He cautioned me back when I was a spritely youth. The he? My much-respected Daddy. The caution: “Jeanette, possessions are very confining. Pretty soon, you don’t own them, they own you.” Although warned, nevertheless, I persisted and blithely spent the next boo-coo, bijillion years of my life filling my space with “stuff.”
Whether by inclination after living through the Great Depression, or by training from serving in the Army during World War II, my father was of the minimalist persuasion regarding the stockpiling of possessions. Each purchase, thoughtfully made only when deemed necessary, then was carefully stored and painstakingly maintained. Not so his daughter—she (I) dove into rampant consumerism with all of the gusto that was encouraged in the latter half of the twentieth century.
Another man for whom I have high regard is Alan Guebert. If you think that that name sounds familiar, it’s because he writes the “ag” column that appears most Saturdays in the South Bend Tribune. Like so many in this country, I have agrarian roots. Although we lived in the city, both of my parents lived on farms in their youth, so I grew up in a home that listened to the “Midday Farm Report” on the radio. It was hosted by a man with the improbable name of Barney Arnold. Barney would tell us the weather outlook, farm-related news, and futures prices for crops and the ever-popular pork bellies. My father also subscribed to The Progressive Farmer magazine (Still in publication: 14 issues for $16!) With that background, Mr. Guebert’s “Farm and Food” column is in my DNA. Earlier this spring, he wrote about his parents and their auctions of stuff through the latter part of their lives. First went the dairy cows, then farm equipment, then household goods as they prepared to leave the farm and move to a house in town, and finally, more household goods as they prepared to move to an assisted living facility. They didn’t exactly “clean up” financially from these auctions, but according to Alan his father took it philosophically and said, “It was just stuff and mostly used-up stuff at that.” Made me think of my father, my father-in-law, and myself.
A few years ago, when my father-in-law left this world, his sons, Larry and Bill, very thoughtfully disposed of his fairly substantial quantity of stuff. They were, however, relieved of the responsibility of deciding what to do about the Tiffany sterling since miscreants had broken into the house a couple of years before and taken care of that chore. Of the remaining, they gave his papers to the historical society, furniture to the local theatre group, kitchen things to a group that helps homeless who, when they find housing, need most things in order to relocate. The family kept a few cherished pieces—adding to their own already ample collections of stuff—but as people live longer, their families really have no needs. Even the grandchildren are middle-aged and well supplied with goods. Hence the heartbreak of estate sales: strangers pawing through our stuff and rejecting it. What an interesting comment on the abundance in our society.
In Boise, Idaho there is a Basque Museum and Cultural Center. (Museums are like magazines—there’s at least one for everything.) One small china saucer is displayed with the story of how a family, crossing from east to west, had the need to offload cargo. The large, sawdust-filled barrel in which the china was packed was deemed too heavy to be lugged along. As that barrel was deposited on the prairie, one of the daughters took one saucer and put it into her apron pocket as a memento. Happily, both she and the saucer made it west intact.
Even in necessity, we seem to have trouble keeping it simple regarding stuff. As I age and begin to look at my “collections” and think of downsizing, I consider my daddy’s caution more and more. We acquire possessions, we ensure their safekeeping, in more ways than one, and then the cycle of life sees to it that we cease to own them or to let them own us.