Stuff as a Proper Noun

My Simple Year project, which ran from early 2015 to early 2016, focused on four objectives. I wanted to get better at planning meals, get rid of unneeded things from the house, improve the quality of family time, and keep all three goals intact by creating new routines and habits. I’d titled it “Life Management” because I felt everything I aspired to would help me have a well-managed and organized life.

Two and a half years have passed since my project ended and I saw enough things improve to bring me contentment.  I’ve kept a few things going- my morning and evening routines, donating items regularly, trying to do different and interesting things with my family.

Even after my year ended, I wanted those four goals to guide me. I vowed to be more mindful about making purchases and accumulating unneeded items. And I’d been doing pretty well. But plans are meant to be disrupted, or in my case, balled up and tossed into a trash fire.

Currently, I can only focus on Stuff Management, which sometimes consumes entire days. And because of that, I’ve decided that ‘stuff’ deserves to be a proper noun. The months since my mom passed away in March have been filled with a lot of visits to the house, to toss garbage and pack other things to donate. It’s a small house, but it’s the only home my brothers and I knew, and where my parents lived for 40+ years.

Each visit lands me in the middle of Stuff, where I ask myself, “Do I keep this? Do I give it away? Do I see if (insert relative name) wants it first? And if I take it, where do I put it?” Thinking about all the time and energy I’d spent evaluating our things and working to give them to a good cause should’ve effectively dissuaded me from taking anything.

It didn’t.

At the outset I decided I wanted only two items, a painting I’d always loved, and a small antique desk which belonged to my great-grandmother. I offered both to my aunt first, secretly hoping she’d take the desk because I loved it but had no idea where I’d put it. (And I still have no idea.) No one wanted the painting, and I had a place for it, and I thought I’d be able to sail through the rest, wrapping everything in newspaper and filling boxes to donate.

You might be laughing at my plan to take only two things. Because we know Stuff is my weakness. And when it has sentimental value, or is useful, or I just like it, my resolve disintegrates. I’ll do away with the suspense: over the last seven months, I’ve brought home a lot of Stuff from my parents’ house.

Very early in the process I faced a large hurdle: my mother’s china. She started collecting place settings and other pieces about thirty years ago. It wasn’t fine china, but nicer than most everyday settings. It’s a huge collection. It’s very nice, but I love my china, my mom helped me choose it, and I don’t have a dining room. I began dreading The China Question as soon as I realized the magnitude of our task.

On one of my very first trips, I stood in the dining room with an old friend, who’s very practical when it comes to Stuff. We looked at the large oak hutch, which displayed only half the inventory. “What are you doing with the china? Are you taking it?” she asked. “No,” I said, expecting immediate words of support and ideas of what to do with it instead. But I was surprised when she said, “You have to take it.” My aunt delivered a similar sentiment, but I expected it. “You have to take the china,” she said. “It was Mommy’s pride and joy.”

I thought I was her pride and joy, but I understood. And yet, I hadn’t been swayed in favor of taking it.

For the sake of brevity, I’ll skip to the end.

I took the china, because a sweet, unexpected solution came along. Bob, Emma, and I were in the car, and I wanted his input. Emma surprised us both by asking if she could have it, and of course I said yes. So the issue got sorted in a way that made everyone content, especially me. It was perfect.

I filled seven or eight boxes with lots of layers of paper, and every last piece of china. I haven’t yet found a permanent home for it in my house, but I will. And I made sure Emma knows that should she ultimately decide not to keep it, she can do what she wants because it now belongs to her. I know my mom would’ve been happy to know it went to her firstborn grandchild.

The china was my only major challenge. (Well, taking in her two cats to face the wrath of our cat was pretty major, but they’re slowing starting to loathe each other less.) Since then, I’ve dealt with countless smaller Stuff-related issues.


The newest members of our family, Sergeant Pepper and Seamus.

Initially I planned to take only the desk and painting. That evolved into taking things to replace things we had which were past their prime. So I when I took something, like an ottoman, I got rid of the one we had, which was falling apart. It was a zero-sum game, it saved us a little money, and I felt no guilt about bringing these particular things into the house.

Despite my intentions, I keep bringing home boxes, with a mix of useful things and less-useful things. Sewing machines (yes- machines- I found 4, each for a different purpose.) which I can use with my Girl Scout troop. A couple bags of topsoil, which I needed. A small suitcase, which we didn’t have. But then it goes downhill. I took a lot of knick-knacks. My parents loved to read, and they owned a lot of books. I don’t need any more, but wasn’t deterred and probably took about twenty. We donated the rest to an area library. I took lots of things which defy description.

Clearly it’s been difficult to stop myself from taking Stuff. Ironically, as I sit here, I’m finding it hard to even recall what much of the Stuff is, which means those things may be on the path to a donation box. It may seem a waste of time and effort to bring something into the house, and then donate it. But I’ve found it helpful to bring things home to think over. During this process there have been many, many things I was unsure of. I brought those things home and thought about it.  Sometimes I keep whatever it was, sometimes I give it away.

Here’s an exaggeration alert: My parents kept everything. Every. Thing. I felt overwhelmed at first, not knowing where to begin, so I started small with drawers. I emptied every drawer, from the dining room hutch and server, kitchen drawers, desk drawers, the one in the coffee table. Lots of drawers containing lots of Stuff, much of it useless. I found lots of batteries and assumed they were dead, and dried-up ballpoint pens. Candles in various states of melt, and assorted napkin rings. I found old greeting cards going back to the late 70s. I sort of wish I’d taken the time to count them all- I have a feeling there were nearly a thousand- birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, Christmas. Naturally, I thought about keeping them, but didn’t. Cause that would’ve been truly bonkers.

My dad was pretty methodical about storing things. Each kid has a folder with a mix of report cards, graduation programs, college acceptance letters, article about our sports teams. I found all his elementary school report cards and my baby book, which my mom wrote in till I was in second grade. I also found my grandfather’s diploma from a Catholic school in New York City. He graduated in 1932, at age 15. Discovering these parts of my family’s history has been one bright spot, and I think I’ll unearth more.

Writing this was difficult, not because it made me sad, but because it made me think again about the Stuff I’ve brought from my childhood home to my current home. Lots of things are attached to memories, and while I’m usually able to separate an item from its associated memory, it’s become harder. And since we’re not done, I will have at least one update. I hope I get to write about how I haven’t taken anything else.

5 Responses to Stuff as a Proper Noun

  1. It is always difficult to keep emotion out of sorting out “stuff” – but especially family stuff. It sounds like you’re getting there. I fear my husband and I have a lot of . . . “stuff”. We too, have kept almost everything. As parents, you do . . . it is so hard to throw out those Easter Cards and Birthday Cards and Christmas Cards and gifts that your children made for you (emotion again – but we are just passing it on . . .) We need to downsize but the “stuff” problem here is horrendous – thousands of books for starters and whilst we have got rid of some, there is an emotional attachment to others. . . I look in drawers and think, “Oh dear”. All those useful little bits . . . Clothing is easier, not so attached to that and not too much of it (can never understand these women who need a dressing room, personally, but I guess they probably can’t understand my passion for books).

    You will get there, and in time, you will probably be able to sort through the stuff that DID come home with you and when the emotion is more distanced from the item it will be easier to think logically.

    I am sure you are still grieving and of course, the sorting through stuff keeps this grief sharply honed. Chin up.

  2. I can really relate to what you are going through. I also did a lot of the cleaning out of my childhood home. Though I had 9 siblings to help take some of it (“Someone has to take that table”, etc..), there are so many memories attached to some of the items. I ended up bringing things home that I couldn’t part with, but have since begun to give them away. And I am OK with that now. It just takes time. But having had to go through massive amounts of Stuff, I am determined that my children will not have to do the same thing. I have gotten pretty good about getting rid of things, and really enjoy it.

  3. I’m glad you were able to give the cats a home. I’m not looking forward to the time when I will have to do this. My parents have a lot of stuff..

  4. I can totally relate. My sister and I had to clear out our parents’ home after Mom died two years ago and Dad had to go into care. Do yourself and your heirs a favor, keep only the things that really meant something to you, the rest is just STUFF. Your mom isn’t in the crystal bowl or the china setting (encourage your daughter to use the china as her everyday dishes). There are shelves HEAVING with china sets at the charity shops. Be as ruthless as you can manage, curate, figure out how something will fit into your life right now. For example, my sister and I went through all of Mom’s jewelry, we each kept pieces we liked and then sold the rest. We are going to make pearl earrings for the grandnieces out of Mom’s string of pearls and I had pieces reworked into something more modern that I now wear and enjoy. I felt really strongly that Mom’s life would not end up in a Dumpster-it takes time and effort to sift through a lifetime of belongings, but your love and loyalty is to the memory of the person who has moved on before us (caring for the cats=BIG KARMA POINTS), it’s okay to let the stuff go.

    Best wishes and it will get a little easier.

  5. Those cats are so cute! I enjoyed reading your post very much, I know when my time comes I will be bringing it all home to think about also, how to separate the emotion from the object has never been easy for me. Perhaps you are being too hard on yourself, it sounds like you are really doing a great job to me.

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