Navigating Sentimental Stuff
I lost my Mom months ago after a heroic battle with pancreatic cancer for 6 or so years. I lost my step-father 8 months prior from frontotemporal dementia at aged 65. I lost a grandma last month, and the other remaining grandmother 2 weeks ago – both from old age. This podcast is about stuff and I bring these people up because each one of them has taught me a valuable lesson about stuff and memories in their own ways. A video call last night with my sister and cousin sifting through my grandmother’s jewelry and generations of monogrammed silver sets has made me plop my butt down and write this.
The topic of stuff for me right now is raw and full of emotion. And when you’re paring down your things to move into a smaller space, evaluating your stuff can get edgy, hyper emotional, even a source of confrontation at times. There’s a lot to consider. I write this podcast and tell you my story as a way of preserving it and it might also benefit others that haven’t been through these experiences. Paring down can feel like losing your own memories and the memories of the people you love, but it definitely doesn’t have to.
I’ve spent all of a year contemplating the meaning of stuff. As each person leaves your life you spend considerable time trying to hold on to your memories as tight as you can. How does this relate to living small? As you all know, my home is my boat with my family. It’s going on a total of 12 years now. I’ve had to make some hard decisions about stuff throughout those years, but none as hard as recently. The last 12 years have been invaluable and have gotten me ready to deal with loss. Each person I mentioned above had a very different philosophy and relationship with their stuff. You might recognize yourself in one of them. Listen carefully, look from the outside in, identify with them, and see how this all plays out.
The first major loss of my adult life was Rich. Rich was my step-father and one fun dude. He was a motorcycling, guitar playing, fisherman. He loved sports and music. His passion was woodworking – a finishing carpenter for the rich and famous along the gold coast of the CT. He lived in the moment, was completely flexible and easy going and knew how to laugh. If you were lucky enough to be part of his fun club, you were very busy. He didn’t want or need much; mainly handmade guitars, fly-tying gear, fishing poles, and tools. He didn’t place much value on stuff, collecting useful gadgets related to his hobbies instead. Very few of his things were from his past family. I adopted tools that are useful to us and his favorite fly rod he would use. But what we value most about Rich are the fun times and memories. Our lasting relationship with him is about pictures and having those moments captured and memories held. Our little home in the water can definitely handle pictures, a fly rod and, of course, more tools.
I’ll skip my Mom for now and introduce you to my antique-dealing grandmother, my Mom’s mom. We called her Goose. She was a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants lady. Many hysterical, tear-inducing stories come from her life. Stories that not even a picture would be able to capture properly. Her life went the way she wanted it to go – if you would so kindly please step to the side and let her by. As an antique dealer she most definitely valued stuff – to a high degree. Her stuff was very literally her life. She had a few inherited items, but if I look back on it, most of her things were her own acquired antiques – collections of others’ unwanted items. Antiques are an interesting group of stuffs, embracing the notion, “One man’s trash is another’s treasure”. The world of antiques is a strong lesson of letting go and having a stranger find joy in what you or your family once owned with love. From a young age, I got to experience the philosophy behind having and selling antiques. You only buy antiques because they spark joy for YOU (yes, a Kondo-ism, I’ll get to that in a bit). Antiques hold a very important place in the recycling of generations of things for families. You don’t have to keep furniture and doohickies, someone else will love them tons – and that’s a perfect ending.
Now, clearly, you won’t be finding many antiques aboard my home. If you’re an antique lover who lives in the water, chances are you’re living IN an antique boat. What do I have of hers that reminds me of her and makes me smile? Although she was surrounded by them, it’s not antiques. I am using her spring-loaded, duck, hanging letter clip. She might’ve seriously valued stuff, but looking back it’s not what I valued her for. The duck reminds me of a goose. And it reminds me of all her sticky notes she had everywhere and lists of important things and numbers she used to keep in the clip by her hallway. It’s literally just a big hanging paper clip. But what makes me giggle is that it’s a fancy, unique antique duck paper clip. A single eye-brow raising, whimsical, holder of knowledge, and literally iron-clad in determination – just like her. Old jewelry or perfume bottles wouldn’t have captured her in my eyes. She was more than that. A chair, table or desk, doesn’t hold meaning of her to me. Just because she held value for antiques doesn’t mean I do, nor should I have to. I do have small paintings she made in my “special things” box under the bunk, but to be honest, they remind me more of my grandfather, a professional artist. And the next time I shuffle through that area, I will take pictures of them and see if anyone else wants them.
My grandfather, a man who I failed to mention in the beginning, I lost when I was a teenager – does deserve a mention in the topic of stuff – mainly because his stuff takes up so much space that my sister’s attic is full of him. He was a professional artist and half of his proofs and artwork are being stored there. His stuff is a little different because we didn’t directly inherit things from him. Instead, it is stuff my Mom inherited, and now something we have inherited. It’s a serious family legacy and one that is important to many family members. It’s not my place to make a decision and I didn’t know him well enough to know if he would’ve wanted attics to be filled with his art. I am getting farther removed in memories of him. (hehe) We might pass them all to our children and have them make that hard decision in 50 years. Ha!! What really makes me think of Gramps? A painting he did that got him into art school is velcroed to a wall in the boat. But most importantly I have his pallet that is frozen in time, with oil paint spread everywhere. It’s alive with memories and captures everything he was to me. It encapsulates ALL of his artwork, and the messy nature of it is meaningful, too. The only thing that would make it more complete would be a piece of candy stuck to it.
So far I’ve packed the boat with a fly rod, some tools, a duck clip, small paintings, and an artist’s pallet. All are in use or hanging. Not too shabby and jam-packed full of love.
Now my other Grandmother who passed away two weeks ago is the LEGEND of stuff. She was the keeper of family history, the keeper of generations of inherited furniture, portraits, heirlooms, monogrammed Tiffany silver sets and platters. Even her house held 5 generations of family and used to be the town’s livery business in the early 1800’s. (hehe) Clearly, this is where things get complicated – like really complicated. Her family’s farmhouse is literally packed to the gills. She was 94 when she passed, so none of this came as a shock as there was time for the family to process the great amount of family stuff.
At least 20 years ago she started to form lists of every single little thing she owned and who it would be willed to. She prepaid her funeral services and even wrote her own obituary. This lady had it together. My uncle has all of the family documentation and collected stories. Her passion was preserving her family’s history. I started a family tree many years ago in ancestry.com and sat down with her and went all the way back to the Mayflower – and before. But what’s really important to note is that she didn’t really expect anyone else to take on that role. She is that last generation on the cusp of this type of lifestyle. We were lucky enough that she was forward thinking, progressive, embraced change in society. She was a teacher and absorbed knowledge. She would tell us stories and point to portraits, but she knew that the culture was changing.
She knew that the heirloom furniture wasn’t as valued to us as it was to her. And as the years went on, that long list she started so many years ago began to dissolve, especially in the last year or two – not much talk of it – at least to me. In fact, after she died we found that the list disappeared altogether. Did she mean for that to happen? We will never know. We do know that she spoke of 3 rings that the granddaughters (being my generation) were to have and we remember those details. She revised her will to state that my husband was to collect and disperse the value of the silver to her 3 granddaughters. She knew we wouldn’t keep it, and mentioned that melting it down might be worth more. Grams realized it was important to her, but having these pieces wouldn’t necessarily be something we wanted to be saddled with.
This leads me to last night; going through her jewelry that our fathers passed to us. We spent two hours asking if you want this or that. My cousin wanted her monogrammed silver brushes and mirror set. Check. My sister didn’t want to let go of her large wooden rosary – not because she’s religious at all, but simply because it was steeped in vivid memories. A few pieces of play jewelry will be in the hands of our kids, her great-granddaughters. My sister is also collecting garden ornaments from our past relatives, she will get a birdbath, a stone bench, and a little concrete dog. Me? All I want from Grams is a hug. She gave the best hugs. She holds a real special place in my heart, I identified with her. She was someone I learned from and listened to that I truly connected with. She was a tough, independent, practical, woman. So I just want her hug. I have her ring that she wanted me to have, the one she wore every single day. It’s sparkly, has a big presence, and will be timeless – just like her. I’ve worn it every day since and am comforted by the feel of her presence. I have kept nothing else but some silk scarves I will re-use as wrapping paper in the future. My uncle and father decided to send the heirloom furniture and large pieces into the world of antiques, creating joy for new families. It’s not an end to family legacies, it’s the beginning of new ones.
And now my Mom. It turns out she was also my best friend. We were super tight, especially during those long 6 years. I’m not ready to put her in a neat little package of words yet. If I do, it’ll be a book. And no amount of stuff will come close to getting her back. She was an amazing person in so many ways but I will say this: my Mom put a really high value on stuff throughout most of her years: houses, cars, tons of clothes, expensive gifts and vacations. She worked hard and was also lucky, but being smart with her money was not a strength of hers. As her health deteriorated, she was forced to downsize and move to progressively smaller places and give up many of her possessions one-by-one, kicking and screaming. No longer able to work, she lacked the money to have the best of everything, but she was surrounded by what she loved. What did I keep to feel her around me? When I turned 16 she gave me a stuffed angel that I was to keep in my car. When the belly is squeezed it says, “I’m your guardian angel, I’m your special friend.” My Mom got the same for my sister 20 months later. 25 years later, the angel is still in my car stuffed in the seat pocket. When she passed I took the small angel keepsake she put in her purse and brought everywhere with her. I am not a religious person, they could have been moose for all I care, but it is ironic they would be angels that I saved from her. We have some cookie cutters of hers because she would LOVE to bake and make cookies with her granddaughters. Just the act of baking fills me with her memories. Her rings and cross necklace that she wore every second she wasn’t getting scans and procedures and surgeries are the most valued items – there’s just no way my sister or I will ever shed those. The object that really makes me think of her, though, is an orchid – and not necessarily because it was hers. In fact, she often had to give them to her best friend to revive them. Although orchids wilted under her eye, her passion really was gardening. Everywhere she went she created beautiful gardens. Better Homes and Gardens Magazine – worthy gardens. Mom is wrapped up in every single flower out there, they’re like her wake she’s left as she sailed through her ocean of life. Today, that orchid is busy blooming so many intricate, dramatic, beautiful flowers that the stem is going to need more support. Flowers don’t take up much space at all, and getting dirt on my hands has never been so meaningful to me, I found myself watering my plants with tears. She’s passed her love of plants down several generations, as my daughter is currently growing Nasturtium.
So my list of items grows into a fly rod, some tools, a duck clip, small paintings, and an artist’s pallet, a few rings, a necklace, a little angel, cookie cutters, and a flower. I do know a few people who get angry with me and can’t understand, throwing me questions like, “How could you just get rid of everything?” There are even people offering to take certain items so I didn’t donate them or find new homes. What they fail to understand is that although it might’ve been important to her, having those items doesn’t make her more important to me. My Mom was so much more than things to me. She was a human being, which in no way resembles stuff. It wasn’t who she WAS to me.
So, yeah, stuff. It holds a lot of meaning. One could argue more than just a lot. But I’m here to remind you that memories are definitely not only kept in your stuff. They’re in pictures, they’re in stories, they’re in passions, they’re in scents and smells, they’re in small bobbles and bits, they’re in rings for hugs, they’re in duck clips for notes, they’re visits to certain places, they’re in acts of kindness.
Instead of saving that table that you remember your mother serving breakfast on and your father reading the paper over, cook that special meal that was served on that table, subscribe to the online newspaper. Instead of saving the couch that your grandfather and generations before napped on, take a picture and hang it above your current couch. Instead of saving your wedding gown, make a small pillow out of the material, or frame a scrap piece to hang. Digitize all of the family albums to keep forever. You’ve lost nothing.
I don’t have bounties of things that I’ve inherited that fill every space, I have chosen a few small things that I keep close. I’m finding that those few small things hold SO MUCH more love and value to me, that I know a whole house full of it could never even compete with. When you have one thing that’s near and dear to your heart, you hold on tight. Would you hold on as tight if you had it all?? A wise person told me that you have a relationship with every little thing that you own. There is a reason you own it. That’s a lot of relationships to have. It’s also probably the reason there is such a sense of relief when you let stuff go. When you unload things it’s sooo freeing. And it’s a huge part of our lifestyle – it has to be.
In 2006, when we first started living full time and embracing the boat life, we had much to learn. We kept a storage unit for about 2 years. Every 6 months we went back – in the fall to drop off the sails for the winter and the spring to put them back up. Every time we went we were in awe as to why we thought we needed to keep certain things. Over time, every thing we decided to spend over $100/month to store, became absolutely ridiculous. We would grab stuff and just toss it or donate it – as it was now meaningless. Marie Kondo has nothing on us boat people. I was giggling to myself watching her show. Paring down from a house to a boat goes so far beyond just finding joy. The requirements are more like joy and usefulness – in two ways. In 2006 we sold our house and all the furniture in it. And boy did we stress over “What if we buy another house??” Well, as it turns out life has its own plans and 10 years later, we did. We had to move to land and buy a house to help care for my Mom. Did I wish we had saved our furniture? No. The new house wasn’t the same style, our lives had changed, our lifestyle had changed. The house bit only lasted 4 years before I couldn’t handle being away from the water, so back to a boat we went. And sold everything again. Should I have kept the furniture for the next “what if”? No, we did not. Because if life throws us another house in our future, I’ve found that it’s fun to start over. The couch wouldn’t fit and the dresser wouldn’t be the style we would want and I can go on and on. I’ve stopped with the “what ifs” – life rarely turns out the way you plan.
The biggest? What if I get rid of it and regret it? Just remember it’s a mindframe. You choose what you will regret or not. Again, that object isn’t the memory at all. It is just reminding you of the memory. Find or do a little something that reminds you of (that piece of furniture, that book, that platter, that painting, fill in the blank). The next little thing you buy for the boat, do so very mindfully, take the time to search and make it especially valuable to you. Even mundane things. Get the silicone pot holder in your special friend’s favorite color. Get a settee throw pillow with a picture of something special on it to spark a memory. Name your dinghy after a silly nickname, get a casserole dish that reminds you of your grandmother. Pretty soon, you’ll realize you’ve surrounded yourself with a small home full of people and stories and places you love. Every day you are, in essence, in their company.
Remember, your things are special to YOU. And the sobering reality is that just because they’re special to you does not make them special to other people. Of all of my closest family that passed recently, the stuff that reminded me of them that I kept were everyday little trinkets – not the things that they saved for us to have at all. When I pass, what stuff will I give to my remaining family?? My rolling pin?, my ring that will forever hug, my necklaces that I wear everyday, my tea mug that basically acts as my sippy cup? Who knows what is going to spark that feel-good memory for them. It’s not for me to decide. But I do hope that whatever it is, they use it, use it well, and think of me often.
So as we end this podcast, I’ll leave you to think about my Mom. On the day my Mom died in my arms, as I sat next to her in her bed, she lifted her head a little and took a real good look around. She was taking inventory of everything she had collected and surrounded herself with: clothes, antiques, her father’s paintings on the wall, flowers. All of her life’s special things. She looked me straight in the eyes and said, “See all this stuff? It really means nothing.”