By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
Four years ago when our mother died we had the task of cleaning out her one bedroom apartment. We were so naïve we assumed that five of us could wrap it up in an afternoon and then spend the rest of the weekend partaking in some of Sonoma’s great food and wine. After all, she lived in a retirement home where she received all of her meals – thus no laborious kitchen utensils, pots or dishes to pack. We figured we’d just clean out her personal effects and arrange for someone to haul away the furniture. Piece of cake. Two days later we had filled 55 huge black garbage bags with stuff. Our mom, who never struck us as a pack rat, had held on to every piece of paper she received and every photo ever taken. Her five-drawer filing cabinet was crammed with both necessary documents and complete trash, the most striking of which was a drawer half-filled with address labels listing her former address. She kept photos of undocumented scenery, made worse by fuzzy Polaroid technology, along with old pictures of relatives who were completely unrecognizable to us. When the last of her 1962 maple furniture was mercifully taken away by her church thrift store, we fell into an exhausted heap and vowed to go home and immediately clean out our closets.
Apparently we are not alone in this endeavor. According to articles in The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and several other publications, Baby Boomers are now dealing with getting rid of their parents’ possessions and simultaneously trying to downsize their own households. The problem is…no one wants our stuff. Our parents, shaped by the Depression and war, held on to everything. They passed on those same values to us – to be grateful for anything that comes our way. Especially if it’s free. My first apartment was completely furnished with my grandmother’s furniture and I was thrilled to get it. Now, the Gen X’ers and Millennials can cheaply outfit their living spaces with furniture from IKEA, Target or Walmart and achieve the clean, uncluttered look they desire. Collectively they are rejecting knick knacks, sterling silver tea sets, figurines and power tools. Instead, they take a picture of the item with their iPhone and keep it in the cloud. Digital images don’t take up the space that old mahogany breakfronts do in a lifestyle that is mobile and transient. As a result, one of the fastest growing businesses in America is junk-removal services. I shudder to think how some of my friends who collect things will react when their kids finally inherit their treasured accumulation of clowns, thimbles, and Corning Wear. I hate to tell them that it’s all going to end up on eBay.
So, back to my own resolve to keep the house clutter-free. Last year I finally threw away my childhood scrapbook, a Junior Miss trophy, and my wedding dress. I realized these items held sentimental value to me but were totally worthless to anyone else. I’d rather throw them away myself than make someone else do it. My latest idea is to get rid of my china, crystal and silver. After all, my “good stuff” requires I cook a meal commensurate with its formality. About a year ago I dragged it all out and had a sophisticated dinner party – beef tenderloin, hasselback potatoes, green beans almandine – the whole nine yards. Between setting up the table and cooking the dinner, I ended up practically asleep in my soup, or wine – it all became a blur. It was a bad night. Clearly my formal entertaining days are over. I contacted Replacements, the huge company that buys and sells fine china, about selling my Lenox Tuxedo. They informed me they aren’t even buying the cup and saucers anymore but would give me $5 for the dinner, salad and bread/butter plates. Not each – $5 TOTAL! In turn, they are selling the same 1974 version of my pattern for $110. That’s a profit that might even make the bankers my brother wrote about last week feel a bit like, well, bank robbers. As for the crystal, a good friend just tried to sell hers and she told me not to bother. She contacted a company that sells fine crystal on consignment and they admitted to her that they hadn’t sold ANY crystal in months. “Nobody wants this stuff anymore”, he explained. She’s now decided to use it everyday, figuring that if it gets broken or chipped it really isn’t worth anything anyway.
I do worry a bit about our collective valuables being so easily discarded by future generations. I think the stories and family histories that are connected with these items should carry some weight. I love that I have some of my grandmother’s crystal and think of her every time I see it. But my brothers and I are the only people who remember her so the value to the next generation is not as dear. I don’t know where it will end up but I will take a page from the millennials and capture it in a photo before I give it away. After all, I love looking at the photo of our mom’s precious 1962 spinning wheel lamp, thinking about how proud she was the day she brought it home. On the other hand, I’m glad it’s now in the cloud and not in my living room.