Thursday, June 11, 2009

the burdens of stuff

I am recently home from three weeks in New York City sorting through my late parents’ possessions with my brother.

Wow. I have something to say to all you parents out there: If you have a lot of stuff, as a loving gesture to your children, get rid of some, OK? My parents had a lot of cool stuff but they also had a lot of junk. A lot. See the photo? Multiply it by an eight-room apartment. Where they lived for nearly 45 years.

Books. Books. Books. My dad loved books. “Dark brown books,” my mother called them. Hundreds of them. Some might have been valuable if they had been cared for, but they spent their lives in steam heat, drying out. When I visited last year, Dad gave me a book I’d wanted to read, but when I opened it on the airplane home, it crumbled to dust in my hands.

I know that people who love books love having lots of them. “Too many books? No such thing!” I understand the wealthy feeling a full bookshelf inspires. But friends, hear me now: There is such thing as too many books. Really. They are bulky and heavy and nobody really wants most of them. No, not even libraries. Not if they’re old, brittle, out of date. Sure, I took a few of Dad’s books. Not many, though. Just a few. We threw a lot away. We’re not sure what to do with the hundreds remaining. We organized one roomful, more or less, and then grew exhausted and left the rest, and further decisions, for another day.

Going through the detritus of a long life is fascinating and depressing—and not depressing just because it is related to loss. Here are notes for books my father never wrote, books he wrote but didn’t sell, hopes and dreams crammed into a filing cabinet. Here are souvenirs of trips that no one remembers anymore, heirlooms with stories lost to time (although my brother is doing an amazing job assembling our family history), bits and threads that mean nothing to us but might have been rich with sentimentality for Dad. Have we thrown out his “Rosebud”?

We had appraisers in and found treasures that had been buried from sight behind decades of indiscriminate accumulation. We found treasures of value only to us, flotsam that coaxed out memories from the deepest corners of our minds. And we found junk, worthless and ugly bric-a-brac kept only because Dad’s default was “keep.”

I am having nine cartons of stuff and several pieces of furniture shipped home and the apartment is still crammed. I barely made a dent.

Back home, my attitude towards my own stuff has changed. I’m not half the pack rat Dad was, but I still have shoes in my closet that are never worn but with sentimental value, a file drawer full of aborted creative endeavors, bric-a-brac kept for no particular reason. I brought two cartons of books to the library yesterday. I have put some clothing on e-bay. I’m just getting started.

But then there are the photos. My gosh, the photos. What’s to become of them? They are the most haunting aspect of my stuff.

My brother and I love looking at photos of our youthful parents and their friends, at photos of our own childhoods, and at the rarer photos of the generations before our parents. But we have no children of our own, so no one will care about the photos we leave behind. I have thousands of photos, not just of friends and family, but also of my travels. Photos that will mean nothing to anyone after I am gone.

Perhaps, when I see the end coming, I will build a bonfire of my books, photos and failed manuscripts and let them flame out with me.


Anonymous said...

Wow - what a project that must have been.

I like the bonfire plan!

Iggy said...

As to getting rid of the books, did you guys try The Strand Book Store? When my mother inherited 300 boxes of books from the woman she took care of, that's where a lot of them ended up (the rest went to libraries and, unfortunately, the trash).

Sophie said...

Yeah, we called the Strand. They weren't terribly impressed and weren't anxious to coming running up to take a look.

Marcy Gordon said...

I appreciate this post very much. I just recently went through very similar experience in Florida. My sister and I had to sort through 80 years of my moms stuff. And neither of us have kids. It was absolutely exhausting and mind numbing. Shortly afterwards i moved back to california and since I was unable to get rid of everything there i ended up shipping it all here. Slowly I'm going through it all and have had some good luck selling it through a antique dealer guy I met. But mostly it is a burden and mostly it is junk. But the lesson to me was get rid of everything NOW. I just look at my own stuff and think if I'm dead does this matter? And it turns out that none of it does.

Sophie said...

The stuff I'm having shipped to me arrives this week. I don't even remember what I put in those boxes, but I suspect I won't care as much about it now as I did in the heat of the moment.

Pat McNees ( said...

Am going to post a link to this under end-of-life planning on this website:
but I personally am going to need a lot longer to get rid of all the extra books, for which this is a good kick in the bum. Now's a good time to get rid of some of them, with so much online selling of used books. People who hate technology can hire a smart high school or college student to come sell off their stuff (for a commission). Good story (and blog), Sophie! -- Pat McNees (long time no chat!)

Sophie said...

Selling books on Amazon is pretty easy. It's just that most of my dad's books are simply too old and degraded. We could probably sell my mom's Harry Potter collection, but that's such a small fraction of the total headache.

Thanks, Pat!

KL said...

Great post, Sophie! In the last few years I've had to go through all the junk left by my father, my brother, and my mother. Each time I promise myself I will go through my own stuff ruthlessly, but I keep not doing it. I have, however, cut WAY down on new stuff. And I forced myself to get rid of hundreds (maybe thousands) of books, because my husband does not value Books as Decor and there is no room for them in our new house. I do miss looking at them sometimes, but I don't miss them. --Kathryn Lance