Stuff Part II

My prior post, Stuff Part I, addressed some of the issues and emotions many of us feel when we have to dispose of possessions—either ours or those of a parent or other cherished person. In this post, I discuss wrestling with the decision of which of your kids’ childhood possessions to save.

I would like to keep EVERYTHING. Really, I’m not kidding—everything. When I think about disposing of any of these items, I feel as if I am throwing away a piece of my boys. I pick up a size 2T shirt, or a crayon drawing of a dog, determined to toss it. But I just can’t do it. My family tells me that I have built a shrine to each of my children. They don’t mean that in a good way.

If you were to come up to the third floor of my house, you most likely would be amazed, concerned for my sanity, appalled—or any combination of these. Custom built cabinets run along two of the walls. Yes, you read that correctly: custom built. I had them designed and built by a carpenter for the sole purpose of storing mementos that I have collected and preserved since I found out I was pregnant with my older son (who is now 31).

The cabinets measure 36 running feet in total, stand a bit over two feet high, and are two feet deep. That’s a hell of a lot of space (many would say a ridiculous amount) dedicated solely to stockpiling chazerai (Yiddish for junk or garbage). This does NOT include the even more capacious cabinets I had built to house my collection of family photos. If I start going down that rabbit hole, I will never get to the end of this post.

Many of my contemporaries have faced this same dilemma, either when moving or simply wanting to reduce the clutter that threatens to engulf them. Most of them are proud of the fact that they have filled one plastic bin per child with keepsakes. One entire bin! They think that having retained that amount of child-related memorabilia is a big accomplishment.

I think so too, but in a different way. How did they manage, I wonder, to get rid of enough stuff that everything they are keeping fits into one bin? I am both incredulous and envious.

I decided to consult my children. Perhaps they appreciated the fact that I had kept so many souvenirs of their childhood. When I asked for their thoughts, they both howled with laughter. Once they regained their composure, they enthusiastically offered examples of my “crazy lady hoarding.” Here is their list. I am certain that given more time, they could come up with a much longer one.

Outdated and dangerous baby furniture and other equipment: The modern parent knows that many items that generations of parents have used are now considered unsafe. One of these items is drop side cribs. The crib in which my children slept is simple and beautiful but of course has a drop side, as did all cribs at that time. For years I imagined a sweet little grandchild sleeping in the same crib as his or her father. I know this is not going to happen, and that crib will never be used again. Yet I just can’t part with it.

Crib accessories: Same rule for pillows, blankets, and bumpers as for old cribs—do not use them. They may cause suffocation or SIDS. Wait, what? No bumpers? Won’t the little baby hurt his or her head on the crib slats? (No.) How can a baby stay warm without a blanket? (By swaddling.)

I remember the thrill of picking out these items for each of my boys, taking time to choose just the right colors and design. They are adorable, and still in good condition. I was certain I could use them when my grandbabies came to sleep at grandma’s house. Wrong. Do not use them and don’t donate them, so that no other parent will make the mistake of using them. (This applies to the aforementioned crib as well.) Still, I neatly fold and place each piece into the cabinets. Those tiny but fluffy things eat up an awful lot of storage space. But they hold sweet memories.

Random tzotchkes (Yiddish for junk that creates clutter but serves no useful purpose): Broken crib mobiles; a cracked, and therefore unusable, plastic baby bowl; bottles and nipples; a paper diaper (unused) with Son #2’s name painted on it (received as a gift); The New York Times published on their birthday each year (not just on the day they were born); jars of disintegrating baby teeth; and the bottle from Son #1’s first prescription. Go ahead, laugh. I know it’s nutty.

Clothes: The clothes and shoes my sons wore are magic to me. I can hold a shirt up to my cheek, close my eyes, and be transported back to something one of them did or said when wearing it. Yes, weirdly I actually do remember these things.

Even stranger (at least I am self-aware), I have tucked little notes inside many of the garments so my kids will know the story associated with it. Son #1 will know that I bought him an outfit decorated with ants because his teacher said he had “ants in his pants.” Son #2 will know which stretchie he wore when we brought him home from the hospital.

When I placed these clothes on the shelves in the cabinets, I honestly believed that one day I would dress my grandchildren in their fathers’ baby clothes. Not happening. So many of the clothes are outdated, or frayed, or the elastic has disintegrated. Looking more closely I see that many of them bear stains from food, formula, or spittle.

What’s more, I have saved multiple items from each category of clothing. Why would I need ten pairs of the same pajamas, 12 plaid flannel shirts, fifteen stretchies, seven Osh Kosh b’Gosh overalls, 18 pairs of shorts, six parkas, and on and on? Because I couldn’t decide whether to keep the pajamas decorated with cowboys or the ones with aliens. Should I keep the red plaid flannel shirt or the blue one? I didn’t want to decide—and with all those cabinets I didn’t have to!

Art: Or, as my kids refer to it, “shitty artwork.” I probably have 98% (a conservative estimate) of the art created by my precious angels: drawings, paintings, homework containing drawings, handmade cards, ceramic and clay objects. Some are framed and hang on the walls of my house. Others sit in display cases. The rest are jammed into those cabinets on the third floor. They are stored in boxes, folders, and scrapbooks. Lots of boxes, folders and scrapbooks.

Some of the items are absolutely worth keeping. There’s a ceramic eagle sitting on a nest, and a cross-section of a planet made from clay, with aliens working industriously in the various compartments—both are creative and required a lot of skill. And no one can fault me for hanging on to cards the boys made for me, my husband, or their grandparents. But why keep page upon page of yellowing, dried out paper covered in scribbles?

One of my friends (who was probably on the brink of staging an intervention for me) told me about a service called SouvenarteBooks (www.souvenartebooks.com). A professional photographer takes pictures of each piece of art, and creates a book from the images. The books are museum quality, printed on archival paper, and assembled into a beautiful hardcover coffee table book.

I really liked this idea. I was hopeful it was the solution that would liberate me. When I received my books, they were everything the web site promised and more. They were gorgeous.

So here it was—time to fish or cut bait. I am sure you have guessed the outcome. I had my beautiful books, but I also wanted to keep the actual artwork. It hurt too much to imagine any of it ending up as landfill. For all their teasing, I told myself, my sons wouldn’t really want me to throw out something they had made with their own hands.

The next time Son #1 was home, he noticed one of his clay pieces on a shelf in the family room. He picked it up, turning it over in his hand. “Yes!” I thought to myself. “He likes being able to hold something he made.” Then he looked at me, laughed, and said, “I can’t believe you didn’t throw out this piece of crap.”

I guess I was wrong.

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.

A Failure To Communicate

When I was growing up, my family ate dinner together every night. Yes, that’s right. Every. Night. Much of the meal was “Comedy Hour.” My father, a civil engineer, worked with someone who had an apparently endless supply of jokes. You’re probably not surprised; engineers have a legendary reputation for their wacky sense of humor.

At every dinner, my dad would tell us the jokes he had heard that day from Morty (who we began to refer to as the Great Morty). There almost always were two or three new ones. Many of them were corny, Borscht Belt-type shtick, but we didn’t care. We laughed long and hard, often until it hurt or we choked on what we were eating.

After a while, we developed favorites and would make requests. We had memorized every word of these favorites, yet still delighted in hearing our dad tell them from start to finish. As time passed, we developed a shorthand. We didn’t need to hear the full joke. My dad, or one of us, would say the punchline and the four of us would laugh as heartily as if we were hearing the entire joke for the first time. “Don’t blame me if you get a ringing in your ears.” “Oh, you want Greenberg the spy. He’s on the fourth floor.” “You stupid yenta! Everyone knows the number 3 bus doesn’t go to Coney Island.” None of these mean anything to those of you reading this, but I promise you I am laughing as I type these punchlines I first heard over 50 years ago.

As my father delivered his routine, we paid rapt attention to every word. We didn’t want to miss his delivery or the joke. Fast forward to 2017. Imagine a dinner at which, miraculously, every family member is present. It might go something like this…

Me: Tells joke. Waits for reaction.
Silence.
Me: Looks around the table and sees this—

 

 

Me: Hey! Zombies! Can you all look up from your screens for a minute?
They raise their heads, eyes glassy and unfocused as they adjust their vision from staring at something a few inches from their faces to looking at me at the other end of the table. They are as disoriented as when I wake them in the morning for school.
Son #1: Wait, what?
Me: Did either of you hear the joke I just told?
Sons #1 and #2 exchange a glance.
Son #2: Oh yeah, sure Mom. It was hilarious.
Son #1: I heard it. It just wasn’t funny.
Son #2: Sorry Mom.
Son #1: Mumbles something I can’t hear.
Me: Any possibility we can get through a meal without the two of you checking your phones?
Son #2: I’m making plans for tonight.
Son #1 Doesn’t even bother to answer.
Eye rolls from both, then they look back down at their phones again.

I am more than certain that many of you have had similar experiences. Often, when I try to communicate with my offspring, I feel as if I am a dinosaur who has somehow been teleported from prehistoric times to the present. Mostly I feel that way because my kids tell me this, or something equally as insulting.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the concept of “the generation gap” entered the vernacular. It was a hot topic for the nightly news, magazine cover stories, newspaper feature articles and opinion pieces. Our parents and their friends were confounded by this rupture in their lives that now had a name. Girls no longer wore sweet, tidy dresses to school; these were replaced by bell bottom jeans, frayed at the hem from dragging on the floor. Boys’ neatly combed crew cuts gave way to long hair, often past shoulder length. Instead of the tolerable music of The Beach Boys, our transistor radios blared the harsh, dissonant sounds of Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix.

Then there were the words and idioms we used, verbal tools to solidify the wall we were building (that no one had to pay for) between us and them. Some of our favorite (and rather ridiculous) adjectives were “groovy,” “right on,” or “far out.” Events or activities we enjoyed were “out of sight” while those not to our liking were “not my bag.” You could “dig” something without needing a shovel, and you avoided “the fuzz” at all costs, because they might find the “grass” hidden in the pocket of your Wrangler jeans.

Communication is fundamental—in fact critical—to forging connections with other human beings. In our teens and twenties, we recognized this, and made up words and phrases specifically intended to block (or at least hinder) communication with the older generation. And who did we consider the “older generation”? A popular expression warned us not to “trust anyone over thirty.” I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at that. From my current perspective, people in their thirties are babies.

Forty plus years removed from our youth, we try to show our kids that hey, we’re not as “lame” (i.e., old and out of touch) as they believe we are. We watch Netflix and Amazon and Hulu rather than broadcast television. We know who Drake and Sia are. We use social media, and believe the way we dress strikes a perfect balance between up-to-date and age appropriate. But deep down, we know we have stepped into our parents’ shoes. The generation gap is alive and well, patently obvious in the way our kids communicate with one another, using a set of conventions that make us feel as if we are sitting on the sidelines without a play book. Our kids have modern, shiny objects at their disposal to assist them in disassociating from old people like us. All we had were words and music. Different means, but the same message: Hey old people, you are not invited to the party.

Remember what a godsend we thought answering machines were, enabling us to either (a) not miss an important call from an actual or potential significant other if we weren’t home, or (b) screen our calls to avoid telemarketers, crazy ex SOs, and parents? Answering machines are relics of the 20th century; now voice mail serves the same purpose.  Well, maybe not for everyone. Here’s a scenario that both educated me, and made me feel old at the same time. Kudos to my son for being efficient and killing two birds with one stone!
Son #1: Did you call?
Me: Yes I did. How are you today?
Son #1: Fine. Why did you call?
Me : Didn’t you listen to my message?
Son #1: No, I never listen to voice messages.
Me (after a moment of stunned silence): May I ask why not?
Son #1: I can see on my phone that you called. If I’m gonna call you back, why should I listen to the same thing twice?
I proceed to repeat everything I just said into the phone a short while ago. I guess the takeaway from this encounter is that it’s better for me to say the same thing twice than for him to have to listen to the same thing twice.

Son #2 and I recently had an in-person, face-to-face, real live conversation! True story! He told me he had a date with a girl he recently met at a party. I then asked what I believed was a simple question. Hah!
Me: So, you guys talked at the party and then you called her and asked her out?
Son #2 (eyes narrowed with derision, mouth clamped to stifle loud, mocking laughter): Mom, no one calls anymore. (Unable to keep his composure any longer he snorts.) We text.
Me: Why? Isn’t it easier just to talk to someone?
Son #2: No. (Shakes his head and rolls his eyes)
I hang my head and shuffle off in disgrace. As I leave, I hear him ask, “Hey mom! What are you making for dinner tonight?” Why is he asking me, I wonder? Wouldn’t it have been easier to send me a text?

I quickly deduced that if you want to connect with your kids, texting is the way to go. (Warning: Do NOT send an email if you want a response any time before the year 2025. It is the rare millennial who checks his or her email with any frequency.) However, this means of communication is not without its frustrations, as illustrated by the following conversation (conducted entirely via text messaging):
Son #1: Do you know where my birth certificate is?
Me: Sure. Why?
Fifteen minutes pass with no response.
Son #1: I need it to get my new driver’s license. Also, do you still have my Sega Genesis games?
Now even I know that Sega Genesis is from the 1990’s. I know I threw those games away a long time ago. I also know that, like myself, Son #1 is a saver of things of marginal/no value, and will pitch a fit if the answer is no. I decide to buy myself some time.
Me: I don’t know. I’ll have to look in the basement. Why do you need them?
Again, nothing new appears on my screen, this time for twelve minutes. Yes, I am just that petty and annoyed that I actually time it. I have watched my sons text their friends, and I know there is no pause in those conversations.
Son #1: I saw an old console on Craig’s List and I thought I might buy it if we still have the cassettes. Let me know.

In all likelihood he did not type “let me know.” He undoubtedly typed “LMK.” Which brings me to my next topic—the pervasive replacement of real words with acronyms. When they first began appearing in messages and yes, even emails, I thought this was quite clever. I applauded the convenience of substituting letters for commonly used phrases. OMG, acronyms were so great! IDK how we ever managed without them.

However, those original acronyms appear to have been a bit promiscuous, spawning hundreds of next generation acronyms. Presumably, using them saves time. But how much? I would like to ask my kids, “How much time could you possibly be saving? Enough to make a great scientific discovery or write a highly acclaimed novel?”  As I said above, I do get it–but in moderation.

In addition, using an acronym can misfire if the recipient is unfamiliar with it. One time I was texting with Son #2 and he used the acronym “SMDH.” I hit the ceiling. The only words I could think of to fit those letters were pornographic and not something you should say to your mother.
Me: What was that? What does that mean?
Son #2: Shaking my damn head. What did you think it means?
Me (relieved): Never mind. (Had I instead typed NVM, I could have saved myself at least two seconds. Hopefully I won’t make that mistake again.)

I can imagine one of my kids having the following text chat with a friend…
Friend: SFLR. AFK.
Son: NP. WU?
Friend: NM. CYT?
Son: SLAP.
Friend: GR8.
Son: GTG. POS.
Friend: TBC. TTYL.

I would love you to hear your guesses regarding what the above means. Send me your thoughts via the Comments section of this site. In other words, LMK. I will share some of the answers in my next post, as well as translate the above for you.

In the meantime, I continue to SMDH.