I have been pondering my relationship to STUFF lately. It is a complex and shifting relationship that I often think centers around loss and regret. So much meaning packed inside STUFF. So much worth we attribute to STUFF.
Ultimately I think my problem is that for me STUFF means love. And when people love you, they should give you STUFF. The memory of the STUFF they gave you or didn’t give you persists.
One of my relatives has always treated my siblings and my cousins and me differently. When we were kids, he used to take them to the toy store and let them pick out anything they wanted. Then they would all come back with their new STUFF. Which I couldn’t play with. Because it was their STUFF, not mine.
And I remembered this again when I flew out and packed their house and saw the list on the table. A list of STUFF. STUFF that was being saved for someone else. And I willed myself not to think, because I could not afford to break down when I had just a few hours to pack. But I felt the loss of the STUFF. STUFF that I was never offered. STUFF I felt I was not allowed to claim. STUFF I would never see again.
My little cousin came to help me for a few hours after she got off work. My little cousin has been cut off from all her family STUFF because her mother disowned her. My cousin was not given any STUFF either. Beautiful STUFF or meaningful STUFF or STUFF that had been in our family for years. She has no family pictures because her mother refuses to give her any. We laughed together about the list of STUFF because we had no time to cry. I saw some old pictures of her family and I told my relative that she should have them. Because he never even thought to offer.
I could claim STUFF for her, but not for myself.
The saved STUFF got picked up after the house had been cleaned out and the old people had been relocated safely. After I unpacked their bags and boxes and helped them set up in their new home. Because the person for whom the STUFF was being saved could not come to help with the moving. Could not do the cleanup. Was too busy. But suddenly became available to pick up the STUFF.
Now I am cleaning out another house. Now I am preparing for another move. And it is a hundred times harder, because it is the home in which I spent seventeen years of my life. It is full of STUFF I remember. And nearly all of this STUFF will have to go somewhere or be disposed of somehow.
But how do you get somebody to let go of STUFF when their own life has been about loss? About poverty? About scarcity? About losing possessions? About losing history? How do you help them when you feel the urge to hold on?
My cousin’s wife has mentioned several times to my mother that she (the wife) grew up poor, so now that she has money she buys anything she pleases. When my mother told me this (more than once), I laughed and said, “Unless us, who grew up poor and believe we might be poor again someday.” But as I sort through the hundreds of saved jars and broken whatnots, I feel overwhelmed by the visual representation of my family’s need for security. For safety. For STUFF.
An art teacher once sent out a request for baby food jars. So I asked my mother. She asked how many I needed and I told her as many as she could spare. So she gave me eight. The teacher later told me she cancelled her project because she did not have enough jars.
In the basement, I lose count at fifty. There are still more stacked in a cabinet.
I encourage my mother by telling her I will bring unneeded items to a resale shop that benefits women and children. Miraculously, this works. My car is stuffed to the brim. Once. Twice. Three times. Four times. I’ve lost count by now, but I’m sure it numbers in the dozens. I drive home and I put STUFF in the trash.
Blankets with holes in them. Unfinished doilies. Three large, new cones of serging thread. My mother does not own a serger. Her elderly neighbor, who can no longer see, gave them to my mother so they would not go to waste. The neighbor tries to give me several boxes of fabric scraps.
A personalized license plate that used to hang on my sibling’s tricycle. I remember that while my siblings had them, I never did. And now I think I remember that they came from that same relative.
The license plate does not get flipped into the trash.
I used to say that one of my siblings and spouse were “borderline hoarders.” But I realize sadly that there is nothing “borderline” about them. I went to visit once and opened the large entry-hall closet. I could not hang up my coat because the closet was packed with STUFF. By this, I do not mean simply that it was very full. I mean that every available inch of space had something crammed into it, including the space between the shoulders of the coats and the shelf.
I could not sit down in the house because the sofas were piled with STUFF. And although I visited three days after a holiday, the remains of the meal were piled in the kitchen. The counters were stacked with STUFF a foot and a half high.
That sibling drove to my elderly relative’s house to get STUFF. I was amazed by the STUFF sib wanted. Sib even took the worn furniture that I had dragged into the garage for the trash hauler.
My mother said, “Sib needed it because sib has hardly any stuff.”
I stared at her open-mouthed.
But I just realized that I have referred to sib and spouse as “borderline hoarders.” When they are hoarders who crossed that border long ago.
I have been trying to cross back over. After cleaning out my elderly relatives’ house, I came home and threw out a bunch of STUFF. But there is more STUFF to go. And STUFF comes in regularly. I am unable to make any more decisions about STUFF at my mother’s house. I try to keep her from getting rid of STUFF I believe she will regret.
Not all of the STUFF is baby food jars and cans of old nails and thirty-year-old bars of soap. There are many new items carefully put away. Expensive nylon stockings in fancy gift boxes. Too good to use. Matching sets of glasses, when we used gas-station freebies and jelly jars when I was growing up. New blankets, when the ones covering her bed are threadbare.
Her wedding gown. A dress of her mother’s.
I wonder about the way we treat items as sacred relics. It probably wouldn’t matter if those two items were given away. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if she had cut them up years ago and refashioned them into new articles of clothing. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if she had thrown them out.
And yet I am paralyzed with the inability to even suggest any potential ways to get rid of them. I still have a few more days, but then all the STUFF will need to be gone.
Unfortunately the STUFF includes many heavy items that were abandoned by my siblings. So far I have carried out three computers and two monitors. I believe there is still one monitor in the basement and that fucker goes forty-five pounds. Sib did not carry it out, instead telling me it was okay to throw away.
My sibs are quick to tell me they have bad backs and bad knees. And just like the “borderline hoarders,” I wonder why I accepted this. Because I [redacted litany of major medical mishaps that involve orthopedic surgeons and other specialists with scary names].
I was told I could not throw out a 1992 Apple because it still had info on the hard drive. So I took a sledgehammer to it. Ironically, it was the day Steve Jobs died. Sib wanted to fill the sink with water and “leave it in there for a week or so.” WTF?
Then another sib got word that we might be throwing out STUFF. And this sib, whom I have not received an e-mail from in years, suddenly felt driven to write. Because sib wanted me to keep in mind STUFF that sib wanted for sib, spouse, and kids.
Sib later called my mother with a wish list. Apparently that was not sufficiently reassuring, because sib called another sib and got that person to go over and pick up what sib wanted.
So although sib was unable to carry sib’s own fucking Apple computer, SIB WAS COMPLETELY ABLE TO PICK UP AND TRANSPORT A LARGE CONCRETE GARDEN ITEM.
When I heard the curator of The Art of Gaman speak about the incarceration of the Japanese Americans, she talked about how one of her relatives had just purchased a new car which he then tried to sell. He received an offer of $5. So he drove it into a field, doused it with gasoline, and set it on fire.
I could relate. Because I seriously felt like having an accident involving a sledgehammer with a few items. Because although I don’t necessary want that STUFF or need that STUFF. I hate that I would never ask and that it would never be given to me. I don’t feel resentment towards my mother, because she needs me now. But I feel resentment towards my siblings, who want their STUFF and who have always been able to say so.
I gave my little cousin the only thing I owned that belonged to her grandmother, who was my favorite aunt. Even now I feel some regret and loss. My aunt is long gone. It doesn’t matter if I have any of her STUFF or not. Yet I find a small gift tag from a Christmas package written in her handwriting. Where did that come from? It is addressed to my mother and signed with her name. I set it aside to look at for a few more days.
Early tomorrow morning the garbage truck will come and pick up the two loads I have set out. Early tomorrow morning I will be forcing my screaming body to pack STUFF and to fill the dumpster again with STUFF.
Tomorrow I will remind myself that I do not have time to cry. Because STUFF doesn’t matter.