Musings on the Significance of Stuff

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My Wobbly Bicycle

Guest Wobbly From My Sister

Five years ago my sister and I cleaned out my parents’ house, in which they had lived for 47 years. Staying in any place for that long carries a high risk of stuff accumulation. In fact, anyone who’s ever moved knows that the Stuff Accumulation sneaks up on a person. To complicate the situation, our dad is what is now commonly referred to as a “hoarder.” Any item he considered having the potential of being useful at any time in the future, was kept: rubber bands, coffee cans, yogurt cups, and box tops. If it was broken, but might be repaired by someone in the future, he kept it. Think of the apocryphal frozen head of Walt Disney. Who knows? Maybe future mankind will have the knowledge to attach that thawed-out head to a healthy body and, voila! Walt Disney lives again. Last weekend I moved my nearly 97-year-old father from his independent living “cottage” into the assisted living unit of his senior community. It was a hard move for both of us – not so much physically, but psychologically. For Dad, it steals the last of his dignity. He will no longer be allowed to choose when or how much medication he can take, he will no longer choose how often he will bathe, and he cannot leave this protected environment without supervision of his caretakers or family. For me, it was acknowledging that the man I’d known to have once been so strong, athletic, and knowledgeable is now frail, unable to care for himself, frightened, and addled. A second acknowledgement I stumbled into though, is what I’ll call The Significance of Stuff. My sister and I had parted with most things several years ago, when we moved him from his house to the cottage. The cottage, however, allowed us some wiggle room. He had a second bedroom, closets, some places to keep stuff. His new accommodations do not allow for that luxury. I found myself holding seemingly insignificant items, but strangely sensing my mother’s presence or my father’s in those things. So, what did I keep? Some obvious things: my mother’s and grandmother’s DAR papers, my dad’s WWII dog tag and War Department ID card, and a gold medallion given to him by the university upon his retirement. Two other things, though, I couldn’t part with: a level – yes, a small, rather beautiful wooden level found among my father’s tools. I can see him using it. A tool. That’s the item I most identified with my dad. He is and always has been, above all else, utilitarian. It is the object that I chose to hold on to. Maybe I think somehow I can level myself out with it, though God knows my dad was never “level” in any literal or figurative way. Even in this move he wavers from humble gratefulness to near hysteria over seeming minutiae. The second item, a set of aluminum measuring spoons. Think about measuring spoons. They represent the potential for beauty, perfection, deliciousness. That was my mother. She had such potential. Life crushed her, though. These are the same measuring spoons that remained in my mother’s (and father’s) kitchen for my entire life. I never knew her to use any others, while I am on at least my third, if not fourth set of measuring spoons. Measuring spoons, you know, are held together, hooked inescapably to their partners, for better or worse, for eternity. I thought about these spoons in my mother’s hand as I held them in mine. And so, the spoons. I ask myself, when the time comes, what of my stuff will my children want? What will mean something to them? Remind them of me? I don’t know myself, just yet. What do I want them to associate with me? A point to ponder. So many things are obvious: my wedding ring, family heirlooms (or as Dad always called them “hair-looms.” But what of the not-so-obvious? What common household item would they one day hold in their hands and think, “Mom”? –

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