I just moved son #3 cross-country to Washington D.C. He deeply disappointed me by taking almost none of the wonderful things I've been storing expressly for his first post-college apartment. In typical millennial fashion, he thinks he knows what's what when it comes to good stuff. That he gave a thumbs-down to the Lillian August wingback chair that I nursed him in is evidence of the contrary.
"What's the ruffly thing on it?" he asked.
"That's called a chair skirt, and if you don't like it, we'll just cut it off," I said, pulling up the fabric to reveal four perfect hardwood legs underneath.
"It's grandma-y," he said. "I think I'll pass."
To which I responded with the same raspy “mmmm” sound that Marge Simpson makes when she is suppressing hostility.
The writer, Dominique Browning, told her children this: "When I die, just please, rent a warehouse, and put everything away. You are too young to understand the value of what I have bought. Someday you will want these things, and you will only have to shop in your warehouse."
My mother is petrified of leaving behind a single thing. Since the 1990s, she shows up at parties with a dish to pass and a box of stuff she's giving away. You'd think she was in a hot air balloon losing altitude the way she sheds possessions. At Thanksgiving, she tried to hand out individual place settings of her grandmother's antique belleek china. "Why are you breaking up the set?" I asked. "I just don't want you kids to have to deal with this junk!" she said.
This is a gift she is giving her children. She's worried about being a burden. About shirking her responsibilities. She and her seven siblings spent a couple years cleaning out my grandparents' home. It was a painfully long process -- my grandparents raised eight children while living through the Depression -- they saved absolutely everything that came into their possession.
Recently, my friend Linda told me about cleaning out her parents' home. She and her siblings experienced terrible guilt about throwing things away. Everyone was stressed and bickersome. Then, something remarkable happened. A plate fell off the wall where it had been hanging and landed smack dab in the garbage can Linda held in her hand. Linda and her siblings believed it was a sign from their mother telling them to "purge, kids, purge!"
The other side of the coin are siblings who can't agree on how to let go of their parents' things. I witnessed a disagreement between two sisters at a garage sale last summer over a collection of matchbooks. Things got ugly real fast.
There I was, browsing through a stack of 45s, humming some Neil Sedaka, when this woman at the table behind me picked up the glass jug of matchbooks on the table and yelled at her sister.
"Louise, why are you selling Daddy's matchbooks? You know I want these!"
Louise was the garage sale host. She was splayed in a lawn chair under the maple tree, drinking a beer for breakfast. "You want 'em, Peggy, gimme forty bucks," she said, barely looking up from her vintage People Magazine.
Housed in an oversized glass jug, the matchbooks were kind of appealing at first glance. Their colors had caught my eye a few moments earlier. But on closer examination, I realized they were an homage to the crappier aspects of late 20th-century America. Perkin's, IHOP, Valvoline, Howard Johnson's, Ponderosa, King Edward Cigars, and every no-tell motel from here to the Niagara Falls was represented in that jug that should have been labeled "The Willy Loman Matchbook Collection". Louise and Peggy's daddy obviously existed on lumpy beds, mediocre food, and cheap tobacco.
But Peggy was attached to this artifact from her father's life. "Forty bucks!" she humphed to herself. Then she turned to me. "That's pretty low, aint it?" Peggy said. "That my own sister wants me to buy my own daddy's matchbooks?"
I tried to look sympathetic while moving slowly away.
At that point, Peggy dumped the matchbooks onto the table and began lighting them on fire, tossing them helter-skelter amongst the tables of junk. Some matchbooks caught quickly. Others took a moment to get going. And Louise finally took notice. She was surprisingly fast on flip-flops, first running for her husband and then running for the hose, which she turned on Peggy, soaking both her and the poor elderly man who apparently hadn't noticed what was transpiring right in front of him.
By that time, I was on the driveway, making Marge Simpson "mmmm" sounds to myself. It's just stuff, people. Nothing to get worked up about!
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