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 a wing at the Smithsonian.
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 has been 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's obvious to guests in our home, our attic would shock them. 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 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 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, her choice (or none) of the 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 smoosh 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 smooshing.
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.
In 1981, Brian and I started a new life chapter with a move to Fountain County, Indiana. We each were excited for different reasons. Brian would transition from school teacher to administrator. His new salary of $22,000, an enormous figure to us (even though he would be working insanely long hours), meant that I was headed to college full time to complete a journalism degree.
It didn’t take long that late summer and early fall to connect with one Gay Kirkton, English teacher and wife of football coach Rick Kirkton.
Plans were made to get together at our house on a Saturday night. Maybe I cooked supper for all four of us, but that I don’t remember. We didn’t play cards or games but instead, we talked and got to know each other. If memory serves, the sun was about to come up before the evening-turned-morning ended. We had that much to say and the conversation has not stopped since.
The clearest memory I have regarding that evening didn’t happen that night at all, however, but arrived in our mailbox a few days later. It was a handwritten card from Gay thanking us for having them over and saying what a lovely time she and Rick had enjoyed. They hoped, in fact, to get together again soon.
What? They liked us, they really liked us!
I’m certain that somewhere in my personal archives, I have that card, composed in perfect penmanship, a textbook example of the warmth, hospitality, and encouragement found in a budding friendship – and in a thank you note.
Years later, when writer Joyce Maynard asked us what we would do for a living if we could do anything we wanted, Gay had a quick answer: She would be the social secretary for a First Lady.
I had never heard her voice this before but it was perfect! She would be ideal for such a role in every way that I could imagine. I had evidence in the stash of flawless, handwritten notes received to mark numerous occasions.
She still sends them.
Gay’s not the only one, either. There’s a good chance that someone reading this post (and I know of one in particular to whom this applies for certain, Debbie) are modern women by any measure, but they still prefer instead of a quick email a lovely piece of stationery inserted into a coordinating envelope, sealed, stamped in the front right-hand corner, mailed, then delivered to the recipient via the U.S. Postal Service.
I know this because I get these beauties at work, and I get them at home. And each time, when the mail carrier delivers such a treat, I can’t wait long enough to find a proper letter opener, but instead, tear open the envelope and as fast as I can, read the words someone has cared enough to offer.
For years, I assembled the work notes into large, red scrapbooks which are still shelved alongside our books. For a couple of years now, I’ve papered the front of my work station divider with the notes and letters and cards that newspaper readers have been so kind to mail. This is the beauty of being a community columnist and feature writer: touching other people, connecting with them, and sharing their stories.
At home, I have a special tray in a bedroom that serves as a default book office. The tray holds the thank yous book readers are thoughtful to send when I have spoken to their group or banquet, or the letters they have written telling me about enjoying one of my books, or they share a particular story such as how a husband and wife read my second book together aloud daily until they were finished.
If I ever need a reason as to why I have spent my career at newspapers, or why I wrote two books, or why I am grateful that I have been given the opportunities I have, or presented the cast of characters that fill my life, all I have to do is look at what people have written by hand and sent in my direction.
Yep, those are going to the nursing home with me.
On the other hand ... I’m okay at sending greetings, but no better than okay. I don’t much care for doing up Christmas cards anymore and I failed miserably at that task last year.
Sometimes I remember that I need to select a special greeting card for an occasion, and mentally, lazily I groan at the effort involved. Other times I forget and the card or the note are never sent.
As are most, I’m prone to express my sentiments with emails or social media posts.
What I know is that what is least common is most appreciated. It used to be the rare thing to get a beautiful email or text message. Now what is rare is the hand-addressed envelope with a personal message tucked inside.
Long live thank yous, letters, greetings, and other assorted messages that arrive the hard way, take the long route, the way of ink and stamps and time spent securing their passage.
They are jewels in the world of correspondence, relics perhaps from an another era, their effort preserved by a determined few.
How about you? Do you send or receive cards, notes, or letters the old-fashioned way? Do tell.
Donna Cronk is author of two novels, Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast and That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland. They are available on Amazon in print or for Kindle, and from the author.
This morning I noticed that another one had appeared. This one, bright blue, showed up front- and-center on the catch-all tray I keep on my bedroom dresser.
Whereas my Dad had a thing for guns, and if called to form a Union County Militia, would have outfitted Brownsville Township nicely, my husband is partial to flashlights.
Along with the newbie on our dresser, there’s a pantry full of them steps away in the laundry room. Next to the front door is a coat rack and on it hangs a mini-flashlight, ready for service. In the kitchen junk drawer is at least two flashlights, probably more if you dig deep. He tucks them in our cars too.
If there’s a midnight intruder, Brian will likely spotlight the whites of his eyes before the robber sees ours. And if the power goes out, no problem, there will be light. Flashlight, that is.
As for fresh batteries … that’s another topic.
We may end up in the dark after all. What are your possession obsessions?