Posted June 23, 2017 by Kerry McFall
News flash, Baby Boomers: nobody wants your stuff. Or your parents stuff. Nobody, we are told by an estate sales agent, wants solid maple Colonial-reproduction furniture produced in the 1960s. It’s too big, it’s too heavy, and it’s ugly as spit.
I know I certainly don’t want it. I spent years dusting it every Saturday morning, Shaking out the doilies. Washing and starching and ironing the doilies. Polishing the gleaming table tops and curlique carved legs once a month, being scolded for setting anything on it without benefit of a doily or coaster. The last thing I want to do is pay to have it moved only to pay to store it somewhere until my kids decide they need it, even if it’s ugly, because they can’t afford to go to Ikea…
I’m cleaning out my mother’s house. My brother and his wife want to buy the house, but like us, they don’t want the Stuff. Not the Big Furniture Stuff, and not the Little Fussy Stuff. Not the 60’s maple and not the 80’s hideous overstuffed couches and chairs. In the (maple) Hope Chest, there are bushels of Pendleton skirts and slacks, chiffon bridesmaid dresses, embroidered hankies, baby booties, and the ubiquitous crocheted doilies. My mother and aunts spent endless hours fussing with crochet hooks and miles of thread, creating acres of intricate lace, until their arthritic fingers finally rebelled and froze into painful claws. They were just following the family crafting tradition, but took it to new production levels. Where Grandma and her Cousin Edna created a small box of doll clothes for my bride doll, Mom and her generation created Victorian doilies by the hundreds, enough to cover an acre of table tops. And therein lies the rub: the Greatest Generation created and bought and collected stuff in a way that no humans have ever collected before.
They came out of the deprivations of the 1920’s and 30’s with a hunger and thirst for “stuff” unrivaled in history. And they hung on to all of it, for their entire lives. My mother hasn’t worn regular bras for 30 years, since she had a mastectomy. But there were a dozen regular bras, elastic brittle to the crackling point, carefully tucked into a drawer in the guest bedroom. She kept every velvet jewelry box from every pair of earrings my Dad bought for her when he was in the Dog House, and he was in the Dog House a lot. She kept every post card, every Christmas card, every bank statement, every hotel note pad that ever crossed her desktop. For 70 years.
She came by it naturally. “Waste not, want not, ” my Grandma would say as she carefully wrapped her new Christmas nightie in tissue paper and forced it into the bottom dresser drawer. Every year, my uncle would send her one from New Jersey, cherry-colored satin or golden butterscotch ruffled nylon confections. When she died, there were at least 30 never-worn nighties in that drawer. Her raggedy old flannel was all she needed, she said… “Use it up, wear it out, or do without.” A mantra, although she wouldn’t have known that word.
I inherited some of my Grandma’s stuff when I was in my teens. It was amazing because it was So Old, and there wasn’t much of it. Letters from young men at war in Europe to their mothers. Some photo negatives, taken by a talented uncle. A few quilts, still usable and works of art in their own right. My husband inherited his Grandma’s stuff. Love letters between Scotland and Tennessee in the 1800’s. But their stuff was limited to one small box. One steamer trunk with lots of empty space. Because that’s all there was back then. A bit of paper, a bit of film, scraps of fabric, a couple of tiny boxes.
Fast forward 50 years. The photos tucked in to Mom’s window seat fill literally dozens of albums. Kodak made a LOT of money developing images of big-eared skinny kids with crewcuts running through sprinklers.
Almost everyone I know has been saddled with cleaning out a lifetime of stuff for their elders. Most of them are not hoarders in the current definition of that word, but they kept everything. Every. Thing. Stuff that you can’t even give away at garage sales or to St. Vinnie’s or Good Will.
We have concluded that my Mom has been disguising dementia for years, by carefully keeping and documenting all of the stuff that she has acquired, stuff that might someday be needed, or inquired about, or referenced. She had a rubber band, sticky with age, neatly wrapped around a stack of Hallmark Pocket Calendars dating back at least 40 years, her tiny crabbed handwriting detailing every conceivable event, appointment, visit, storm, purchase… It wasn’t so much a journal as it was a reference ledger. No thoughts or emotions recorded, just times and places and names.
History is important beyond our understanding. But this much stuff is not history, it’s a fire hazard. Doilies have been amply documented. Each stitch was looped with love, but doilies “protected” stuff that didn’t need protecting. Solid maple would last for decades on its own, centuries perhaps. Doilies are just fuss and bother for no apparent reason. Although doilies did leave interesting patterns in the dust atop the maple tables when they were picked up…
The point of this rant is to encourage you, no matter how old you are, to weed through your stuff now, and jettison most of it. If you’re young, don’t buy the stuff and don’t keep the stuff to begin with! Recycle if you can. Repurpose if there’s any good stuff. But don’t saddle your friends and relations with days and months of sorting through it. Just get over it and get rid of it and get on with your life!
It isn’t easy to let go. But do it. You’ll be glad. And your family and friends will be grateful.