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.

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27 replies
  1. Jill Sternberg Navarino
    Jill Sternberg Navarino says:

    I definitely feel for what you are going through. As my parents are getting closer and closer to the end of their lives, my mother has started asking me what I would like when they are gone. I tell her that I don’t want to talk about it , but realize she is asking me this because she perhaps wants a part of her to live on through me. I tell her that all I want is for her to enjoy her things as long as possible, knowing that most of her things will probably never be used or worn again in her own life! I say that when the time comes, all I want are the photo albums but then I think that maybe a few pieces of her jewelry could be worn and I could “feel” her skin touching mine somehow. Like George Harrison wrote, all things must pass, but we can still hope and pray that time is in the far away future.
    Thank you for another touching and heartfelt blog.

    Reply
  2. Heather Dibble
    Heather Dibble says:

    I am shedding tears just reading about your “shedding.” I treasure so many old items and yet dread the paralysis that comes with cleaning out a box or shelf of memories. I have to stop myself from objecting when my parents tell me about the latest part of their home they are shedding. The only thing that helps is knowing they are doing so to avoid the pain and time it will cause me when that day arrives. Thank you for sharing.

    Reply
    • Rhonda Silver
      Rhonda Silver says:

      My father is trying to clean out his house for the same reason as your parents. And in the well-known metaphor of the circle of life, wanting to spare my kids having to go through my things is part of my impetus to get rid of my extraneous items.

      Reply
  3. Cari Rohe
    Cari Rohe says:

    It’s funny you post this now because we just discussed this. Last night we were eating out of soup bowls we recently picked up at an estate sale. I commented that I liked them and Travis said, “you know these were probably dead people’s bowls.” We kind of chuckled (in the dark way we do), but we also thought it was pretty neat that we were making new memories with someone’s old “junk.” How in a way a person gains some sort of immortality through their “stuff” that continues to live on long after they are dead. And not by sitting and dusting on a shelf or in a box in storage, but by being a new cherished item for someone else. Now if I could only see the beauty in getting rid of my own “stuff”….

    Reply
    • Rhonda Silver
      Rhonda Silver says:

      Of course Travis would make that comment. He’s a chip off the Bobby Cheddar block. It is nice to think about the stories that objects collect as they move from person to person. If only those objects could talk…

      Reply
  4. Richie Abrams
    Richie Abrams says:

    One way I just started to cope was reading your blog. Every time I find the courage to throw something out whether a cherished item of mine or a close relative it is agonizing. Thank you this was excellent

    Reply
  5. MB Farrell
    MB Farrell says:

    Moves…I’ve made a number of them. It started when I moved to NYC from PA, all my contents fit in two sedan cars. Books, magazines. records, clothes and the basic kitchen and bathroom necessities filled my tiny 400 square foot apartment with hand-me down furniture. When the movers collected my stuff 10 years later for the CA relocation, they thought they would be done packing in a half day with a couple of wardrobe and book boxes. Ha, did I fool them. I had become expert in storage techniques and they needed a day and a half to complete the preparations. Fortunately, the Company was paying for the cross country trip. In California, my apartment was bigger and of course needed new furnishings. artwork, more books, CDs (needed to have all of my records in CD form), let us not forget outdoor toys, and of course wine. 4 years later, all of that stuff moved to Chicago where apartments were even bigger. Fortunately, it was only a 1 year layover on the way back to NYC so it was there that I had to go through my first successful purge, there is no choice when you live in Manhattan. However, 20 plus years of moving into increasingly larger apartments combined with fabulous travel shopping created a new collection. Then a lifestyle change and a chance to buy a lake house and another purge …sort of. Friends and family called and asked for their favorite things… Gladly, I sent them to their new homes. A garage and a basement supplemented the smaller apartment and provided an ability to delay the inevitable. Complicating matters is the inclusion of my Mom and Dad’s stuff. I’m sentimental and my parents were selective in their curation, with dreams of their stuff making a difference in their children’s lives. My Dad is gone but my Mom is fighting with her dementia and this complicates my efforts. Like you Rhonda, the memories attached to the china, silver, favorite painting or kitchen tool provide comfort in a strange way. So I inch along, clearing the floor space, taking pictures and writing little captions with fun stories. I’m committed streamlining my possessions and am glad to know others have taken the journey and lived to write about it. Great piece Rhonda, it renewed my energy.

    Reply
    • Rhonda Silver
      Rhonda Silver says:

      Thank you for reading, MB, I am pleased I was able to renew your energy. Thank you also for sharing your story of multiple moves and how easy it is to accumulate things when your living space becomes larger. To paraphrase a familiar saying, I think possessions grow to fill the space allotted to them.

      Reply
  6. Margo
    Margo says:

    I went through this last summer in my parents house in NJ. We sold some things, gave each grandchild one collection of either good china, or set of glassware or sterling silverwAre. It is just so sad getting rid of everything even if it is just stuff. I will go through it again here in Arizona when my dad passes. It does give some good feelings in giving things to people but for the most part no one wants most of it. It all gets trashed. When I die my neice will be responsible for emptying my home. I don’t envy her. I did keep some silly things like my moms tuna chopper and the Russian dressing bowl!! Some things just hold too mAny memories and love.

    Reply
    • Rhonda Silver
      Rhonda Silver says:

      Yes, very often “stuff” is much more than just “stuff.” I love that you kept your mom’s tuna chopper and Russian dressing bowl. Meaningless to anyone else, filled with memories and love for you.

      Reply
  7. Amy
    Amy says:

    This was spot on, Rhonda! I can relate to every word you’ve written. I’ve got some things of my parents, and from my husband’s family just sitting in the basement. It’s so hard to part with them, yet I know they will never come with us when we move someday.

    Reply
  8. El yse
    El yse says:

    Good topic. Well said. I’ve tried to write about emptying my mother’s house but haven’t gotten anywhere.

    I kept her watch, two shirts, her “reading chair,” and some other things I’ve been able to let go of over time, including her sound machine that she listened to to fall asleep and six ban deodorants that are not the kind I like.

    Reply
  9. Marilyn Heiss
    Marilyn Heiss says:

    I’m going through this with my parents now as they are moving to independent living. They are overwhelmed with the thought of getting rid of these objects of their life. Some of the reasons are sentimental. They’re also convinced their stuff is worth a lot, like their Lennox bowls and yes, they have that nut dish. Unfortunately, they’re just spinning and have a hard time accepting help. They just yell at my brother & I, saying we don’t understand. There’s 6 weeks of hell ahead.

    Reply
    • Rhonda Silver
      Rhonda Silver says:

      Many elderly people are unable to wrap their heads around the notion that objects lose, rather than gain, value over time. In addition, this process most likely is causing them to confront their own mortality which must be frightening, to say the least.

      Reply
  10. Jacqueline Endlich
    Jacqueline Endlich says:

    My heart breaks for you. I have lived through it (yes, we live through it) under the worst of circumstances which included losing our 9 year old grandson. The thought of packing up his “stuff” still makes me sick, but I had to come to terms with that it was only stuff and he would live in my heart forever. I took his clothes made made a quilt for my daughter. I still pick up some of them and smell him. Losing a parent is part of the circle of life, as you said, but losing a child is pure hell. After one year I told myself “enough, enough now” and I tucked him in my heart. 4 years later, it is still unbearable, but I have come to terms with it and have started to breath with some regularity. I apologize for venting like this, but your post moved me. I feel your pain.

    Reply
    • Rhonda Silver
      Rhonda Silver says:

      Oh Jacqueline, Your pain is unimaginable. My heart was aching as I read your reply. Never apologize for expressing your feelings about your grandson. I am honored that my post moved you.

      Reply
  11. Lisa
    Lisa says:

    What I have done recently that really helps me is to thank the item for what it gave me, then release it. It’s like a brief ceremony, a step between having it and not having it, sandwiched with gratitude 💜

    Reply
  12. Shelley Molbogot
    Shelley Molbogot says:

    Rhonda, I so relate to what you have so beautifully written. I have a few pieces of my Grandparents’ furniture and I could never imagine not having them in my home, although my husband feels differently. I suppose when we move I will ultimately have to make those difficult decisions as realistically I know I can’t take every piece with me….a girl can dream-can’t she??!!??

    Reply
    • Rhonda Silver
      Rhonda Silver says:

      Similar to you, my husband finds it much easier to get rid of what he calls “junk.” As you say, when you move to a smaller space, you are forced to make the difficult decisions.

      Reply
  13. Randi Swindel
    Randi Swindel says:

    Having moved and downsized several times, it has been rewarding to know that others will now be enjoying those “things” that no longer belong with us. When a beloved heirloom filled cabin burned to the ground years ago we were heartbroken and still realized we had had the pleasure of our “things” company for years. We rescued a few items and ourselves. After all, it is just “stuff.”
    And good insurance didn’t hurt😉

    Reply
    • Rhonda Silver
      Rhonda Silver says:

      I am sorry about your fire. I often think about how I would handle a fire that destroyed my possessions, especially my beloved photo albums. Thank goodness for cloud storage, but many of my photos were shot with film [remember that? :)] and are not stored electronically. I guess I should get them scanned…Anyway, thanks for reading and for your comment.

      Reply