During an audience-participation program I present called, “What’s on your bucket list?” the responses are often predictable: Go to Hawaii or visit Europe. Or thoughtful: Live to see grandchildren (or great-grands) raised, married, and happy.
But of the hundreds of answers I’ve heard, one stands out. The woman said she wants to leave this world having no more than one bag of possessions to her name. One bag.
That's not enough space for family china, chests, antique children’s rocking chairs, a wooden wheelbarrow, boxes of newspaper clippings. One bag wouldn’t begin to hold a personal library of books, a closet full of Christmas decorations, a century-and-a-half worth of family photos, cards, and letters. It wouldn't even hold my restaurant-sized mayonnaise jar of mink pellets.
Some of us need more than one bag. We need the equivalent of a wing at the Smithsonian to hold all the stuff we’ve hung onto.
One thing is for sure; we can’t take it with us. Some of us think our kids should take it with them. But times change. Kids today have accumulated a boat load of their own stuff, or they prefer a lighter decorating style than mine which could aptly be described as Stonehenge Revival.
To put it mildly, Brian and I have a full house. Whereas once my idea of a good time was visiting an antiques store and coming home with a treasure, now I would only enter one to see what things are going for and how that translates into my stuff.
Friends are probably surprised to accompany me to a crafts fair and see me walk right past clever jewelry or kitchen knickknacks that I formerly would have carried home. I don’t need them, or lotions, or potions, or more – of anything.
There’s no room at the inn.
While that is obvious to any casual guest in our home, they would get a shock if they looked into our attic. There are boxes and bins, stacks and piles. Brian and I have said we are attacking the space with ruthless brutality. We’ve even marched up that ladder like Sherman headed for Georgia. But once there, we pardoned the whole works the way the General did Savannah.
Call it a sentimental journey at the top of those stairs. We become distracted by the boys’ childhood toys and trophies; bins of prom dresses; every college paper that crossed my hands; second-string collectibles, and antiques handed down in our families. All that is not even touching miscellaneous categories up there.
We end up folding up the ladder and fleeing the scene. We can always use the excuse that it’s too hot or too cold to work. That's usually true, but the real reason is we’re not yet ready to deal with it.
It’s interesting how the aging process works. It seems we spend the first half of our lives accumulating, and the second half figuring out how to part with what we accumulated.
I know people who get genuinely stressed out over all this. I know people who fret that their kids won’t want their stuff. It’s all interesting to talk about at this age and stage of life, but it doesn’t stress me. Here are my thoughts.
1. Yes, I’m a sentimental person combined with one who prefers antiques over new stuff as my farmhouse style of decorating. That’s a recipe for a lot of stuff. So what?
2. While I’m not actively accumulating more stuff (aside from replacing worn-out furnishings that we do have), I make strides into editing what we keep. If there are century-old photos of people who haven’t been identified by now, no one is left to do so in the future, so I throw away the photos. Same with fuzzy pictures of any kind as well as six routine shots of the same thing. Edit, edit, edit.
3. I will continue to keep cards and letters that mean something and contain personal notes and sentiments. But stacks of Christmas cards with only signatures? Birthday cards of the same? Toss them. I’ll never get around to cutting out the pretty pictures for gift tags, anyway.
4. The attic is a problem. But it hurts nothing in our daily lives. When the time comes – likely the next time we move, which will be to a smaller home – I’ll throw away the college papers, Brian will toss a lifetime of school lesson plans, I’ll decide no little girl will ever want to play dress up in my old prom dresses, and to the curb it will all go.
5. People say they won’t leave their kids with a mess to go through. Maybe we all shouldn’t leave ourselves with a mess, either. So edit, toss out, pare down – but hear this: Keep what you enjoy and what you love, or even what for some quirky, emotional reason you can’t part with -- even if it seems like a lot to others. It’s not their rodeo. You are living your life now. You don’t have to pack a bag and wait to die to make your life easier for someone else.
These are the artifacts of our lives, the illustrations of our stories.
6. It’s true that your kids won’t want it all. They might not want any of it. That's their choice. But let them decide what they do want, even if it’s nothing. If it bugs you that they will have to handle it all, think out of the storage box and sweeten the pot.
Create a special savings account designated for distribution of stuff. Put enough in there to pay for the whole works to be hauled away, for a couple of meals for the gang to eat while they are reviewing the chaos, and a letter to go with your will about how you’re sorry they have to deal with it all but you enjoyed your belongings and hope they understand.
Tell the kids to feel no obligation to keep grandma’s 24-piece lead crystal set or your collection of salt and pepper shakers from every state.
Tell them to keep, consign, throw out or haul away. Tell them that frankly, you don't care anymore because you are dead and you now have new concerns that have nothing to do with stuff. The special cash account should sweeten their outlook. They might even get a chuckle out of your creativity. (You're welcome.)
All that said – realize that every family is different in ways obvious and those not so much so.
Recently our daughter-in-law got her master’s degree in special education. It seemed the perfect occasion to present her with an antique desktop school bell handed down in the family. I also offered her all or her choice (or none) of antique Indiana school books that came down in my family. She took a few, one that clear as that bell tone, contained my grandfather’s name and the year 1903. It makes me happy that she has it.
But once you give something away, it’s no longer yours. You have to let it go. I don’t have a problem with that. Our joy came in seeing her accept these family tokens. That joy is far greater than having a book and a bell linger on our shelf.
So what would I put in my one bag of final possessions? I’ll go with the classic response: Family photos. Then I’d smush down the photos and add choice cards and letters received over a lifetime, and, well, all that would fill the bag beyond the brim. I'm good at smushing.
Even so, I can’t take it with me beyond this side of the grave. Not any of it. None of us can.
And that could only mean one thing: We won’t need any of it on the other side.
Hoosier journalist and author Donna Cronk enjoys giving a variety of programs to groups of all sizes and venues. Contact her for information at email@example.com. Her books, which are the sentimental, small-town sort, are available from her or on Amazon. They are: Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast, and That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland. Her next stop is 9-4, Saturday, Aug. 5 in downtown Pendleton, Indiana, at the first-ever Pendleton Arts & Music Fair. Stop by her table for a chat.