My aging dad lived alone for nearly 10 years after my mom died. But recently we all came to the conclusion that living alone was a lonely endeavor. That, accompanied by his increasing need for assistance with some things, led us to find him a new home.
His moving to a new home meant cleaning out the old one, a task that fell to my sister and me.
Through it all I got a glimpse at what 50-plus years of accumulation looks like.
My parents grew up as farm kids in large families in small towns. They both had plenty of siblings, but not much in the way of things as we think of things in 2020.
My dad and his 12 siblings shared two or three bedrooms and slept three or four to a bed. He’s talked about many Christmases where they felt lucky if they got a few pieces of hard candy and an apple. One Christmas he received an actual wrapped gift. It was a belt and he was thrilled. Still is. He’s told me the story of the belt many times.
My mom had one doll as a child. She treasured it. As an adult she became an avid doll collector. She couldn’t have too many or get enough and they were all still in the house — a decade after she passed away.
Given their childhoods, it’s reasonable that my parents would take good care of their things and wouldn’t throw anything out if they had room to store it. After all, you never know when you’ll have a sudden need for 300 plastic shopping bags, a thousand rubber bands, your bank statement from 1992 or a Baby Alive doll from 1976.
As I went through their closets and drawers I felt a sting of guilt myself. My husband and I are contemplating a move and we’ve got 20 years of accumulation — and at least four sets of dishes — in our current abode. I vowed to purge from my own house and avoid over-amassing of anything in the future.
Still, we don’t have nearly as much accumulated as my parents. Over the years we have attempted to get rid of things when we no longer need them. But we still have way too much stuff. I fear it’s the American way. Sigh.
Even so, I summed up the excess at my parent’s house to a generational thing. A holdover from The Depression Era. They grew up with little and that affected their behavior as adults.
Then I got a glimpse into a whole new generation and my assumptions turned topsy-turvy.
In preparing for our own move, I’m renewing and refreshing certain parts of the house to make it more attractive. Last weekend, I tackled one son’s bedroom and I realized the accumulation tendency isn’t generational; it’s genetic.
He had papers from elementary school — more than a decade old. I found gadgets for which we couldn’t ascertain their original purpose: camera, phone or hand-held game? They’d spent years in his drawer and while once cutting-edge had become nothing more than paperweights.
Like my dad, he saved random plastic — perhaps to use as a protective wrap or maybe a storage bag. Or maybe he just never got around to throwing it away.
I couldn’t blame his behavior on The Great Depression. So what was it?
It may be part of the human condition: to want things. And I can tell you from experience, getting rid of stuff — even if it is going to charity — can be difficult. That little black dress I wore at age 24 still fits; why get rid of it, even though I haven’t worn it for more than 25 years? What if I need that discarded DVD player sometime in the future? You never know when a certain power tool will come in handy. Best to keep them all. And that box of screws and plastic container of random buttons? They’ll come in handy eventually.
Ha! And awe…
Most of us understand we shouldn’t overly attach ourselves to things. But that’s easier said than done. I’m as guilty as anyone. I don’t collect dolls or keep random papers, but I do have my own stash of plastic bags from the superstore. I keep them in the name of recycling. But who am I fooling?
Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists.