More Stuff

Back in September I published a post named Stuff, about my mother’s move to Minnesota. I promised a followup, which is this post here, “More Stuff”.

It’s hard to see how the subject could warrant another discussion at this point, because it is so repetitious and predictable. Stuff piles up in people’s houses, we’re all materialistic to a fault, we overbuy things, and so on, and then when we are old we suddenly have to watch helplessly as someone else disposes of it because we failed to do the job when we could have had some control over the process. It’s also easy for onlookers, adult children especially, to shake their heads and think, “What is the matter with these people!” In truth, however, we are all in thrall to our stuff, one way or another.

In December of 2001 and then a month later I and my husband traveled to Vietnam to adopt our son. While we were there we saw people living in the streets at a level we’d never experienced before. In the meantime the exchange rate between American and Vietnamese money allowed us to buy whatever we wanted for almost nothing; it was almost like grabbing things off the shelves. We were limited only by what we could take home with us.

After getting home I vowed that I would never again take for granted all that I had, and that I would be satisfied to live in our 1800-foot house (which isn’t even the average for the U.S.). The effect lasted for about two weeks. After that my perspective returned to what it had always been, and soon I was complaining about the neighborhood, the kitchen, the floors, and the furniture, wanted something larger, newer, more convenient. Our son grew up with all the luxuries he wanted, which were what most of his peers had, even though we tried not to spoil him.

When my mother moved to Minnesota, she moved into a 1400-square foot apartment in senior housing that had more closet space than our house, plus rented a storage area in the basement. Boxes upon boxes, mostly books, went down there, the plan being to open them over time and sort through them. I spent months opening the boxes that remained, pulling out packing paper, toting it off to the recycling down the hall, and trying to find places for their contents. We bought new furniture for the larger bedroom, which became a study, but no matter how many shelves or drawers there were we were unable to find space for everything. I had all I could do not to lose my temper as I went through it all.

My mother lived in that apartment for almost six years, for the most part happy ones. The time came, however, when she had to go into assisted living. She wasn’t ready to do it, and the fact that she was developing dementia made it impossible to convince her that it was necessary. She ended up in a tiny apartment less than half the size of the one she left, so once more we were faced with the job of dealing with her stuff.

The books in the basement went to a fundraiser without our even having opened the boxes (apparently among them was the wedding album from my first marriage, I later found out). A lot of the furniture, china, crystal, and other kitchenware came over to our garage, which I eventually let go for a song to an antique dealer who took on the task of carting it away. We paid $100 a month for a storage unit for whatever was left beyond what we wanted to keep for ourselves. In the meantime, we lovingly arranged what would fit in her small apartment, although she scarcely recognized most of it because she was so miserably unhappy. Within six months she had to be moved into memory care, this time a single room, and we shuffled things around yet again.

The cruelty of dementia, of watching one’s parent disappear by inches, is compounded by the sense of violation one feels in disposing of all that was precious in that person’s life. As I live surrounded by my parents’ things I feel they’re not really mine, even though my mother made it clear that she wanted me to have them some day. In another five years or so my husband and I will move into an apartment half the size of our house and more of this stuff will need to go. We are already beginning the process.

My parents enjoyed their possessions while they were alive, and when they passed them on to me, they hoped I would enjoy them as well. Now that I face my own choices I realize that I can’t keep most of it, nor do I even want to. It’s hard to know how to evaluate my own priorities while the tug of nostalgia is so powerful, but I have been forced to do so over and over, packing my mother’s gowns for charity, sifting through her jewelry. I hear that younger generations, millenials in particular, want a simpler life. I am glad of it.

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