So just in time for Christmas, my beloved grandpa died, less than a month after we celebrated his 90th birthday. While he was mentally sharp up until the end, his wife had died in 2010, he had been getting increasingly frail and ill, and I had the sense that he was just…ready. He died quietly at home the weekend before Christmas, so I spent the week leading up to Christmas helping my mother and aunt empty his apartment in a retirement community in the DC suburbs. It was sad, although not gut-wrenching, but it was also tedious, frustrating, dusty and exhausting, because Lord love him, the man liked to save stuff. He was meticulous and organized, but there was SO MUCH STUFF in that two bedroom apartment that we simply couldn’t believe it until we were hip-deep in it.
For example, there were dozens of day planners from years past, saved for unknown reasons. There was box after box after box of slides from 1950-85, hundreds in all, and filing cabinets full of credit card statements circa 1990, lawn service bills from a house sold 10 years ago and vet records for a dog that died in 2003. There was enough (mostly expired) OTC medication to treat every man, woman and child in the District of Columbia during cold and flu season (proper disposal of the leftover prescription medication was a whole separate adventure). There were woodworking tools and drafting materials and old engineering textbooks. There was this totally stylin’ slide rule in a tooled leather case, a sword and scabbard for the geeks of the world.
There was this bottle of creme de menthe from Holland, given to Grandpa by a Dutch friend sometime in the early 60s. The bottle had moved houses over that 50 years from upstate New York to southwest Virginia to suburban DC, but no one had actually drunk it. Ditto the matching bottle of Dutch creme de cacao. They had squatted in a closet for DECADES—note the fine coating of dust. And yes, I did taste the ancient liquor just out out of curiosity; it was disgusting.
There were some cool things, though, including family pictures and heirlooms. In the very back of Grandpa’s closet was a box full of his father’s World War I memorabilia. My great-grandfather, who died in the early ’50s, had been an infantryman in France in 1918, and in the box were two tattered Army-issue French phrasebooks. On the inside cover he had scribbled a note to himself that the French word for wheelbarrow is “brouette.” There were also these billets and a card, sent to my great-grandmother via Army mail, announcing that his troop ship had arrived safely in Europe. A separate box held his Army discharge papers and a letter from General John J. Pershing given to each soldier, praising them for a job well done.
But still…the stuff…oh, THE STUFF. My mother, aunt and I walked away each day, dusty, tired, emotionally wrung out, all of us thinking: holy shit, do we have this much stuff too? Lying awake at night the past couple days, I have been mentally reviewing all the stuff in my closets, planning a massive purge when I get home, if for no other reason than if I die in a terrorist/alien/shark attack tomorrow, I do not want to make my family spend days and days cleaning the stuff out of my apartment. The whole scenario put me in mind of this hilarious George Carlin routine, which seems even more true now than a week ago.
I did wind up taking some of Grandpa’s stuff to add to my own pile of stuff, including Grandma’s venerable old roasting pan, her stand mixer, and some of her Pyrex casserole dishes, plus a few small family heirlooms. Giving someone else’s stuff a home still fits within my resolution. Fortunately, a whole lot of other stuff—clothes, dishes, furniture, linens—went to local charities. I had pledged this past year that I would go easy on acquiring, not only to save money but simply because I’m increasingly disgusted with materialism. My experience at Grandpa’s has given me new resolve, so I’m renewing my austerity pledge for 2012, right here, right now. I really don’t need any more stuff.
Question for you, gentle readers: If you died today, what kind of stuff would you leave behind? What kind of stuff do you have that you could probably do without? What kind of stuff tends to pile up in your home? Clothes? Books? Kitchenware? Collectibles?