Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Trouble With Stuff

There’s an article in a recent issue of Sunset about a Northern California family that generates zero trash. They buy their food in bulk, taking their own containers to the market (apparently, there’s a winery nearby that lets them refill their bottles). What they can’t eliminate, they recycle. And, most importantly, they own almost nothing, which means they don’t have to find space for stuff. This particular family really hit a chord with me because I have a relative who is almost their exact opposite—she holds onto everything!

This woman isn’t exactly a hoarder—it’s not like her home is filled with garbage and stacks of newspapers. It’s just that every surface is covered with stuff: mainly tsotchkes like figurines and music boxes. While the California family’s kitchen drawers are almost empty because every implement they own has multiple uses, my relative’s kitchen drawers are jammed full of miscellaneous stuff she’s inherited or picked up. When I mentioned once that I was looking for a used cast iron skillet, she gave me a fierce look and stated that she didn’t have any to spare, even though I could see a stack of four identical skillets on top of her stove.

But here’s the thing—each of those skillets came from a particular place. Aunt So-and-So had used one to make her specialty. Another came from So-and-So’s estate sale. A third was one my relative had bought for herself at a particular hardware store many years ago when her beloved hubs was still alive. And so on. Many, if not most, of the multitude of items in my relative’s house come with stories attached. And she can’t part with them because they’re associated with the people in the stories.

This is, I think, why many of us end up with houses cluttered with too much stuff. We hang onto things that are associated with memories. And somehow we can’t bring ourselves to get rid of those things because it would mean we’d somehow be getting rid of the memories too. Keeping the memories without the objects is an emotional leap that’s sometimes very difficult to make.

I have an example of this in my own not-very-distant past. My husband’s aunt moved into a smaller living space and needed to dispose of all the stuff she’d accumulated over eighty-plus years. One box was labeled “Gertrude’s dishes,” a set of old-fashioned flowered china bowls that were pretty enough but not particularly interesting. When we asked for the story, Aunt B teared up. It seemed that her father had been married once when he was very young before he married Aunt B’s mother. His bride, Gertrude, had died in childbirth during the second year of their marriage. The dishes were all that were left from Gertrude’s very brief time in the family. My brother-in-law, a very practical guy, suggested giving them to Goodwill, but none of the women in the room could bear that. The DH and I took Gertrude’s dishes home, although I knew I had no use for them. I ended up giving them to my DIL, who also had no use for them but couldn’t bear to let them go either.

And thus stuff accumulates. I sometimes wish I could be as ruthless as the California family, keeping the memories but losing the stuff. But so far I haven’t had much luck.

So how about you? Any suggestions for how we can get rid of that stuff? Or should we just let go and embrace the clutter?


PG Forte said...

Oh, man, does this post ever speak to me! Hello, my name is PG and I'm a collector. I blame it on my discovering Pippi Longstocking at a far too impressionable young age.

I grew up in a house filled with family mementos and treasures--my mother's aunts' furniture, my father's uncle's records, my grandmother's pictures, my grandfather's books--I think that left me scarred as well.

I have tried very, very hard over the years to get rid of the nonessentials...but they keep coming back. It's like a really bad enchantment. The more I throw out, the more I end up with.

Some of it is definitely my fault--I never met a coffee mug I didn't want to take home, for instance. Some of it is my husband's love for souvenirs. But most of this stuff...I swear I don't know where it came from.

lisagk said...

I have a hard time letting go of anything, but if something has real value to me because it belonged to someone special, I've started passing it on to neices, or sons, or someone who might use it. It's still really hard to do.