I wish there were an app to simplify and make less painful, the cleaning out of all the clutter (and crap) that accumulates in our homes over the years. Some of the clutter has real meaning for us, which makes it a formidable task to take care of, but I wonder more and more these days about the benefits of having so much “stuff”.
I wish there were a way to just hit delete and to have some cyber-genie make the decisions and do all the work, sifting and sorting through the possessions that are beginning to bog me down, that call forth memories of wonderful and terrible times. It would be terrific to simply move my delete finger without brain involvement and not have to make tough decisions that may not be immediately necessary, but that will be one day, if history repeats itself as it tends to do.
I helped my mother “downsize” four times. She and my father moved from the house where I (mostly) grew up in Brooklyn, NY, to an apartment in Sheepshead Bay, and then after my father’s death, to senior housing in the CT town where I live. It didn’t seem possible to compress her life and history any more than had already been done by the great figurative trash compacter of aging, but when she moved into a nursing home for the final nine months of her life, I agonized over the allocation of what was left.
I certainly am not saying that my mother’s life amounted to a trash heap of junk. Each and every piece of furniture, doily, dish towel, figurine, dog-eared photo, ugly lampshade, card, letter, book, and dish was a treasure to her. Each represented a life in which I truly had a bit part, a walk-on, really, in comparision to the years lived before I blinked into the sunlight one day at Brooklyn Doctor’s Hospital. I am not saying that I was not important in her life. Naturally I was, but so many others were too. She had a life of thirty-five years before I made it into the world. I did not live inside of her head either. I could not possibly have understood her unique memories and the attachments she had to her own things. Even when we share certain memories with another person, the ways in which those memories become recorded in our brains and etched on our hearts have to do with how we personally perceive life.
The items that triggered some type of memory for me and had meaning in my own version of our family experience, I held onto. Some things I foisted off on anyone in the family who had even the slightest interest, and they also chose what was useful to them. The rest I gave away or even discarded, with no small measure of sadness.
Years later (yesterday was the eleventh anniversary of my mother’s death) my husband and I went through a similar experience with my mother-in-law. We conducted what almost amounted to an archeological dig though her house in Pennsylvania. She was definitely a horder, so there was a lot to go through. In her attic, we even found pay stubs from her very first job. We unearthed an abundance of school papers and drawings done by her two adult sons. There were personal items that should have been discarded forty years earlier (believe me, you don’t want details). We found toys, old religious artifacts belonging to her parents, more photos of few people we recognized, and furniture that was her mother’s, but was too beat up to have much monetary value. We discovered bags and boxes of clothing that had traveled the roads of weight gain, weight loss and renewed weight gain. There were unopened cartons of things ordered from catalogues, tucked away and never used, as her life became more and more isolated.
We helped Bernice move to an apartment in a senior complex. She lived there for about four years and when she became less and less able to function on her own, we moved her two floors down to an assisted living unit in the same complex in Chester, PA. After a little more than a year there, her health and mental status further declined, so we once again downsized. We circulated her worldy goods among those who wanted them, sold some and moved a few meaningful items into her small, cozy room at an assisted living facility for those with dementia, near our home in CT. My husband claimed the objects that meant something to him. We also ended up with a few pieces of furniture that were too new to discard and that nobody else had room for.
Some pieces of crystal joined the collection from my mother, from my late sister, my grandmother and my sister’s mother-in-law. They sit, mostly gathering dust, on my dining room mantel. A couple of times a year I tend to them, washing them in dish liquid and trying to remember which piece belonged to whom. The bud vases my mother collected on their travels to Europe after my father retired, are in her curio cabinet in my upstairs family room. My aunt, the baby in their family of origin, was to have been the recipient of the vases, having greatly admired them, though they aren’t worth much. She died about nine months before my mother did. I have earrings that were my aunt’s, along with various pieces, mainly costume jewelry, that belonged to my mother and my sister. Again, little of it is worth money, but I am now the repository of all of the collective memories connected to these things.
I have several bookcases filled with books that were primarily my father’s He treasured them. I have books of my mother’s too and of one uncle. There are only a couple of rooms in our house that don’t have bookshelves and all of them are full. I have my late brother’s photo album from his days at Parris Island when he was in Boot Camp in the Marines. I have pictures he painted before he gave up his art and music and became a family man who thought (sadly) that he needed to put his talents and passions away for eternity. On our walls are awards my sister won at her job and in her volunteer work with the Jewish War Veterans. I have (tucked on a shelf in a plastic bag somewhere) a cap, one of many exactly the same, worn by my father at work, from the time he was sixteen to the time he retired. Boxes and boxes of photos of people in old-fashioned garb are stashed in various closets. The photos are full of faces nobody remaining in our family recognizes. A large plastic container of vinyl records sits in a spare bedroom. They are of opera, jazz, pop, folk music and are not in good enough condition to sell, but I keep hanging on to them, till the day I have the heart to discard them. I also have part of a downstairs closet filled with metal boxes of my father’s slides. I would love to find time to view them, or even better, to transfer them to disks or save them on the computer “some day”.
Then there are the things I have left from my first husband who died in his thirties. I have a box with the tie he wore at our wedding and letters he wrote to me. Maybe my kids will want them one day, but then again, maybe they won’t. These are stashed In our very crowded attic. I believe there is an old cricket bat of his, as well as family trinkets from his New England clan that can trace their ancestry back many generations.
I have lived in my current house for thirty-three years now. I have done a fair amount of traveling, so naturally, I have my own “treasures” that evoke memories of those trips and the people I was fortunate enough to meet. I have photos and art from various countries, and then there are my own collections that represent my personal interests and obsessions, depending on which person you ask. There are paintings, posters, ceramic figures, postcards, greeting cards, mugs, garlands and wall hangings portraying my family’s favorite, canine, the diehard Scottish Terrier, as well as photos of our own Scotties. There are cardboard cartons of papers, and notebooks filled with my own poetry and other writing (before the days of computer archives).
Then there are the toys and books belonging to my four kids who have no place to store them. Now that my youngest and her daughter live with us, we also have boxes of Gabby’s outgrown clothes and her toys grace a few rooms in our house.
Lest you think I am a hoarder like my mother-in-law was, I can assure you that I have a good-sized home, a bit cluttered by some standards, but not unbearable, and not anything you might see on a TV show about people who can no longer function, due to the disastrous mess that surrounds them. Ours is a very old house, so it lends itself easily to being filled with momentoes, rather than with simple, sleek, modern furniture and open space.
I do like my things and can literally walk around my home and see an imaginary slide show of all of the lives that are represented by the “stuff” around me. Sometimes looking at these things evokes smiles and sometimes some tears, but mostly I don’t have time to dwell on them because I am too busy. They get dusted periodically and then I permit myself a moment of connection with them, calling up names, faces, places and feelings.
Now that I am at the age some consider “retirement age”, though that is not really on my agenda, it makes sense that I am beginning to wonder what will happen to the generations of possessions that surround me each day. None of us like think about the negative aspects of aging. Most prefer to deny our chronological advancing as much as we can and to focus on our experience and wisdom, or our fantasies that we possess them. A few of us are fortunate and can remain in our homes and care for ourselves, but most of us ultimately will require some help, will choose to downsize our living quarters, or will have this chosen for us, due to circumstances.
Long ago, after we moved back into our home following a fire and the terrible tragedy of my first husband’s death in that fire, I vowed to never again take for granted my home and the things I was lucky enough to have in my life once more. Most of what we had was destroyed or damaged in the fire. I have never forgotten my vow to myself. Part of my routine on an almost daily basis, is to make sure I notice things in my surroundings and appreciate and take pleasure in them.
In the end though, I recognize that many or most of the material acquisitions that belong to me and that belonged to multiple people before me, will end up being tossed to the four winds, or possibly at the thrift shop, or in the garbage dumpster. I am sure my adult kids and grandkids will choose to keep certain objects, but they will be faced with an even more imposing job than I faced, simply due to the fact that I have outlasted the members of my family of origin.
I imagine that when one of my kids picks up an antique book of maps given me by a dear friend during one of my trips to India, or finds a bent and tarnished silver baby cup from one of my first husband’s ancestors, there will be some fleeting interest. I am sure that when someone comes across old love letters, or sets of leather-bound books my father purchased with great pride on time payments in the 1930′s, there may even be some animated discussion among my survivors. My suspicion is though, based on my own experiences, that life will move forward and most of what simultaneously enriches and confines my world in the present, will be clutter that isn ‘t particularly needed or wanted, beyond a few miscellaneous treasures. This seems a reasonable forecast of the future.
I intend to continue reminding myself to take pleasure in my surroundings and that means enjoying some of the special posessions in my midst, but it is clearly time in the life cycle to begin to at least think about who will want what and to get rid of some things. It’s definitely time to stop acquiring a lot more. I may give in to temptation on occasion, but I need to think twice about new purchases. Did I really need those two 1800′s cobalt pottery pitchers made in a town where we used to live? Do I really need another Scottish Terrier statue? I hope to still be around for a lot of years, but I am going to make a pledge to actively begin the grueling task of decluttering before too much more time has passed.
The most important thing, I think, is to begin to “download” the events and remembrances I absolutely want to leave for posterity . There are family anecdotes, values and learning that may die with me, and these are the true gifts I want to leave for my kids and grandchildren. I don’t believe I am a terribly materialistic sort, but in the next decade I want to focus a lot less on the wordly goods in my little dominion and a whole lot more on decluttering. It’s not going to be easy, but I am starting to feel the need for more visual and physical space. Clearing out some seems to help me do what is more crucial to me than ever, which is to reflect, create and positively interact with others. It’s impossible to interact with a Chinese vase, don’t you think?
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