1 The Stuff Was Mine, But I Didn't Care About Stuff | The Billfold

The Stuff Was Mine, But I Didn’t Care About Stuff

Last year I was in Western Massachusetts. I hadn’t lived there in years, but I was there, driving around, and I drove past this place that used to hold auctions. It’s a barn, located at the end of a long road, as so many things are in that area of the world. There’s a sign at the start of the road that advertises what the place does. Every time I passed it, I wondered if they ever had my stuff.

My grandmother lived with my mother and me when I was growing up, and her stuff did, too. Some might refer to her stuff as narishkeit—silliness, foolishnes—but my grandmother called her stuff her antiques, which admittedly some of the things were. It was collection of things she’d been accumulating since she’d started working at 13. Vases, teacups, unworn clothes. My friends thought I lived in a museum. My mother thought we were two steps away from having a show on TLC.

My mother died when I was 20, and my grandmother’s mental and physical health declined quickly after. My other relatives scurried around to find her an assisted living facility, and I had to figure out what to do with the crap—I mean, antiques (apparently, I developed an opinion about it).

My grandmother had constantly reminded me that that this was “my inheritance,” and getting rid of it didn’t feel like an option. I was in college at the time, and I couldn’t fit her things into my super tiny dorm room. When my mother died, she left me $25,000, the amount of her life insurance policy. I used some of that money my mother had left me to hire movers, filled up the car that was hers that was now mine, and followed the movers down the highway to the storage unit, located near my college campus. I rented a locker for $75/month.

Some of the things in the storage locker: An upright piano, which had a great deal of mysterious and sentimental value to my mother and grandmother, but to me had just been an instrument of a series of painful and unsuccessful lessons on; a giant rocking chair, featured in a snapshot taken of me, crammed onto the chair with my high school boyfriend, both smiling like idiots; boxes of vases, teacups, set of dishes, figurines, tablecloths, lamps, pictures and clothes no one had ever worn; more boxes filled with I-don’t-know-what, packed by my aunt, piled into the van. I would want this stuff when I was older, apparently. I should keep it until then.

I rarely visited the storage locker, except when I needed to get to my own stuff—winter coats, old papers, books. Once, I found a dead mouse while digging through a box. It looked helpless and mummified and trapped.

The point of having a storage locker,  I gather, is that you have a place to put crap you don’t need until you need it. In the meantime, you don’t have to think about it. But I thought about it all the time. Whenever I would talk with my grandmother on the phone, or visit her at one of the facility or home where she lived, she’d ask me about specific items. “Do you have that yellow and pink china tea set I bought in 1971 that used to be in the cabinet in the den?”  This was the bulk of our conversations, as if the point of me calling or visiting was to go over a checklist of things, rather than to spend time together. She’d get sad and frustrated if I didn’t know what she was talking about (I usually had no idea what she was talking about). So I said, yes, I have it.

My mother’s $25,000 didn’t last long. I blew through it in the year after her death. And by “blew through it,” I mean: I bought a car and a computer; paid for books, gas, food, a heavily subsidized tuition bill, movers, health care, and clothing. There were moments, of course , when I was not the most financially prudent—there was a road trip taken to Canada in the middle of the night.  But it’s terrifying to see how quickly what seems like a huge amount of money can evaporate in a year.

The storage bill ($75/month) did not help matters. Three times I was locked out for failure to pay, and I had to pay off the balance plus the cost of getting it unlocked before I could get into it again.

Two years and four part time jobs later, I graduated college and moved to Boston. I lived in a house with eight other people, none of whom were interested in having their space filled with porcelain vases or Persian rugs. I kept the storage locker.

My grandmother continued to ask where things were, but now, the questions changed: Which of her things was I using in my new home? It was not okay to tell her the truth. The stuff was supposed to fill me with delight, to ground me in my former life with my grandmother and mother. But that life that was now broken, and I didn’t want to be grounded in that life—I liked the one I was currently living. I felt resentful of the assumption that I would want to be as tied to physical things as she was.

I moved again, this time to the Midwest. I started to miss storage locker payments again. Everything I needed was in my new apartment, the first place I had ever lived alone. My grandmother grew older, and frailer, and although she talked constantly about somehow moving out of the nursing home and into her own place again, my family knew this would not happen.

The storage locker had become something that kept me up at night. I felt chained to it, although it was in Massachusetts, and I was in Ohio. If I kept the locker, I’d always feel like the stuff in it would somehow control me, that I wouldn’t be able to break with it and have my own life on my own terms. I didn’t want her antiques, and I’d never really let myself admit that.

I stopped paying on the storage locker. I don’t think they ever sent me a notice that it had gone to auction, or maybe they did and I never saw it. It’s possible. The conversation between my grandmother and me didn’t change, and neither did our relationship. I lied my way through the last three years of her life.

I live in Brooklyn now, and the stuff I own can fit in a small moving van or a room the size of a large closet. I go through phases when I want to purge the contents of my life, and moments when I miss very specific things—my mother’s orange cardigan sweater that was constantly draped over the back of the chair she sat in at the table. I didn’t bring that to storage. In the insanity of moving myself, I forgot about it, and it went to the trash.


Chanel Dubofsky lives in Brooklyn./photo credit M. Markus


23 Comments / Post A Comment

MuffyStJohn (#280)

As someone who develops overly strong sentimental attachments to family items, this is unfathomable and hearbreaking to me. (This is not to say that one level of attachment is right and the other is wrong, just that this is the only way I can relate to family household items, furnishings, and the few remaining true heirlooms.) However, our family had the opposite problem – my grandmother lived long enough to sell the vast majority of her household as she aged, and then died unexpectedly enough that most of what she left behind was simply tossed by nearby relatives who didn’t want to deal with it.

I still have a lamp from the formal living room in my grandma’s house, an apothecary chest from my grandfather’s pharmacy. My dad drinks Coke out of vintage glasses printed with the logo of his father’s WWII unit. My sister and I fought over who got the quilt from the guest room we slept in when we stayed over (she won; she’s older). I have spent the better part of ten years looking for just the right handles to replace the ones missing from a secretary handed down from that house. In the end, I wish we had more, not less.

arrr starr (#69)

@MuffyStJohn I used to be very sentimental over objects as a child (to the point where I really was a little mini hoarder, refusing to get rid of dusty old papers with my 3rd grade homework) and as I got older I changed drastically. Probably because my childhood level of sentimentality was totally unsustainable and resulting in once-a-year weekends of crying when my dad forced me to clean my room.

Now I hate stuff. HATE HATE HATE. I won’t even let it in to begin accumulating sentimental value. I’m pretty sure if something like this happened to me, I would flat out tell my relatives that I was throwing out their stuff unless they gave it to someone else. I think I get so harsh partly because I don’t want to build the attachment (also: I may be a jerk) but I would rather make a loved one cry once than lie and pay storage bills for years.

Like you, I don’t think it’s a judgment one way or another (the author’s relationship with her grandmother sounds sweet, and your family’s keepsakes sound awesome), but once things start carrying meaning I freak out about breaking or misplacing them.

oiseau (#1,830)

@arrr starr My boyfriend moved a lot as he grew up and due to this he has developed a super strange relationship to material objects. He trashes all sentimental objects (photos, souvenirs, gifts, paintings) without thinking twice, which as someone who keeps a small assortment of things that have meant something to me since childhood, I am so puzzled by. The only thing he has kept with him through all of his moves is this blue plastic storage bin and it is filled with… trash! Old junk mail, empty CD cases, old magazines, school papers from years ago. It is the weirdest thing. He just cannot get rid of anything in it-!

@MuffyStJohn There is a difference between having things that mean something to you, that you use or display in your home, and junk you never touch and don’t want but keep anyway because you feel emotionally obligated. It’s not “too much” if you love it and take care of it and don’t feel bogged down by it.

MuffyStJohn (#280)

@Amanda@twitter This is very true! Thanks for articulating that better than I could. I guess I’m spoiled by the fact that that side of my family had very good taste, and none of that stuff feels like a burden to me – all these objects are very pleasurable and get regular love and use. Thinking about it in these terms, though, I imagine having an entire household/storage locker full of stuff might feel like a burden. The things we still have are largely things we saved 10, 20, 30 years ago because we loved them so much.

Wow. I hate to say this, but this comes across as extremely self-centered. You are not the only person who might have cared about those items. What about your own children someday? Maybe they would like to have some kind of tactile connection to their ancestors. I would gladly pay $75 month to preserve the items that were clearly important to my family members and also represent a time in the past that can never be retrieved.
Seriously – $75 a month and you couldn’t be bothered? “If I kept the locker, I’d always feel like the stuff in it would somehow control me, that I wouldn’t be able to break with it and have my own life on my own terms.” SO you just stopped paying the bill and let your family’s belongings be parceled out to random strangers, because you were so concerned about having YOUR life on YOUR terms. I suspect that one day, if and when you actually grow up, you will be sorry that you did that.

hopelessshade (#580)

@Modern Aphrodite@twitter 1. They were not important. 2. They were not her family’s “connection to their ancestors” 3. She is not required to live her grandmother’s life for her. 4. To realize this is actually quite mature.

@Modern Aphrodite@twitter Her own children that she doesn’t even have and who will never meet her grandmother? Why on earth should she spent large amounts of money so she can hand her hypothetical kids some stuff they will have no emotional connection to? And I suspect if the rest of her family wanted any of that stuff, they could have asked her about it sometime during the years in which she was holding onto it for no good reason.

loren smith (#2,300)

@MilesofMountains Yes I totally agree. I actually work at an auction house and, to me, it is heartbreaking to have to explain to people looking to sell these items after an elderly family member dies that their things have no actual value – that it’s just junk. Most stuff, the vast, vast vaaaaast majority of stuff, has no monetary value at all, yet by emphasizing this connection between stuff and family and memory we ascribe this importance to things. But the things aren’t the memories! I don’t know ramble ramble I guess. Just breaks my heart every time I have to tell a stressed out looking mum that her teapot won’t cover the car payment.

Chanel (#2,296)

Thanks for the concern, Modern Aphrodite, but I’m not going to have children and no one in my family was/is interested in this stuff. We have pictures, etc. that remind us of people. This happened when I was in my early 20′s and I’m in the my early 30′s now, and there is no regret.

wearitcounts (#772)

@Chanel i think what you did was poignant and brave, as is this piece. and a little romantic, the idea of those things going off somewhere you don’t know and can’t trace, things that will mean something to somebody else, until they don’t, and again, and again. i loved this.

also, the part about the orange cardigan–no, no, it must just be dusty in here. very dusty.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

I really related to your story, actually.
My grandfather passed away and then we had a pretty momentous clean-out ourselves. The family ended up taking short cuts and dumping a lot of stuff they didn’t know what to do with at our house. We figured we’d go through it all later.
It’s been 5 years and our garage has gone from a complete game of tetris to about half that. Did I mention 5 YEARS? Yep. Moving house in a few weeks to a place with a much smaller garage, so… more tetris I guess.
No storage bill on that, but we did get left with one after we moved in to my grandfather’s house and we had to find a way to move around all my Nanna’s old stuff because we weren’t allowed to toss/move any of it.
This was a 9-year storage bill that was thankfully covered by the inheritance, which was significantly more than yours and we still managed to blow that in about 3 years (what is up with that being so much but so little at the same time? You’re right about that)

You’re lucky, when my mother died, my older half sister and I were left with absolutely nothing money-wise. I cleaned out her apartment and had to give most of the things that were left to the Vietnam Vets association. My sister used a credit card to pay for her cremation as no one in the family who was better off stepped up. When my father went a few years later (both died of cancer) I was lucky enough that he had social security and unemployment to cover his cremation costs, as he didn’t have life insurance either. I gave most of his things to the Vietnam Vets as well. I kept a few things from both of them and I too have no regrets. After losing most of my possessions in a flood, it’s hard to be sentimental about material objects.

mjfrombuffalo (#2,232)

My grandmother unfortunately ran into demetia and out of money years before she died. There’s nothing worse than living in a warm, loving home filled with antiques and having to go to the auction house to try to buy back as much of your grandmother’s stuff (and your deceased mother’s stuff, and YOUR stuff, that was all in the same house) as you can with the little you have in savings from a social work salary. It was 16 years ago and I still can’t watch auctions on TV even.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

That is so sad. My hear goes out to you!

oh! valencia (#1,409)

My maternal grandmother died when I was about 11, and I was offered her silk scarf collection. I declined (I was 11! I didn’t care about scarves!)
I would pay a huge sum of money for them now that I am an adult who loves wearing vintage scarves. They were beautiful. I wonder where they ended up.
My paternal grandmother died last month, and she mostly has junk that I don’t want. It’s impossible to know how I’ll feel about it in the future. But I am not willing to pay $75 a month now for the off-chance that I might find something useful in many years’ time.

I don’t think you did the wrong thing, Chanel.

hoo:ha (#2,309)

My grandmother (in the US) had two beautiful four-poster beds (one brass one she had as a little girl!) which my mother is storing for me in her attic, and it KILLS me that I sleep on a crappy bed from IKEA because the cost of shipping them to London is no doubt astronomical. Someday if I move back to the US I will be so glad I held onto them. No judgement against your story… to each her own. But damn this piece made me realize how much I want those beds…

I immigrated to Canada in 2010 (from the US) and got rid of most of my belongings before I left. Stuff I never thought I would get rid of, like my huge library. I am happier without it, but am now extra attached to the stuff I have kept.
On my mother’s side of the family, there is a lot of family drama. After my great grandparents died, one of my aunts moved in with my grandmother. The two of them sold many things that were supposed to go to me and mother (and other family members). I was quite young, but I know I was supposed to get a pearl necklace and her costume jewelry, which disappeared. My mother was supposed to get some wooden furniture and cabinets and she is still resentful of how things went down (understandably). When I graduated from college my aunt gave me my great grandmother’s engagement ring, maybe to atone for everything? My husband and I used it as my engagement ring, and I do love it.
My husbands family is setting he and his sister up to have to deal with their estate, several crumbling houses full of the kinds of ‘antiques’ talked about in this piece. I can see that they are both dreading it.
So many different feelings about stuff, even my own experience. I think the author did the right thing.

RosemaryF (#345)

Having seen what living with an honest-to-goodness hoarder is like, I have become very unsentimental when it comes to objects.

My uncle had THREE houses because he kept filling them up and being forced to move. One was his mother’s, one was his and the other was his son’s. When he died, my aunt & cousin were finally able to admit that it was him, not the family as a whole and had started the process to sell two of the houses within a week of the funeral.

Everytime I think of the paths that were created so they could walk from room to room, I throw away four things.

nonasuch (#2,312)

I sell vintage clothes for a living, and I have to admit, I fucking love hoarders.

Well, let me amend that. I don’t want prom dresses from the 1990s, or moth-eaten Gunne Sax, or a dress that was “very expensive” when you wore it to a wedding in 2002. However, I was super thrilled when a lady came to me with a dozen perfectly-preserved early 60s day dresses, and told me they belonged to a woman who had filled her rent-controlled Dupont Circle apartment with clothes and belongings, locked it, got a new apartment, and kept paying the rent on the old one. FOR THIRTY YEARS.

That said, you shouldn’t have to hang on to your relatives’ stuff forever if you don’t want to. Set it free! If it’s old enough and nice enough, it will find new homes with people who appreciate it.

@nonasuch WELL, SPEND A DIME TO MAKE A DOLLAR. The best advice I can give is – make an inventory and find out what you have; you may find out that old rug has value. Then make an appraisal or have one made if the stuff turns up to be good, but beyond your ken. Then the tough part comes. Find an honest dealer or dealers and sell what you find that you don’t want and if the other stuff is nice, give it to good will. Toss out the junk.

Jenna (#4,764)

It is better to have a big family who lives together. We are living together since last many years and believe me its require nothing to live happily than little understanding of each other but yes I can understand you situation, it really make sense to keep minimum stuff.

———-Jenn writes about Rank Crew

I have bookmarked it and I am looking forward to reading new articles.
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