In the summer of 1968, a big orange Allied moving truck picked up our belongings from our campus housing at Ball State, stopped in Fort Wayne for the household items we had in storage in our house there and made the trip across Ohio to New Wilmington, Pennsylvania, where we would grow up and my parents would live out their lives. 50 years later we are closing up Mom and Dad’s house and disposing of most of their things. Dad died 16 years ago and Mom has moved into an assisted-living facility.
I walked through Mom’s house one last time when I was there in March and collected a few mementos, promising myself I would take no more than would fit in the backseat of my little VW Bug, remembering, after all, that it won’t be all that much longer until my own children are having to sort through my things. As I looked over the record of their lives and thought about which pieces I would like to have, my choices were not based on value– Mom and Dad never had expensive pieces of furniture, antiques, jewelry, or art–it was instead odd little souvenirs of our lives together, a melmac serving dish, my seventh-grade shop project, Dad’s college yearbook, a couple of memorable toys from my childhood, some piano music and some photographs.
I found myself thinking about possessions and the role they play in our lives. We were flat broke in 1968, after years of full-time grad school for Dad. I think we were mostly living on credit cards and money borrowed from my grandfather. Dad and Mom, understandably, dropped a lot of money on the moving van. And yet, 50 years later, those treasures and accoutrements of life–that they deemed significant enough to make the 300-mile trip to our new home–are all nearly gone. Most of the furniture, all of the appliances, all of the decor, all of the clothes, about 90% of the toys. All that remains of the contents of the moving van are a couple pieces of furniture, a large and useless collection of record albums, a few books, some favorite toys, and photographs.
Of course, we’ve collected a much larger store of items in the five decades in Pennsylvania and as we’ve moved out, we’ve all left things behind in the old homestead. We’ll divide up the sentimental pieces among the four of us; Mom has a few things at her new residence; we’ll store a few items in Sally’s barn; and the rest will end up in dumpster. What was the point of all those things? I’m a much bigger packrat than my parents and already have such a large collection of treasures and the ‘stuff’ of life, that it makes a move seem like a logistical impossibility. If anything reminds me of the growing-up years of my children it becomes impossible for me to dispose of; I am attached to those mementos on a cellular level. My original family lived in seven different homes during my growing-up years, but–and probably because of that–I’ve never moved since we got married. So without a move to force a purging of possessions, I have 26 years of accumulation: a 3000-square foot house and two garages full.
When I was younger, I used to ponder the question of which objects I would grab in the event of a house fire, after the people and pets were safely outside. That would be a torturous decision for me. The baby books? The negatives for the pre-digital pictures? A box of favorite Christmas decorations? In all likelihood I would burn up while I stood there trying to decide. Do I own my things? Or do they own me? Dad and Mom rented an expensive moving truck for a houseful of things that would all eventually wear out and be thrown away. My own children will one day have to dispose of my gigantic treasure trove, wondering all the while, “Why in the world did Dad keep THIS?!”
More than anything–when they are going through my things someday–I want my children to realize that they were what mattered and that so many of my “treasures” are associated with them. In the meantime I’m going to work on parting with some of my collection so that I don’t look like an episode of “Hoarders” by the time I’m an old man . And I will strive to remember that plastic bins in the garage cannot store the true treasures of life.