Friday, April 10, 2009

The alarming oppression of stuff

OK let's get real here. I've gone on and on about family heirlooms, wallowing in their sentimental associations --- and meant every word. However, the opposite end of that equation is pictured above as push comes to shove in this final month of the great move south.

The only "heirloom" here is my grandmother's wooden ironing board at far right with the penciled inscription on its back: "bought new in 1942." I can't throw that away, even though I have two other ironing boards, one large and one small, and rarely iron (I have two irons; I seem to have two of everything). It's older than I am!

Most of the stuff in that still-growing pile of cartons is small items removed from closets, drawers and kitchen cupboards and for the most part this stuff will end up in a pile in the garage until I have time to deal with it. The pile of darker containers at left contains paperwork that I still hope to have a free day or two to go through (and cull) before loading it up.

Nearly all the stuff is off the walls (other than that five-foot portrait of George Washington in full Masonic regalia that I'll do tomorrow), my bedroom and the office now contain only the bare essentials. The living room is a mess of scattered little stuff, some of which will go to good homes tomorrow, and the kitchen-dining area is unspeakable. I wanted to start hauling excess furniture to Salvation Army this week, but am running out of time since the Army does not accept stuff on Saturdays. The holes left by absent chairs, tables, etc., would have lifted my spirits considerably.

I've found the darndest things. Moving the wall of books that once covered the expanse of white behind that pile of cartons in the photo I found a big mexican something or another that had fallen down behind the shelves and hadn't been missed. Moving filing cabinets in the office I found I square of good-quality plate-glass mirror once in my grandfather's bathroom (the plan 30 years ago was to frame it). It's gone to the dumpster divers now. There were three dead table lamps in the store room --- also dumpsterized.

I've thrown away lots of "good" stuff that could have been hauled to the receiving dock of a thrift store. Sorry, but there wasn't time to organize, box and haul it. I decline to feel guilty. I could have held a garage sale. Not.

Just opened the drawer below the oven on the kitchen range and found an accumulation of dusty pots and pans that hadn't been used in years. Tossed 'em. No guilt, again. It's amazing how easy it gets to toss things the more you deal with things.

But the big question is why do I (we) accumulate all of this stuff. The old stuff with associations I can justify. Much of the rest of it I can't.

I'm not the only one. How many times have you seen a giant dumpster parked in the driveway of a house where someone has died (or gone to a nursing home), filled and overlowing with the accumulation of a lifetime.

Years ago a sometimes neighbor who had lived in Manhattan for years, half a continent away from her Iowa home, and worked for The New York Times up and died tragically middle-aged. Her elderly parents went to New York to deal with her apartment and found it stuffed (in an orderly fashion) with among other things every sweater she had worn since high school. She traveled in fairly exalted circles (buried in the dress she'd worn to one of the Reagan inaugurations, tennis racket in her hands), so there were works of art and autographed books to the ceiling. Some was given away, but since The Times was footing the bill much of it was loaded in a van, shipped home and moved to an Iowa attic where I'd guess much of it still is.

Some say shopping for stuff, whether we need it or not, has been our principal form of therapy during the late 20th and early 21st centuries --- a way to make us feel better about the intangibles we've lost. I'm a believer --- now more than ever.

And I'm going to do better. Promise. I'll think about our ancestors setting out across the ocean with only the contents of their luggage; other ancestors, across the prairie with only what a covered wagon could hold. We've lost our collective mind! Me, too.

On the plus side, hauling another bag out to the dumpster a while ago I had a nice conversation with one of the divers --- pointed him toward some of the good stuff; discouraged him from plunging his hand into the bag out of the kitchen garbage can. One thing I like about this neighborhood --- you get to know the regular divers.

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