Saturday, August 15, 2015

reduced

Years ago I witnessed my grandmother help my great-grandmother downsize from her house to a nursing home. This move involved much emotional distress and the sale of most of her possessions to strangers via a garage sale. A decade later I watched my mother-in-law coordinate her mother's move to a nursing home.  It was heartbreaking to watch her cull through all of her mother's possessions, from hairpins to needlepoint projects. She tried to foist her mother's life off to her children, but at the end of the day, no one had much use for most of her mother's stuff.  By then the grandchildren were each married with households of their own, the hand-me-downs had passed their prime.  A lot of her possessions got carted off to a dumpster or a thrift store, because at the end of one's life, where do you go with all the things? The hairspray and ironing board, the good china and the everyday coffee cups, the bell collection and craft supplies and extra screwdrivers and batteries and the economy-sized box of garbage bags because they were a heck of a deal on sale that day.

This past month I watched the entire process play out again, this time my parents, aunts and uncle moved grandma to an assisted living apartment.  It was a forced move, grandma was not on board with the decision, she'd insisted on maintaining her independence for too long, but she really wasn't independent anymore. She required more help than she was willing to admit, and she didn't arrange the logistics make her stay tenable. I'm reading The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, a book full of many truths and this line resonated: "The last owner had died there--she hadn't wanted to leave, but she hadn't done much to maintain the house in the last fifty or so years either."
That line sums up the truth of grandma.

To say she went kicking and screaming to assisted living would be hyperbole, but she did cry and resist to the degree a very frail 93-year-old woman requiring a walker for mobility is able. Grandma had dug in with no plan to leave. She had buried herself in a pile of material goods and possibly forgot she'd obtained all these things; or as she became less mobile and restricted to fewer and fewer square feet of living space, never ran across most of her stuff any longer, out of sight, out of mind. By the time she moved out, she was really shuffling between four rooms of her entire house, less than fifty feet across from bed to couch to bathroom to kitchen sink. Oh, it was sad to walk through her house after she'd been moved out.  Dozens of bottles of hair supplies, many packages of stationery, hundreds of trinkets and baubles--several still in their original plastic packaging, shoes that no longer fit, broken fishing equipment and stacks of magazines. All of it left behind--and for what purpose?

And then, so suddenly, she died.  Her family began sifting through the remnants of her life, the collections and hidden secrets, the strange stash of plastic drinking straws (5 packages of them!) and paper napkins, the expired jars of pickles and the piles of receipts and statements and correspondence. Her whole life laid out for everyone to pick apart and then, whatever remained, sorted through again by estate appraisers and eventually divvied up and sold to the highest bidder. Every box, drawer, cupboard, nook and cranny is exposed and disposed of.

That's what it comes to.  We really can't take it with us when we leave.

No joke, someone will have to go through all this when I'm gone.

Watching people cling so hard to their habits and possessions for naught haunts me.  Someday my children and their partners and possibly their children, too, will pick through the detritus of my life.  They'll donate my books and clothes, toss the contents of my freezer into the trash and divide the family heirlooms among themselves.  Will they know the story behind the hutch in the library? Will they care to keep their great-grandfather's lunch bucket or great-great-grandmother's Irish crystal? Or will they feel like they have enough of their own stuff and pass it over? I want to believe I'll give away my good stuff in a timely manner, so the recipients can appreciate and use things before they become "junk."  I pray that I downsize enough before I go so that my offspring won't have to discuss renting a dumpster to haul away my crap and make teasing jokes about the ridiculous things they'll find--old lists, cancelled stamps cut off envelopes, a jar of old screws just in case.

But mostly I hope that I'm proactive and choose to spend my last days living in a way that is productive and not burdensome to others. I hope that when I die I haven't become irrelevant, but that I am still contributing to the world around me in a meaningful way.  I'd like people to say that about me, "She will be missed because she volunteered so much and gave so much--what a loss." I can't take anything with me, but I can control to some degree what I leave behind. Because when we're gone, we're reduced to this--the pile of stuff we've acquired, our relationships, good and bad deeds, whatever we create and whatever we consume. "For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that." 1 Timothy 6:7-8

And speaking of leaving behind--don't leave without writing comment in the comment box! Each comment is an entry to win a copy of Kim Kasch's new YA novel Demon's Ink.  I'll pick a winner on Monday!
Oh the irony! A post about purging our lives of our stuff--and giving away stuff! Ah, but you can pass the book along to another reader when you finish it, right?

20 comments:

  1. My own mom is 93, and I really identify with this post. We have been trying to sift through her things a little (My sibs all did a huge garage purge a while back) but we know that soon we'll have to find new spots for everything she owns. I think most of us bump up against our own stuff too much and wonder, why is this here? Or more to the point--why can't I let this go?

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  2. Stuff or attachments to material things is so interesting to me. A few years back a woman passed away in my apartment complex (seniors only) and her family gave much of her stuff to the residents (low income). People quickly took as much as they could carry off, nice coats, linens, even pots and pans disappeared like lightening, but I was lucky in that I found a box of her more sentimental things - little books, letters and cards. I still have these today after 5 years and they have come to have special meaning to me, as if they had originally been things I myself would have set aside. I think/hope it is this sort of stuff that my family will treasure most but I know they're probably just toss them.

    So, it's very interesting that the things we vest the most of ourselves in, like old letters or journals, others toss aside and that makes me wonder why is it we cling to certain things so tenaciously?

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  3. My mom and dad are 85 and 85, and in failing health. My brother lives with them, in a separate basement apartment, and assists them with daily tasks. I sure hope this set up works till the end, because I'm pretty sure it would kill my mom if she was forced to move into any kind of assisted living place.

    However, they don't have a garage, basement, or spare room of collected stuff they don't use. Partly because my mom throws things away if she doesn't need them, and partly because my dad has just never had any material needs. I'm grateful for this, because Rob is still dealing with stuff from his dad, after his death last year. I'm like my mom, and don't collect. Rob's experience with his dad's stuff is countering his own hoarding tendencies, and he's trying hard to embrace minimalism.

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  4. My Granny was shipped off kicking and screaming....and I seemed to inherit a good bit of her things. When Pat's Grandmother, who owned a fabric store, was also carted off kicking and screaming with her broken hip, I was given truckloads of fabric. I've managed to find most of it new homes, but other than that, we didn't inherit too much of Grandma's things. Our little house has so little storage, I sometimes feel like we're drowning in clutter. Constantly purging helps, but what I wouldn't give for another closet! I suppose not having it helps me to get rid of things, so I count it as a blessing.

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  5. I dream of culling our stuff down to the bare necessities. I am trying with my own things, but others in my house are not on board with my plan.

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  6. Oh this hits home. Hard. In the last seven months I've helped move my grandma to an assisted living facility and helped one of my best friends move her mother. My grandma is OCD, so there was zero junk to go through (she did not even have one junk drawer), but it was still horrible to go through everything to decide what to take and what to get rid of. With my friend's mom, there was lots and lots of junk. So many papers! But in both moves, so much was similar. I will forever be grateful that I was there to be able to hear all of the stories that went with all of the possessions of both women.
    I want to be remembered just as you do. When I die, I want people to remember that I always did my best to be a blessing to others. That I used what I was given to help others. Guess I better get working on that instead of feeling sorry for myself about the youngest heading to kindergarten.

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  7. I do sometimes think about this for myself, with the piles of things I have stashed about the house both in sight and out of sight. It took 16 months to clear out my mother's house because of this very thing. My SIL is a saint for doing so much of the work of meticulously going through stacks of papers for over a year, after spending the final 5 months of Mom's life taking care of her while Mom lived in denial that she was dying.
    I still do struggle with some things: I enjoy certain crafts, including scrapbooking, but my menfolk really don't care about it. Sometimes I wonder why I even do it if the scrapbooks may end up in a dumpster somewhere.

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  8. I'm so sorry you're having to watch that. All my empathy. I helped clean out my grandma's house, and resolved not to leave "stuff" for anyone to deal with. I toss and purge regularly, although my husband thwarts me at nearly every turn. My MIL is a post-depression era "collector", and when she goes we may well have to move to DC foe a year to deal with her "stuff"
    I wish you much luck with your own stuff.

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  9. I'm so sorry you're having to watch that. All my empathy. I helped clean out my grandma's house, and resolved not to leave "stuff" for anyone to deal with. I toss and purge regularly, although my husband thwarts me at nearly every turn. My MIL is a post-depression era "collector", and when she goes we may well have to move to DC foe a year to deal with her "stuff"
    I wish you much luck with your own stuff.

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  10. I'm so sorry you're having to watch that. All my empathy. I helped clean out my grandma's house, and resolved not to leave "stuff" for anyone to deal with. I toss and purge regularly, although my husband thwarts me at nearly every turn. My MIL is a post-depression era "collector", and when she goes we may well have to move to DC foe a year to deal with her "stuff"
    I wish you much luck with your own stuff.

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  11. We have gone through this with my father and my father in law. On a smaller scale, of course, since our mothers still live in the houses. But there was still so much of their stuff to go through. My mother has been preparing for her death for a long time. She is constantly telling us to put our names under things we want (lamps and such) and trying to clean out the basement and attic so that it isn't so much work for us. She is hilarious. It sounds morbid but when you have cancer for 10 years, had open heart surgery, etc., I suppose you know that the reality of death is there. Even my own kids say to me, "when you die can I have..." whatever item they are talking about. It is funny for young kids to think that way but they have been touched by death at an early age, I suppose.
    I remember going through my grandmother's house after she passed. It was sad. A whole life's worth of living reduced to just "stuff".

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  12. My sympathies. This is indeed a difficult task - sorting through the things that might be memories, or might not be memories. My dear darling husband and his cousins sorted through their Aunt Margaret's home after her death; the stories are many and varied.
    My own mother downsized willingly. She lives not in assisted living, but senior apartments. It wasn't easy, but she felt it was necessary - and even satisfying.

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  13. It is going to be a nightmare to clean out my husband's parents' house. They are quasi-hoarders - every available horizontal surface is covered with junk (lots of ceramic and brass frogs and a glass octopus that lights up from within when plugged in was recently added to the mix) and every vertical surface is covered with photos and posters, some as old as 50 years. There are photos of my husband's wedding to his first wife, of my brother in law's wedding to his ex wife, and of my husband when he was in infant. There is not one single photo of me anywhere in the house. (We looked.)

    Nothing gets thrown away - all the cheap glass vases from flower deliveries are clustered on top of the shelf by the piano. There are stacks of magazines and catalogs. Paper everywhere - and my husband's mom is a huge environmentalist.

    (I would link to a story about their disgust at our use of cloth napkins - why don't we just use paper?! - but I had to close my blog down for a few weeks because of someone trying to expose me to the in-laws. I should be open again next week.)

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  14. You just took me back to sorting through my grandma's house after she died--oh, my, all those empty Cool Whip containers--along with the wake-up call Byron and I had when we helped both my mom and sister move one summer. We came home and determined to get rid of several loads of stuff. Now, unfortunately, Stuff and Stuff and Stuff is creeping back in on us again.

    At the end of it, though, I agree with you: I hope to be contributing until the end.

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  15. I'm sorry you've had to go through this. It is sad to see someone's life through their old possessions. I find accumulations of stuff to be profoundly depressing. For years, the Salvation Army thrift shop near my house had a tall chain link fence around their entire premises, with signs warning that no dumping was allowed and that donations had to be brought during business hours. And yet many mornings there would be piles of stuff--old furniture, bags of clothes--left outside the fence. As a society, we are oppressed by all of these things.

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  16. I watched both of my parents go thru this with my grandparents, and the sheer amount of STUFF was incredible. Mom and Dad both tried to foist numerous things off on us kids, but I have my own incredible collection of STUFF. I keep trying to weed out already, but I'm so emotional and attached to stupid stuff (high school corsages, anyone?). I dread thinking of going thru my Mom's house...SO MANY THINGS. Your post gave my spine a bit of steel---perhaps now those corsages can finally be tossed. ;)

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  17. We reached a point a few years ago when we realized we had so much junk in our life it was time to start reversing the process....HA! It is slow, donating and getting rid of crap....

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  18. I've watched this go down a few times in my family as well. It's not easy. Sometimes I accept stuff I can't use out of guilt, then secretly donate it later.

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  19. I helped my mom downsize to a condo 2 years ago - tough to do, and she was a willing participant! She still hands me stuff to take away with me. And now I'm sending stuff home with my kids...

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  20. This is a poignant reminder of decimating my parent's home three years back. Horrible job. Big dumpster in the driveway. Sorting through the paperwork, the books, the drawers, the everything.

    I've been on a mission to go through much of my house, but still there is stuff. Stuff my kids won't know what to do with either. Stuff of my own I don't know what to do with.

    Anyway, lovely essay.

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Spill it, reader.