Breaking Up With Stuff
Three weeks after my dad died, I went to visit him after work on a Friday, like I had done for more than four years.
Twenty five minutes into the hour-long drive, I remembered he wouldn’t be there. His bones and any remaining unfinished business had been laid to rest more comfortably at a cemetery fifteen miles northeast of the semi-private room at Westminster Thurber Retirement Community, where he breathed his last and we toasted his accomplished life with the last three Coronitas he had in the dorm-sized fridge by his bed.
Grief is a powerful filter that sometimes erases the carefully-drawn frame of reality.
It was three miles until the next exit, so I used the time and distance to consider the new set of options to fill the two hours I used to spend sitting with dad in the dining hall while he ate dinner. I knew of a large antique mall just off that approaching exit, packed with all manner of other people’s memories. The prospect of a slow walk through the narrow aisles felt better than going straight home, and would help me unfold what had just happened. I exited, parked, and walked out of the sunshine into the halls of what used to be owned by folks I’d never known.
At about the fifth booth, I saw a familiar something or other—hey, we had one of those once. I wonder what happened to it?—a refrain that repeated in my mind until I left the shop two and a half hours later. It was strangely reassuring, spending time among the dust and detritus of once-loved objects both functional and frivolous, bringing my own memories forward into the light of this recent gaping loss. I touched each item for more than a moment, and may have purchased one or two. I can’t remember now. I returned the following week, and the next, and a new Friday after-work ritual trickled into the space where dad used to be.
I grew up surrounded by old things—both living and inanimate—and collected stories right along with rabbit figurines and tiny perfume bottles. In the Shaker-style hutch in the dining room, mom kept little plates with flowers on them, a blue and white tea set she had as a child, two salt-cast lambs (one pink, one tan) and several cups without saucers. Over the years, other treasured pieces found places of prominence behind the wavy glass cabinet doors, and on summer days when we didn’t have anything to do, we’d reach in and touch the past, begging for the stories that brought these items into our family’s story. I can’t recall a time when I wasn’t sentimental about stuff. Those plates and perfume bottles weren’t just from mom, they were mom, or at least a part of her spirit. That was my view for decades, and up until quite recently, my own crowded home reflected that.
After about a month or so of weekly pilgrimages to this and other antique shops, my sisters and I decided to shape an antiques business of our own. That was seven years ago this past May, and in the time that’s transpired, I’ve bought and sold antiques, plucking vintage Pyrex from thrift store shelves and nodding at auctioneers to secure the highest bid on box lots of lace, wooden spools, and soft faded aprons. I’ve learned about period furniture and eaten off of it, amassed an impressive Sadler and occupied Japan tea set collection, and indulged my affection for mid-century modern mosaic tile ashtrays. On Patrick’s and my travels to Savannah, Chicago, Iowa, South Dakota, and the Hocking Hills area of Ohio, we’ve loaded the back of the truck with tottering (yet carefully packed) piles of retro metal kitchen food carts, wooden ammunition and cheese boxes, floor lamps that I’ve taught myself to rewire, and school desks from the 50’s that were awkward for left-handers to use. Some of these we sold, others we added to our daily routines. And that’s because I want to live in a home and not a museum. When considering a purchase, I leaned heavily toward those items that I could wash and dry and hang outside on the line, or tuck into the cupboard with the rest of our dishes, or rest our feet on in the living room. Things, not just people, need to be useful.
One of my dear friends has been inordinately generous, giving us furniture and other pieces whenever she’s redecorated her own space. Every room in our home bears her thoughtful touch, from the Hoosier-style cabinet where that tea set collection resides to the primitive blanket chest that serves as our coffee table and occasional footrest (and jumping platform for the kittens). A solid tiger oak sleigh bed welcomes overnight visiting friends in the downstairs guestroom; they owe their deep sleep and pleasant dreams to Jackie.
Through all these years of collecting, selling, finding and flipping, my relationship with stuff has ebbed and flowed between the shores of “just one more auction” and “let’s see how much we can pack in boxes and give to Goodwill”. We’ve tried implementing the rule that if something “new” comes in, something else needs to leave, with varying degrees of commitment and success. Cleaning out a room in the house was a reliable rainy day activity, and a few times, those boxes of stuff would include a thrift store item with the price tag still stuck on the bottom; we saved the good folks at the Goodwill the trouble. But as I grow older, I find myself longing more for monastic simplicity rather than living in the Antiques Roadshow’s attic. I imagine shaking hands with Mike and Frank from American Pickers, and watching them climb like mountain goats over the mountain of auction booty that waits patiently in the old old goat barn to be adopted by the right forever family.
So, one Friday, after I’d hit my week’s worth of 53 work hours by noon, I turned out the lights in my office and walked toward the truck, ready to head to the antique mall in Lancaster where two booths held as many old memories for sale as I could attractively cram into the rental square footage. As I climbed into the driver’s seat, it dawned on me that without those two booths and the stuff they contained, without the rent I’d paid and the time I spent attaching price tags to each and every Fire King casserole dish, vintage globe and camp lantern, I could be going home, putting my feet up on that primitive blanket chest, or wearing one of those soft faded aprons while I baked that new scone recipe I’d been curious about, or sitting on the old scalloped metal lawn chair strategically placed in the meadow with a full view of the bend in the creek. All of that suddenly felt more appealing than the thrill of the hunt and the hard-earned but meager paycheck stapled to the monthly sales report. It was time to walk away from a life that orbited around stuff, and imagine a new Friday ritual.
Before we headed out to South Dakota last month, I signed the “vacate by July 31, 2019” contract with the antique mall (a 30-day notice is required, and quite fair), put up some sale signs, and exhaled into the prospect of a lighter lifestyle. I don’t know what it feels like to retire, to wake up that first Monday morning of an unscheduled and un-salaried life, but I suspect I’ve just signed myself into a taste of it. It feels deliciously liberating and reckless. I’ve given away some things, not caring about recouping my investment, and look forward to doing more of that in the days to come. Whatever will we do with all this spare time?
The gift in the hands of grieving dad’s death was a short foray into the world of brokering memories and living with other people’s stories. I’ve enjoyed the bulk of it, and will with equal enjoyment not miss the tedium of price tagging or breaking the “touch nothing twice” rule when unpacking a truckload of auction treasures. I look forward to walking into a thrift store for a pair of celery-green linen capris and walking out with precisely that and nothing more.
There’s still work to do at the farm after the lights go out on this business venture: a barn to clean out, an attic with plastic totes that hold what might have sold if I’d kept paying booth rental, and a burgeoning granola business to coddle (we just can’t sit still can we?). I have opened a few of those totes recently and found things that my child’s heart clung to as essential for living. I winced before gently placing them in the bag of Things to Give Away Forever. Sentimentality is adjustable, like metabolism, but it takes time to re-set itself.
I’m ok. Like my time with dad for so many Fridays, I have my memories.
Call Mike and Frank. It’s just stuff.