How Our Stuff Defines Us

Tie dye dresses drying
Mom loves textiles, color, antiques....Image via Wikipedia

A few days ago, I sat in a room in a nursing home with my mother, sorting through boxes of her belongings, from books on theology to a black lace merry widow corset.

When you move into one room, you’re quickly forced to shed about 95% of the belongings that have defined you, and your taste, your memories and history. If, as many of us do, we acquire and keep objects and clothes and shoes and accessories, we choose and keep them for a reason, maybe several.

Often reasons quite unknown to anyone else.

Everything I pulled out for our mutual decision making made me wonder — who is this woman?

At least she’s still alive and we had a chance to make those decisions, however wrenching, together.

I learned more about my Mom in those four hours than in the past, very private, four decades as we went through it all:

Those impossibly soft red leather Cossack-style boots? (That didn’t — damn! — fit me.) Bought in London. She once tucked a pack of cigarettes into the the top of one.

That black and white Marimekko print gown? Worn to the open house when she moved into her Toronto home 20 years ago.

The tie-dyed Indian cotton dress? She designed it while traveling there.

That corset? My mom was one confident hottie! I wish I had the nerve, and the figure, to rock a black lace Merry Widow…

The battered paperback book by Dom Helder Camara, a Brazilian liberation theologist? Autographed to her. Good thing I hadn’t tossed it in our purging.

Not to mention love letters, recent ones, from Australia, New York and beyond. Good work, Mom!

I fly home to New York in two days, with a new, painful and acute sense of how much stuff I own, and how much if it I have to get rid of, now! I cannot imagine my sweetie having to go through it, box by box, trunk by trunk, and make any sense of it without me there: photos, letters, books.

Why am I clinging to it?

Am I still me without it?

Then what?

Have you ever had to sort, purge and toss out a lot of your stuff? Or someone else’s?

What was it like?

13 thoughts on “How Our Stuff Defines Us

  1. I can see the time when I will have to go through this too. My mother is a hoarder, but I am trying to encourage her to throw out or give away things she does not need now with a view to reducing the enormity of the task when the time comes. I am not making much progress though.

    It is a matter of setting priorities about what to keep. It is also important that I show by my actions that I will consult my mother and not act in a cavalier manner with the many possessions that she regards as important.

    You are quite right. The problem arises because we tie our identities to our material possessions.

    1. It was an interesting afternoon — it took me three full hours to go through about five boxes with her, piece by piece. At one point she thanked me for being so respectful with her things. They’re her. They’re hers. It seems to me that’s the only way. But she was also, somehow, ruthlessly willing to make immediate decisions with me about things, and that made it much easier, physically, if not emotionally.

      I don’t envy you this task if your Mom is a hoarder. My mom was practical enough to know things had to go, and quickly sold almost all her art and antiques at auction to get the cash she now needs for the nursing home.

      I, like all of us I suspect, also tie my pleasure and identity to my belongings. The challenge of going through those of someone else is knowing which are crucially important…I knew that a faded set of towels meant a lot to her and so kept them; they would have looked like nothing to someone who did not know her history.

  2. What a beautiful opportunity to see facets of your mum that you’ve not seen or known before. Is there another book in this process, bsb?
    You write so beautifully and poignantly about such a personal and painful transition for both you and your mum – thank you so much for sharing in the way you do.
    Sunshine xx

  3. Thanks! Books are very difficult things to sell….I’ll have to think about that.

    But my Mom, finally, telling me what some of these things were and what they meant to her, made all the difference to this visit. One pillow sham she’s had since she was 11! I would never have known it. She has always been intensely private, so much of this was new(s) to me.

  4. Our stuff can not only define us, but it can come to own us. I think that idea was beautifully demonstrated in Stephanie Kallos’ book “Broken for You.”

    In the fifth grade, my parents sold about 85% of our “stuff” in Tennessee to fund a move to California. We packed what was left into the back of a pickup truck and set off for the journey. In Oklahoma City, while we ate breakfast at a Waffle House, someone broke into our truck and stole several suitcases of the stuff we’d deemed important enough to keep.

    It was a lifetime lesson in letting go. I make a habit of going through my stuff 3-4 times a year and purging collections of stuff from my life.

  5. LE, what an experience!

    I had two entire lockers of stuff sold out from underneath me after I fell behind on the rent. Ouch. Now I keep anything I want in our garage and in a few lockers in our building. But this whole experience has truly galvanized me to PURGE a ton of stuff when I get home this week. It is just too enervating having all that stuff that you don’t use and likely never will.

    My mother’s storage locker was broken into twice and so we have already lost all sorts of things. Ugh.

    I have sold some of my things at auction and likely will again. Yet my mom recently gave me a few of her things, (currently stuck in customs) and I will treasure those: a rug, some antique textiles, a childhood photo of me in a frame. I live in a one bedroom apartment and this very effectively limits how much one can accumulate!

  6. I come from a mom who doesn’t have very much left except photographs and old letters she kept, but since she doesn’t have any family alive, she doesn’t have much stuff from them.

    I know I’m attached to my stuff and would have a hard time parting with the stuff that I have come to ‘define’ me. My favorite things are little sentimental cards/letters I’ve collected over the years that people have given to me. My Mom seems to have the same habit with collecting those little handwritten things people have given you.

  7. I have been cleaning out my oldest son’s closet. Years of homework mixed in with a variety of baseball and pokemon cards and other toys. Our youngest son is joyful in receiving the ‘found’ toys and cards. All of this makes me want to get rid of my huge fabric scrap collection.

  8. Firstly, thank you so much for your lovely comment on my blog – I’m really very flattered!

    And second, what a touching, thoughtful post. I know that very same feeling, though sadly mine was done after my mother passed away very suddenly. I had just one day to go through her entire house absolutely filled with gorgeous antiques, treasures, and sentimental things – having to make split-second decisions about whether to keep something for myself (which could be little as I only had a small flat and was about to move overseas at the time) or sell it at auction. There are so many things I regret not keeping for various sentimental reasons, but then have to remind myself it’s only ‘stuff’ at the end of the day. Isn’t it funny how we attach such major memories and sentimentality to these things we accumulate?

    Briony xx

  9. Briony…one day?! What a nightmare. I had about four or five, and already knew that 90% of the artwork and antiques would have to go to auction because there was simply no room for them.

    I have been fortunate enough through all this to have many friends who have been through it as well and one advised me — as you have mentioned — not to toss anything hastily. I took a storage locker for $120 a month and will go through it, or have my mom do so, at our leisure. Even if it takes a year, $1,200 is not a huge price to pay to ensure we are not moving in excess haste.

    I confess that I do dearly love some of my things and some belonging to my Mom and her grandmother, like a spectacular white marble bust of her grandmother and a pastel portrait. We have almost nothing else from her or that era, so these remaining memories are important to us both.

  10. My mom is 90. Every time I see her she wants to know which of her things I want. I don’t want them. I want her. But I know that after she is gone, I will want some of these things to remind me of her. But it just makes me sad, when I should be happy that I still have her. Thanks for your posts about your mother. Always helps to hear of someone else dealing with some of the same things I am.

    1. You say this so beautifully! My Mom gave me a few things a few years ago: her wedding silver salad servers and my granny’s pearls. I felt odd taking them, but now appreciate the gift even more. I came back to NY last night with two wool blankets and a set of sheets of hers; some other things are currently tied up in customs.

      Things are…things. But they carry such powerful memories. My Mom has a wooden folk art animal, maybe a tiger, she has had as long as I have known her. We call him Edgar. One of the most powerful moments of the past week was sitting with her and hearing when, how and why she acquired him (when we lived in London, when I was little.) I found that really interesting as it’s about who she is and what she values.

      I wish you the very best with all this. It is terribly painful!

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