“You’ll find you’ve brought too much stuff.”
The words were softly spoken — almost as if to himself — by a retired pastor, a resident of my parents’ retirement community. He seemed to know by observation and personal experience: we take too much stuff with us.
I take too much stuff with me most everywhere I go, even to the beach. “Let’s see, towels, sun screen, sun glasses, iPod, watch (do I need my watch?), keys, cell phone (do I really need my cell phone?), Kindle (can I even get service for it?), beach shoes — oh my goodness, I can’t carry all this stuff!”
Even when I flew to Oklahoma to help relocate my parents, I took tiny versions of larger stuff in my life: a miniature shaving kit, tooth paste and brush, hair brush, and compact case of contact lens solution. The fact is, I take too much stuff with me.
And that’s our problem: we want to take our stuff with us, even when we retire. And I suppose, even to our grave.
I heard the refrain again and again from other retirement home residents as they watched me breaking down the boxes from my parents’ move: “Downsizing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Not looking up, I nodded in agreement.
My parents’ generation matured in a growth economy that tended to equate consumption with success and happiness. Growing up on the heels of a Depression era characterized by lack and want, the accumulation of stuff in times of prosperity equated with security. “Keep that stuff; don’t throw good stuff away; you never know when hard times may hit, and you or someone else may need it again.”
I have a friend whose grandmother built a large room and basement, almost the size of the original house. Why? So she could keep all her extra stuff in it. Then she moved and built a larger house that kept all her stuff. Now, her son has another house to keep her stuff, plus all of his stuff. What happens when they die? Call the auctioneer.
During breakfast at the retirement facility, I asked one dear couple what had been the hardest thing about moving. “Leaving our home, our home of so many years, and departing with most all we had in it.”
My heart ached for her as I listened, sitting next to Dad, who was on his first day away from his home of 58 years, experiencing the same pain that lady expressed.
And I wanted to kick myself for asking the question.
It can be a disheartening situation. Dr.David J. Ekerdt, who directs the gerontology center at the University of Kansas, has extensively researched the matter of senior adults having to downsize. Based on his interviews with social workers, geriatricians, retirement community administrators and family members, Dr. Ekerdt has concluded that the sheer volume of objects in a typical household — including the tremendous physical and mental stress involved in sorting out what’s essential and the psychological effects of parting with what’s not — can lead to what he calls a “paralysis that keeps seniors in place, even when the place isn’t the best place.” In other words, possessions become an obstacle that often keeps senior adults from better managing their health and well-being.
My brothers and I could no longer wait for Mom and Dad to direct us in what to keep and what Dr. Ekerdt calls “household disbandment,” that is, disposing of possessions. The house had sold, the moving van would soon be in the driveway, and the retirement facility would not wait forever.
It was painful.
We ferreted through photograph albums, newspaper clippings, clothes and more clothes — and more stuff, behind every nook and cranny, more, more, more.
And finally, exhausted, we fell back. But we had it on the truck.
I arrived back home with a mission: get rid of my extra stuff. I plowed through the overloaded mail box in my office, throwing away old journals, magazine subscriptions, newspapers, and the junk mail that was cluttering my life. I sighed with relief at my little accomplishment.
And then I arrived home. “The packages came in today,” Lori informed me. The packages included the boxes of stuff I couldn’t bear to see thrown away from Mom and Dad’s house. “It was a ‘package deal,’” I quipped, that included the pictures of my first haircut, my brother Mark throwing me the football, my brother Lowell in his 1963 Altus High School letter jacket, and my brother Dougie and me playing together.”
No, that’s not junk. Junk belongs to someone else.
So, I’m keeping my stuff…At least for now…Or until our kids can go through it… Someday… Somehow… And decide what stuff they want.