My family trends toward the hoarding side of the spectrum. Grandma was not a hoarder (Gramps was). I like to think I am moderate, but don’t we all? I keep things I am fond of and things that I think will be useful. My greatest weakness is being optimistic about what I will actually use. Now and again I do a purge…and get motivated to do projects. But mostly I don’t think too much about stuff.
The big move brought stuff to the front of my mind.
When I went down to California to help Grandma pack for the big move to Seattle I packed a whole lot of things that I knew would not see the light of day again until they found new homes. A whole lot of things.
Before heading down to help pack, I had cleared away a lot of our life “savings” and had the garage pretty nearly empty (the first time in years we could have even considered putting a car into it!). After being so ruthless with our own belongings I had to make an effort to turn off the purge switch when I got down to the desert.
Stuff was not just stuff anymore.
Grandma, who, earlier in her life, seemed to be almost ruthless about getting rid of things before moving (at least in comparison to Gramps), was very different. This move was not one she wanted to make. She had mixed feelings. She knew it would be easier for us to help her, and, even though she wouldn’t admit it, she knew that what she wanted wasn’t physically possible for her any more. It was facing a mini-death in a way, a death of her independence, by a thousand cuts.
Clinging to her stuff was a way of clinging to a more youthful, able-bodied self who could fill every corner and not worry about having passage ways wide enough for a walker to safely maneuver. Not only that, the trailer in the desert was possibly the most stable home she ever had. We owned it and no one could take it away from her. She had made it her home, and she could keep what she wanted without worry about having the carpet pulled out from under her. But her body was failing her, taking away the stability and independence she had finally achieved, just as lost jobs and various other circumstances had pulled the carpet from under her in the past.
So I carefully bubble wrapped over 30 crystal wine glasses, and many other pretty, fragile things that she hadn’t used in years, and never would again, and paid to transport them to Seattle. Stuff filled our fresh, clean garage. We had to move sideways to get around the mound of stuff.
Thankfully my sister was able to help her go through things and decorate her studio apartment. After the packing and moving I was getting a little frazzled. Very few inches of wall still showed when they were done and there were still several boxes of pictures. But she had around her the things she treasured most, and a feeling of the familiar.
I didn’t ruthlessly get rid of things after that. She would mention this or that item and I would go digging and find it. This went on for years. It was important to her that her things were there for her…and that I listened and looked, so that she still controlled them, even if she couldn’t have them with her. As her body was becoming less under her control I think it helped to know that I would fish out her seasonal decorations.
When I mentioned giving some things away she got rather upset. At one point I thought about just letting things that I knew she wouldn’t ever notice, but I never did. I have never been good at prevarication. I think she somehow felt that while I wasn’t getting rid of her things I wasn’t ready to wash my hands of her.
But the stuff wore on me a bit. I get easily over stimulated. I avoided the garage because my stress level would rise when I went in. I actually started to hyperventilate a few times when I did go in, because it was so overwhelming…and there was no action I could take.
Moving back toward stuff sanity
I’ve been working along at finding homes for things since Grandma’s death. I haven’t been ruthless, I don’t want to have regrets, but things have steadily trickled out of the house. We can now walk straight on two paths in the garage, instead of having to edge sideways on one narrow path, and I don’t have to wait for a nice day, when I can haul things outside, to reach things in the middle. Some things are easy to give away: the clothes and many household goods went to local charities promptly.
Other things have been more difficult, like the stein collection, which needs to find the right home, and the photo albums and other stuff for the VFW (mentioned in They also serve…). Also, I’ve found myself waiting on things I know I don’t want, and my sisters have said they don’t want, because Grandma treasured them. The oil painting of my mother and uncle as children is hanging out in the back of the basement.
Lessons I am trying to learn
I decided that I need to take my time. Many of these items have been in my life a very long time, some of them have stories and memories associated with them. If I could be patient with Grandma, surely I can treat myself equally?
I’m going to let the stuff I have trouble giving away be important for a while.
An ambitious goal:
A series of still life photographs with my grandmother’s treasures.
Last winter I got part way through a course offered by Julie Powell on doing still life photography. I never finished. Life got in the way, and there was a lack of inspiration (and Seattle’s winter light is often AWOL).
As I’ve been sorting through things it occurred to me that the love letters from World War II, tied with ribbons, crystal that belonged to my great-grandmother and other odds and ends, maybe that oil painting of Mom and Uncle Dave, might make a good subjects for a series.
I am hoping the project will help to heal my heart (not all the stories are happy ones), be a way to respectfully say goodbye to things I have known all my life but can no longer keep, and put the stuff of life into perspective.
Wish me luck!