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.
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.
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.