Stuff Part I

In 1986, George Carlin performed a routine entitled “Stuff.” It became an instant comedy classic. (If interested, you may view his performance on YouTube at https://youtu.be/MvgN5gCuLac.) In recent years, “how to control your stuff” has become an industry—books, blogs, TV segments, Pinterest posts, and more. I expend way too much psychic energy thinking about stuff: having too much stuff and the resulting clutter, organizing my stuff, giving away my stuff, my widowed father’s stuff.

I thought if I wrote about my fixation on this subject, I might stop thinking about it so much. My anxiety is such that I need two blog entries to cover my apprehensions. This post is going to address the dilemma of what to do with your parents’ household items when they no longer need them. The following post will tackle the practical and emotional issues that arise when deciding what to do with your children’s belongings and keepsakes once they are adults.

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 Several months ago, my husband and I moved out of the house we had lived in for nearly twenty years. Our new house is smaller than our old one, and its décor is more contemporary. We hired someone to conduct the sale of the items we no longer needed. She took one look around our home and told us, “You know, nowadays nobody wants wood furniture, antiques, or tzotchkes.”

She most certainly was correct. We had rooms full of beautiful antique furniture. Many were Biedermeier pieces made from exotic woods that, just a few years ago, were prized for their exquisite inlay, painstakingly crafted by artisans in the mid-1800’s. Each piece brought a small fraction of what we had paid for it. The same was true for antique sterling silver—tea sets, desk sets, serving pieces—and items of fine china, such as bowls and figurines.

I still loved many of these items, and felt a bit forlorn about parting with them. I also struggled with the idea that nobody wanted them. Yes, there were a lot of them and the house looked cluttered, but I still smiled when I looked at them. They were beautiful pieces, and some held sentimental value. But we were moving to a new stage of our lives, which meant having to leave some things behind. You can’t make a new start if you cling to your past, someone advised me. Reluctantly, I parted with my possessions that had been deemed obsolete or extraneous.

My mother passed away five years ago. My father now lives alone in the house in which I grew up. For the most part, every item is in the same place it was when my mother went to the hospital for the last time. Similar to the furniture and other items I disposed of when we moved, when I look at the items she loved a memory about her pops into my head.

Lined up on a shelf in the living room is her collection of delicate porcelain cups and saucers. Most are painted with graceful vines and flowers in pastel colors. She took delight in their sweetness and fragility. We often added to the collection with birthday or Mother’s Day gifts.

Her collection of Lenox bowls, plates, and vases are displayed on another shelf in the living room. She loved their creamy white finish and the elegance of their simple, curved lines. In the center of the living room coffee table sits one of her prized cut-glass bowls. I can picture her filling them with fruit and nuts when we had visitors, and setting them on this same table, in case someone wanted a “nosh.”

Most important to my mother were her cherished silver candlesticks, over which she made a blessing each Sabbath and Jewish holiday. These sit in a place of prominence on the fireplace mantel in the living room. They are the guests of honor. Now my father lights them, and I can’t help but imagine that each time he thinks about how much he misses her.

Nestled inside a small alcove in the kitchen sit two small porcelain statues: a girl walking in the rain—as evidenced by her raincoat, hat, boots and umbrella—accompanied by a boy similarly attired. When I was a little girl, my mother told me that my father had given them to her for their first anniversary. When I look at them now, I imagine my father stopping into a store on his way home from work, looking for the perfect present for this important occasion. His clear, unlined eyes under his brimmed felt hat peer inside the showcases. He takes his time. When my mother opens the gift, she smiles and so does he, delighted he made a good choice. They hug and she laughs, both of them young and joyful, optimistic and excited about their future, unable to imagine the struggles and animosity that inevitably ambush a marriage.

When I sit at the dining room table, having Shabbat dinner with my father, I remember how happy and proud my mother was to have what she called “real” dining room furniture. In the eat-in kitchen, the “kitchenette set”—a table with a Formica top meant to resemble marble, surrounded by chairs with red Naugahyde seats—brings back memories of the two of us peeling apples for applesauce, while we chatted about my day in school. I recall the times my friends and I sat around this table, frozen from hours of sledding, drinking the hot chocolate she had made for us from scratch.

The heavy, dark, highly polished furniture in their bedroom had been a wedding gift from my mother’s parents. I always found the glossy wood and simple lines striking. It still looks contemporary. On the bedside tables are lamps whose bases are ceramic figures of an Asian man and woman dressed in what some mid-twentieth century manufacturer must have imagined was an acceptable representation of traditional Far Eastern garb. (I wonder what country he was thinking of, or if he assumed everyone from that part of the world dressed the same.) The figures—one a man, one a woman—are posed with their arms bent in front of their chests and their heads tilted. When I was young I thought the tilted heads made them look as if they were asking a question, and I would make up stories about what was puzzling them.

My mother would be appalled and, worse yet, hurt to know that one day, when my brother and I must clean out this house, I will want very few of the items she treasured. My house is already completely furnished and accessorized. What am I going to do with another bedroom set, a Formica table, or lamps shaped like people? When we sell or donate the contents of the house I am certain I will be sad and remorseful. (By the way, my practical father wouldn’t care. He has no feelings of sentimentality or attachment to any objects whatsoever. Too bad I didn’t inherit that outlook from him.)

When her beloved father died a few years ago, a friend told me she saved just one of his belongings—a well-worn flannel shirt. She said that was all she needed. That one shirt would be the touchstone for remembering everything she loved about him. And I know she is right. Memories reside inside of us, not in objects.

I love my mother’s china teacups, her Lenox pieces, the little knickknacks. I tear up just imagining watching a mover take away “our” furniture, another family eating at “our” dining room table, another couple sleeping in my parents’ bed. So much family history but, to paraphrase George Carlin, too much stuff. I would love to save it all, but where would I put it? In the basement where no one will have the opportunity to enjoy it? I wonder how I will handle my conflicting feelings when these possessions are gone, as I imagine my mother shaking her head, her face wet with tears.

I know how wise and giving it would be to put these items into the hands of someone who needs them, would love them, care for them, and make them part of their family story. I will still have my old memories, and other families will be making new ones.

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I imagine MANY of you are dealing with the situations and feelings I have described in this post. Please take a minute and leave a note in the Comments section. It can be anything–your opinion of the piece, coping mechanisms you have used, resources, anecdotes. I love hearing from my readers, and it will help me figure out what you are interested in reading in future posts. Thanks.

Be Kind…Be Patient…And Smile

When I was diagnosed with lymphoma in November 2010, I made a promise—to myself, to G-d, to the universe. I vowed that if I were to make a complete recovery, I would never, ever, ever again sweat the small stuff, or be rattled by petty annoyances. I also pledged to use all my senses to experience life on a visceral level, rather than going through the motions in a preoccupied, disconnected state.

From now on, I would revel in experiences through which I had previously sleepwalked: the warmth seeping into my pores on the first sunny day of spring; the joy and wonder of a baby wrapping her soft fist around my finger; the decadent delight of a food coma brought on by a sumptuous meal; the satisfying crunch I hear when walking through piles of dried leaves on a chilly November day; the consuming love I feel when both my boys are home and the entire family squashes itself on the couch to watch National Lampoon’s Animal House (or some similarly silly movie). Cancer had slapped me upside the head and hollered, “I hope now you realize what’s really important in life.” I had no doubt I would straighten up and follow those instructions.

I’m sure you can guess what came next. Once my doctor declared me to be “cured,” I went back to my former life, in more ways than one. I could go out and run errands because I no longer had to worry about being exposed to other people’s germs. I could eat salad and fresh fruit again. I didn’t have to go to the hospital every day for radiation treatments. I could get manicures and pedicures, and go to the dentist (yippee!). Eventually I could walk around without a cap and not resemble an egg.

But it wasn’t just the rhythms and activities of my daily life, that reverted to the way they had been before a routine CAT scan showed a misshapen lump growing under my left arm. Little by little—like an icicle melting as the weather warms–my outlook, my attitude, and my ability to tolerate inconsequential irritations returned to their pre-November 2010 state. I became angry when the cable guy was an hour late and called the dispatcher, saying awful, condescending things to him.  When we went to see Hamilton, and the understudy (who by the way was excellent) was substituting for Lin Manuel-Miranda, I fumed for the entire show. Instead of being appreciative that I had hair again, I cursed its frizzy texture. In fact, I hadn’t learned much from my life-threatening illness.

I recently made the acquaintance of a young woman named Aubin Mandel. She was diagnosed with esophageal cancer on October 27th, 2016. Aubin is 37 years old and had become engaged shortly before her diagnosis. This past winter, she underwent five rounds of chemotherapy and 28 rounds of radiation. On February 14th of this year, she had major surgery. Two months later, in April, they found a new mass on her liver, later diagnosed as stage 4 metastatic cancer for which she is currently undergoing another round of chemotherapy.

Aubin is remarkable in many ways, not the least of which is her optimism. She recently wrote a piece that she has graciously allowed me to share with you:

“Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”

This quote really resonates with me, and is something I try and do everyday. Everyone leads a different life with different struggles. I believe we are all struggling in some capacity and I know for certain that we will all face adversity and hardship in our lives, some more than others.

I have been able to keep my hair, this round of chemo and the last, and I look relatively healthy. I hear it all the time: “Omg. You would never know!!! ” I am extremely grateful for this, for my own mental strength, to not be reminded every single time I look in the mirror, and for being able to go out and face the world and not be looked at and treated as “sick.”

From the outside, for people that don’t know my story, life looks pretty darn easy, yet nothing could be further from the truth. Life is difficult right now. I struggle, I feel terrible for weeks at a time, I get sad, I have sleepless nights, I am scared, I am confused, I get angry with life and for everything I have had to go through, and for everything that has been taken from me. A lot goes on behind closed doors that most people know nothing about. And this is true for ALL of us.

“We have NO idea what it took for someone to get out of bed in the morning, to look and feel presentable, and to face the day.”

Be kind and good to those around you. The taxi driver. The waitress. The barista. The person in line in front of you. Your spouse. Your friend. Your mom. Have patience. Be understanding. Be compassionate. And, smile. We all have the ability to bring light and energy into someone else’s day. What a powerful thing.

“We cannot change the cards we have been dealt, just how we play the hand.” I am beginning to embrace my journey when I view it as a learning tool for myself or an inspiration for others.”

I am thankful everyday for the people that show me kindness. ❤️🙏🏻

Round 4, here we go!!!!

I have read Aubin’s powerful words again and again and again. They inspire me, as well as cause me to reflect on myself. My friends and I often bemoan the fact that we are getting “so old.” We wish we were teenagers, or back in college, or new parents enjoying our sweet little babies. We want to look young and feel young, be attractive and energetic. Truthfully, youth is beautiful. However, thinking about Aubin reminds me how vain and foolish and superficial these yearnings are–and how lucky I am simply to be alive.

Aubin embraces everything in her life, both the good and the awful. For me, the takeaway message is this: When you spot a new wrinkle on your forehead, or turn away from the mirror so you don’t have to see the skin under your arms sagging like an empty pouch, don’t beat yourself up. The paunch many of us now have, courtesy of time and gravity, is not a calamity. In fact, we are in a way fortunate to be saggy and have cellulite and gray hair, as the following quote reminds us:

“Do not regret growing older. It is a privilege denied to many.” (Anonymous)

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To end on a lighter note, in my last post I promised to “translate” the acronyms in the sample conversation at the end of the post. So here we go…SFLR: Sorry for late response; AFK: Away from keyboard; NP: No problem; WU: What’s up; NM: Not much; CYT: See you tonight; SLAP: Sounds like a plan; GR8: Great; GTG: Got to go; POS: Parent over shoulder; TBC: To be continued; TTYL: Talk to you later. Thanks for reading.