January 27, 2014
THE STUFF OF OUR LIVES
MONTPELIER – I have an old friend who as a kid in California during the 50s was star-struck by the Los Angeles Rams quarterback and jack-of-all-trades, Bob Waterfield. He spotted Bob outside the stadium one day, and shyly approached him for his autograph. “There was kind of a good-looking woman with him, but I didn’t think anything about her. Looking back, I realized I should have asked her for hers, too.” The good-looking woman was Waterfield’s wife, the actress Jane Russell. Which of those autographs do you think would be more valuable today?
Almost all of us, I dare say, have collections of stuff, small or large, that have significance for us – oftentimes only us. A baby book, for example, with a lock of hair from either us or one of our kids; an autographed first edition; a measuring cup of our mother’s. I’m looking, as I write, at a small engraved silver bowl with no purpose but to hold candy or nuts or remind me of a distant happy day; a basswood figurine of a Swiss mountain climber in plus fours, carrying an ice ax and a coil of rope, given to me by my bride over half a century ago; and a camshaft cover stud bolt from my long-ago, lamented Jaguar. Other people will dispose of all of them eventually, more or less reverently, if I don’t do it first. Yet how can I? They mean too much to me.
So-called reality television, in its constant depiction of pathology as entertainment, has stumbled upon the phenomenon of hoarding. Its cameras take viewers into the incredibly crowded and chaotic homes of people suffering from the compulsion. It may be an old guy with a huge yard full of rusting auto carcasses and washing machines with trees growing up through them, or a vaguely distressed elderly woman threading her way on narrow paths through rooms full of stuff. None of them, however, can hold a candle to the notorious Collyer brothers, who were found dead in 1947 in the tunnels through the rubble stored in their jam-packed brownstone at Fifth Avenue and 128th. They forever will be the undisputed champions of stuff.
Some of our fellow citizens make their livings by buying, transporting, sorting, and selling stuff. Another television show that’s painful to watch films these burly entrepreneurs bidding, sight unseen, for the contents of self-storage lockers whose rent is long in arrears. After the winning bid, the auctioneer scissors off the padlock and opens the door to the unseen treasures. The viewers follow the interested parties right inside. The usual haul is 30-year-old computers, 45-rpm record changers, photo albums, and rusted home appliances – useless to anyone but these characters, who can resell them at a profit – stuff that somebody, for one reason or another, couldn’t bring himself to part with. But his failure to keep up on the rent indicates its true value to him.
Then there’s the popular “Antiques Road Show.” When the production crew is coming to their town, people dig out stuff they’ve been sitting on for decades, in some cases, and bring it to the appraisers, who decide if it’s exciting enough to warrant a couple of minutes of air time. Lots of 19-century vases and jewelry, Civil War belt buckles, Tiffany-style lamps, and pastoral paintings. We don’t get to see the stuff that fails the inspection, and we watch the good stuff because we wonder what it’s worth (we may have something like it around the house), and because there’s often an interesting history lesson involved. The classic reaction to the estimate of its value is beautifully spoofed in a Geico commercial in which the appraiser, looking at a ceramic bird held in a ceramic hand, opines that “it might be worth as much as [Wait for it!] two in the bush.”
Mother and I are in our eighth decade, and a lot of our friends are necessarily downsizing: their houses have become too much to keep up, and their new, smaller quarters require giving the kids what they want and taking other stuff to Goodwill or the Salvation Army. We watched a very sad auction some years ago, in which an elderly couple’s stuff went on the block while the survivor, a widower watched. As each item was knocked down, he murmured, “It’s worth a lot more than that.” Which it was– or at least had been – to him and his wife.
Another time, many years ago, I went with my father and uncle to clear out the apartment of a maiden great-aunt who’d gone into a nursing home and would not be returning. It was an eye-opener. A news junkie, she’d been for decades cutting out newspaper articles that interested her, and saving them in boxes. I swore, as I helped carry box after box of heavy newsprint down the stairs to the street, never to leave behind such a mess. And yet, as I look around me here...
My father, in his last years, escorted me to the shop in his cellar, which he’d just organized into categories, and asked if there was anything I wanted. There was nothing there I could use – all his electrical stuff predated the electronic age – but I did take a couple of sharp-pointed cobblers’ awls that had been my great-grandfather’s. I can see them from where I’m sitting; but when I’m gone, nobody will have any idea what they are, and they’ll disappear into a dumpster with a bunch of other stuff. Just as well, I suppose.
Getting rid of stuff is difficult; for many it’s painful to the point of being impossible. We can only hope our kids value what we consider the best of our stuff so that we don’t have to watch it disappear down the driveway in strangers’ cars...or worse. There’s no way they can possibly know, for example, how we found the old milk glass Aladdin lamp and the blue-painted sap yoke in the dump beside the abandoned cabin deep in the Adirondacks. But there’s no way that stuff can go where we’re going within a few years. One thing I have learned during the contemplation of this looming catastrophe, however, is never to hold somebody else’s stuff aloft and say, “I wonder why in the world he saved this.” It doesn’t matter. There was a reason, but you’ll never know it.