trying to psych myself up to putting a small number of them in recycling every week (I could sure use the shelf space for the books I've been buying lately!) So far I've recycled the Nature Conservancy magazines and the Consumer Reports, and all my gardening catalogs, and I'm starting on the calendars from Smithsonian and Nature Conservancy and American Museum of Natural History that I kept because they have such nice and informative pictures. Sigh. The best way to get rid of printed material is not to look at what you're throwing away - just stick it in the recycle bin and forget it.
So I guess after all is said and done, I'm my mother's daughter -- she was a mama packrat and I'm a baby one. But I'm a sadder and wiser packrat for surviving all the hassle caused by "stuff."