The older I get the less I enjoy having stuff. When we moved three years ago it was shocking to find how much stuff we had accumulated, and how much work it took to pack and move it. It took months and yet there are still boxes waiting to be unpacked. Every so often I attack them; sorting, repacking and deciding what things I want to keep or to give away. Years of accumulating things has begun to feel more and more like an anchor around my neck.
After my parents were moved into assisted living a few years ago the burden of sorting through a home filled with a lifetime of accumulation fell onto my sisters. My brother and I lived far away and we escaped the work of cleaning out our parent’s home. It was more work than my sisters wanted to do but who else would? The process of downsizing took a long time; first my parents moved to assisted living, then to a nursing home, and recently my father passed away. Each time someone had to sort, pack, and downsize my parent’s stuff. After my father passed away we had to clean out the garage where the last boxes were stored. We had no choice but to deal with the final remains of my parents possessions, either giving them to family members or discarding them.
It has been very difficult for my mother, who is more attached to her things. My father saw most of the stuff in boxes as junk. (Funny how one person’s treasures is another person’s junk!) When I went home to attend my father’s memorial service I had to spend time choosing the things that I wanted to take back home. I talked it over with my mother and hoped she understood. I tried to be sensitive to her feelings, to tell her that having her things in my home would remind me of her and dad. But I know she feels her things are being taken away and she’s not ready to let go. It hasn’t been easy.
One of the things I brought back was a framed picture of my great grandparents and their family. Each time I look at this picture I am reminded of how different life was for them at the turn of the last century. Past generations accumulated fewer possessions; less furniture, clothing, farm and household goods. In previous generations people had fewer items of clothing and what they had they repaired until it was worn out or passed down to children. Tattered clothing was made into rag rugs (I still have one made by my grandmother). Furniture was made to be sturdy and durable. Parents passed furniture on to married children for their first home. Sometimes a few personal items were handed down after they died.
Modern life, starting somewhere after WW II became about producing more goods and creating more economic activity. Eventually life became mostly about consumption; corporations wanting ever more profits. We walk through stores (or browse online) shopping for merchandise and often buying something out of boredom rather than because of need. Products are designed to be obsolescent, ensuring sales revenue will increase. Our homes are over-filled with an abundance of things. Americans build bigger homes with more garages to ‘house’ ever more stuff. Where does it end? Most in rummage sales or donated to Goodwill! What will it take for Americans to recognize that the emptiness we feel inside can never be filled with possessions?
Today with resources becoming limited many people are thinking about what it means to consume less. What possessions do we actually need? What makes a possession valuable? One of the things I value came from my grandmother. It was a plate and cup that was once part of her highly prized Sunday dishes. As more and more pieces got broken the remnants eventually had become part of her everyday set and she used them to serve me toast and milk for breakfast. Some of the stuff I keep holds memories I don’t want to relinquish. The plate and cup from my grandmother’s kitchen is a reminder of her. I tell my sons the stories embodied in some of my possessions, which someday they will have to decide to keep or throw away.
We assess the value of things based on what we are willing to pay for it, rather than what we need. If something is rarely used do we really need it? Eventually things become a burden we will have to pack up and move. The innate value of our things rests in our use of them; our memories of where they came from or who they once belonged to. It’s not a bad thing to want to hold onto pieces from our past as reminders of our life’s experiences. But when we die, our memories die too.
I have vowed to keep sorting and downsizing because I don’t want this job to fall onto my children. I hope to work my way to the end of this life shedding the burdens of stuff I carry, hopefully arriving at the end with little or none. I don’t know if I will ever reach the point where I started off, fresh for college with only a suitcase. I wonder with nostalgia whatever happened to the person who could move everything she owned with only a few boxes. It’s been a cathartic process to think this way. I no longer find shopping pleasurable. Why the hell would I want more stuff!