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Stuff: a conundrum

Updated: Jul 16, 2019

When I told my mom that I wanted to get serious about writing, she suggested I write about my grandma Rosie. I was…reluctant. But since my grandma randomly popped in my head recently, I decided to take my mother’s advice and give it a whirl (it’s in print mom, no denying it).

What I think of - overwhelmingly - when I think of my grandma, is stuff. She saved everything. When the family gathered on holidays, we drank soda poured from two liters into plastic Solo cups that had been kept, washed, and stored away from other holidays. And her home on Main Street was so packed to the brim with stuff, you could hardly get up the stairs past the piles precariously placed on each step (alliteration not intended).

I’m sure it was in part because she was of a generation still deeply scarred by the Great Depression, but it also probably had a lot to do with being a mother of seven. I now think too, at least a little of it was because it was just who she was.

When she passed away a couple of years ago, I spent a day helping in the herculean task of going through her things. It was overwhelming. Plastic tubs of material scraps, quilting blocks, and other odds and ends from her quilting and sewing projects, as well as the pieces and parts - boards, sawhorses, clamps - of the frames used to hold quilts that she and her group of “quilting ladies” were working on. Flats of glass jars and the accompanying two-piece lids used in canning; boxes and cans of food long since expired; small appliances in various stages of outdatedness and repair; stacks and stacks of paper plates, napkins, and the ever-present plastic cups from Christmases, Halloweens, birthdays, baby showers; suitcases; jewelry boxes; knick-knacks; odds and ends of all sorts and shapes and sizes.

Even thinking of it now I get a little claustrophobic.

My grandma was also a prolific photographer. And this back in the days of actually developing rolls of film and going to pick up the prints along with the negatives, which came all tucked neatly in paper envelopes. So one of her rooms was mostly dedicated to the many, many albums and boxes of photos she had accumulated throughout her ninety years. It represented a painstaking documentation of her life and the lives of those who were and are here because of her - her seven children, their children, and their children - as well as pieces of the lives of the many children from other families that she cared for over the years (a.k.a. babysitting kids).

We are pictured at all ages and in all manner of endeavors.

Sometimes we are pictured happily surrounded by our birthday gifts and cake, or in our bathing suits in the round, corrugated metal pool in her backyard. Other times we are pictured in moments we might rather forget like when I got my hair wrapped around a skateboard wheel after riding it on my stomach (which we were repeatedly told not to do, as if my all-knowing grandma could see what might be coming), or when my cousin - in a game of tag I think - tripped and knocked out his front tooth (or was it teeth?), or when my brother cut his finger on a can opener requiring stitches. In that one he was maybe two or three, posing with his injured finger held up, the can opener and a construction paper sign with the date of the incident also in the shot (one of my favorites!).

I love looking back at these images, especially when it’s together with others in my family, and I am grateful on the one hand to have them. But on the other hand, I also can’t help coming back to the idea of stuff. Because despite the memories, what do you do with it all? My family has had to grapple with this question about my grandma’s stuff - if you keep it what then, and if you give it away is it a part of our history lost?

We all know that we are not the stuff we gather during our lives or that we leave behind when we are gone. I wonder though, what memories I have now - memories that feel as if I would have had them no matter what - that I maybe wouldn’t have without a tangible thing to remind me. What if there had not been that board game, that Christmas decoration, or that photograph seen over and over again as I grew up?

I don’t know the answer here. I thought I did after leaving my grandmother’s that day long ago. I had felt suffocated by her stuff so I came home and purged; selling or giving away a ton of my own stuff I had stored in similar plastic tubs and boxes. I was convinced that the stuff didn’t matter and that I had the memories I needed.

But now I’m less sure.

Can you ever separate it out? What is a memory and what is just stuff? My grandma seemed to have an idea about the answer.

And while too much stuff still freaks me the hell out, who knows? Maybe she had the right idea all this time.

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