In a world of all perfect worlds, I would be free of stuff.
I wouldn’t own a collection of mismatched coffee mugs and dishes and teacups. I wouldn’t have old sheets with frayed pillowcases. I wouldn’t have new sheets either with cute matchy-match shams. I wouldn’t have art I made in kindergarten or my grandparents’ love letters from World War II or urns holding the ashen remains of pets from yesteryear. I wouldn’t have a couple of broken dining room chairs or 13 external hard drives or old sweaters that are no longer in style (and frankly never were).
I would have none of it.
I would embrace a Buddhist less-is-more lifestyle. I would live in a single room with a large southern-facing window overlooking a grand view with radiant heated floors. I would have a tiny blue bathroom with a big walk-in shower. I would have one double bed with three soft pillows and one comforter. Perhaps I would have a little stove top for making tea and Top Ramen noodles with an egg dropped in. I would have a table that’s just large enough for two chairs and always bears a bowl of fresh fruit. I would have no sofa, but maybe I’d have a couple of big down-filled chairs with an ottoman and a side table and a reading lamp. I wouldn’t even have a stereo – just a set of Bose headphones to keep my iPod music in and the outside world out. I guess I’d have to have an iPod. Well, truth be told, I’d still want my computer and my cell phone. And my cameras.
OK. You got me. I would still have stuff. But not enough stuff to fill a novel – just enough stuff to fill one paragraph.
Not like now, where I feel like I’m in hand-to-hand combat with the War and Peace of stuff.
As I sort through my mom and dad’s house readying it for the painters on Monday, I’m struck by these seemingly inanimate objects because A) there are so many of them and they’re so dusty; and B) because they are waking the dead. As I handle old driver’s licenses and business cards and eye-wash jars and metronomes, ghosts quietly drift in and out of the room. My dad sits behind the wheel of our new ruby red Peugeot, effortlessly shifting from first to second to third to fourth. My mom holds my head as I kick and scream while she flushes my eyes with water because they’re so swollen from an allergic reaction to a cat. The Bothell police chief stops by for a beer, the gold star on his card reflecting the sunlight pouring in through the window. The metronome swings left and right as Mrs. Nigh runs me through another tedious piano lesson.
And as I sort all of this stuff into the Craigslist Pile, the Goodwill Pile, the Going-to-my-home Pile and the Half-Priced-Books Pile, I find I just can’t let some things go. Things I don’t need, like another vase, or another meat-serving fork, or another lamp. But if feels so disrespectful to toss them or (gasp) sell them. That would be a flagrant disregard for their status as members of the family and for their service to us. Their molecules have shared time and space with the molecules of not just me and my immediate family, but many of them knew my distant ancestors! I think surely somehow this stuff, this stuff I don’t need, must somehow be imprinted by my Great-Great-Great-Uncle Charley Reynolds or by my Great-Great-Grandpa Murdoch, or by my brothers at five, six and seven years old, or by me. Even if I can’t see any obvious imprints – that stuff knew all of us in its own way. It stirred our stews. It held our flowers. And it warmed our cold feet.
That buffet held my dad’s stereo as he played Carmina Burana and Tubular Bells. My dad’s music vibrated throughout that buffet. I opened that buffet as a three-year-old to pull out my Peter Rabbit record and play it. Before gifting it to my parents, my parents’ friend Hannah cut off the legs of that buffet so it was less old-fashioned looking and less un-American looking (she was from the Eastern Bloc).
And as I wash ashtrays that burned through thousands of cigarettes, and toss hairpins that tried to contain my mother’s crazy curly ‘fro, and throw away expired bottle after expired bottle of pills, vitamins and herbs that my father became obsessed with later in life, I realize that this stuff is more than just onerous crap. It is a log of our lives. Physical proof that we exist and that our brothers existed. It is the living embodiment of our history, our thoughts, our actions, our habits, our weaknesses, our strengths, our hates … and our loves.
It represents the cradle of my life and those that came before me.
And so I wrap the umpteenth honey jar and non-ticking clock and cookie tin of old buttons in paper and drop them into a box marked, “HOME.”
Pictured above: A needlepoint/petitpoint by my great grandmother whom we called “Gigi.”