A Downsizer’s Take on the Stuff of Memories

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank June 15, 2012 12:00

Russell Frank

I used to envy people who could take that sentimental journey back to the old home place.

You know, sleep in your old room with the sports trophies still on the shelves and the Pink Floyd posters still on the walls. Hang out in the backyard and reminisce about epic Wiffle Ball games or the time your friend sneaked up on you as you dozed on the patio and woke up with such a start that you chipped a tooth on the metal arm of the chaise longue.

Now I’m saying the heck with all that. My youngest child graduated from high school this spring, and if all goes according to plan, I’m going to be out of the house he grew up in around the same time he moves into his college dorm room.

Part of my thinking is practical. Once there was a wife, three kids, a dog, two cats, and a goldfish. Now most of the time there’s just me rattling around a nine-room house – along with all the stuff that has accumulated in the 17 years since we moved to Pennsylvania from Sonora. In fact, there’s still a lot of stuff that came with us from Sonora, including boxes that have sat unopened in the attic since the day we moved in.

I could get rid of the clutter and keep the house, but consider this: When we headed east in 1995, heating oil cost about $1 per gallon. Now it’s up to $4 per gallon. And in central Pennsylvania, it takes a lot of gallons of heating oil to keep my beard icicle-free during the winter months (roughly November to April).

Then there’s the fact that the house is aging right along with me. In fact, if my house were a person, it would be collecting Social Security. And it’s beginning to show it. I could spend my leisure time nipping and tucking, but frankly, I’d rather lounge on the porch than paint it.

Besides, this is not some grand old house on a lake that we thought we would keep in the family forever and ever. It was a serviceable place to raise three kids (though the older ones complained that, unlike our house in Sonora, it lacked “adventure places”). Now it’s an albatross. Let the decluttering begin.

Our hoarding ways aren’t bad enough to warrant an intervention from a reality television crew, but they’re bad. Specifically:

  • We still have a potty chair, a portable crib, and a baby backpack. The last user of any of this equipment is the aforementioned high school graduate.
  • Our obsolete technology department features a computer monitor roughly the size of a bread truck, a cell phone the size and heft of a five-pound dumbbell, and dozens of floppy disks, zip disks, audio cassettes, and videocassettes (no 8-track or reel-to-reel tapes, though).
  • We have enough art supplies to outfit every shovel-ready charter school in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and enough musical instruments to equip a chamber orchestra.
  • I just threw away an entire hamper full of unmatched socks, a file drawer crammed with utilities bills dating back to the previous millennium, and T-shirts from Tuolumne County restaurants that haven’t served a meal since the Raiders returned to Oakland.
  • We have a television that doesn’t televise and a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t vacuum, as well as a number of appliances that work perfectly well but that I no longer use: an electric coffee bean grinder, a crock pot, a deep fryer, a vacuum sealer…

I could go on. There’s something sad about our worldly goods, isn’t there? We buy them thinking they will make us, or the people we buy them for, happy. They rarely do. And as they accumulate we start to feel the weight of them, as if we’re carrying them on our backs. We imagine we will feel physically lighter if we can ever slough them.

I did have this one idea for disposing of the items whose principal purpose is to sit on a shelf and collect dust: Every time I was invited to a party, I would hide one knickknack under my coat and surreptitiously set it on the mantelpiece while the hosts replenished the clam dip.

I loved picturing their puzzlement when they came upon the foreign object during the post-party cleanup, but I had to come to grips with the fact that I’m not invited to enough soirees for this to be a viable decluttering strategy.

Instead, I’ve hired a stager to hold my hand as I decide what to toss, what to sell, and what to donate. The tough calls are the items freighted with emotional baggage: handmade birthday cards from my kids, newspaper accounts of my son’s Little League exploits, love letters from deluded sweethearts.

And what to do with the stuff that I don’t want but that the kids might want when they have kids: the stuffed animals, the games, the building blocks, the beloved picture books.

If I were moving back to California, it would be a cinch: I would load up my car with a suitcase full of favorite clothes and a carton or two of favorite books and ditch everything else.

But barring a fabulous job offer in the Golden State, I’ll probably move to a shoebox in Pennsylvania. Why get rid of the rake when leaves still fall from the trees, or the flatware when there will still be bread to butter, soup to slurp, and broccoli to spear?

And how can I part with my Mickey Mantle baseball, my collection of 9/11 newspapers, my vintage neckties?

Better call that reality TV crew after all.

Russell Frank teaches journalism at Penn State University. Contact him at rbf5@psu.edu.

© 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Russell Frank
By Russell Frank June 15, 2012 12:00