About Your Stuff

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She says I should have kept the anvil.

It was a real blacksmith’s anvil that belonged to my dad, before him to my grandfather, before him I don’t know who. This was no beginner’s anvil. Coal black, it had felt the heat of a forge and the beat of hammers for a hundred years or more. It had a bick, or a horn, for hammering curved pieces of metal, it had a step and a pritchel hole, it had a smooth face with a rounded edge on one side. It sat on a log end. Anvil and log together I’m guessing weighed somewhere in the area of 250 pounds.

Both my father and grandfather had shops.

My wife and I have a back porch.

The anvil, she says, would have looked nice on the back porch. I don’t disagree. I could picture it out there on a summer evening, next to the potted ferns, a glass of white wine sitting on it. But I just said no. I could also picture myself having to lift it, first getting it into the car, arguably the wrong vehicle for transporting an anvil, then to our house from my parents’ house, then from the car to the back porch, then to various locations on the porch, finding just the right spot.

A while back I saw a comic in The New Yorker. A father and son are standing in front of a garage. The big door is open. Inside, on every square inch of available space, from floor to ceiling is a jumble of stuff. The father is saying: “One day all of this will be yours.”

eight spoons

The story of late middle age might be written as follows: You lose your parents, you gain their stuff.

The spring our parents died, within a few months of each other, my brother and I came into this difficult inheritance. It was all ours. We flirted with the idea of various kinds of sales–a garage sale, a rummage sale, an estate sale. We couldn’t decide which. We knew we had to get rid of stuff. We also knew that most of our parents’ stuff wasn’t worth much, and that the measures we were considering would be insufficient. Some of their stuff, probably a lot of it, would still be there, all of it ours, to dispose of.

Four consecutive Fridays I drove ninety miles north to the house. My brother and I walked around the basement, out to the garage and dad’s shop, into the bedrooms still full of their clothes and shoes. We opened and closed kitchen cabinets and drawers. We filled garbage bags with magazines and empty plastic margarine containers and took them to the road. On a shelf above a coat closet, our dad had 26 bill caps. One day we found, in a living room drawer, greeting cards my mother had saved, Happy Father’s Day cards, Happy Anniversary cards, Happy Birthday cards, each with 2-3 lines she had written. “I am so glad you are my husband.” “I love you more with each passing year.” “I never imagined I could love someone so much.”

Each day, after a morning of these half-hearted exertions, freighted with love and futility, we sank into living room chairs and talked, in our own little theater of memory.

A decision was required.

Do not resuscitate. It felt like that.

I’ve been hearing downsizing stories lately. Few of us are the right size. Some people my age talk of going small.

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I know a woman who sold everything and moved to Italy, all her belongings in two suitcases. Now she’s moving back, still two suitcases. A couple in Michigan retired, sold everything, and moved to Colorado. Another couple in Michigan retired, sold everything, and moved to Los Angeles. A friend of mine on Facebook confessed recently, “We have 49 beach towels. How did that happen? Who the hell needs 49 beach towels?”

Reading up on downsizing leads me to an organization called the Simplicity Collective, a name rich in paradox. They are apostles of Thoreau. On their website there is pull-down menu dedicated to Thoreau: Thoreau on clothing, Thoreau on shelter, Thoreau on food. Thoreau on comforts, luxuries, and tools. Below the Simplicity Collective in my Google search is the Simplicity Institute. It envisions “voluntary simplicity,” “a prosperous descent.”

I get it. A few months each year my wife and I leave hearth and home in Detroit (part hearth and home, part museum, archive, and warehouse). We leave and go to stay in the family apartment in my wife’s village in the Republic of San Marino. In the weeks before we leave, we get the house ready. While we’re gone the lawn will have to be mowed, the mail stopped; water to toilets, the water heater, and washing machine shut off. I try to limit recreational grocery shopping. The first time we went for a long stay, the first time I cleared out the fridge, just the jars (jams, preserves, olives, condiments) and dried up rinds of cheeses and fugitive bread crusts hiding in the back of shelves filled a garbage bag. Now it’s a deliberate campaign: eat everything in the refrigerator and the freezer. The day before departure, all that’s left is a carton of milk, a couple slices of bread, and two eggs.

Each time I open that almost-empty refrigerator, to this amazing flash of light on the bright glass shelves and white walls, it’s a revelation of possibility. We too could be minimal. Just this much, you think, and no more.

4 spoons

Our living space in San Marino is around 1000 square feet. We don’t use all of it. In the kitchen cupboard are five glasses, six coffee cups. Above the sink in a strainer are six plates and four soup bowls. The refrigerator is a third of the size of the one we have have in the States. It is sufficient. We shop every day, eat most of what we buy. There’s no lawn to mow, no leaves to rake. The phone rings 2-3 times a week. There is no mail.

Simple. And yet–.

My mother-in-law’s fine China, left behind when the family immigrated, fills a cabinet in the little dining room. In another cabinet, in the “great room,” I count 27 stem glasses, 17 water goblets, 20 cordials. It was her good stuff, my wife says. Rattling around in a kitchen drawer are vintage accessories: ten wooden spoons, three white plastic utensils (spoon, turner, spaghetti rake), five aluminum utensils (two ladles, a skimmer, a serving fork, an over-sized spoon), two corkscrews, two can openers. And more.

In a bedroom armadio, taking up the space of one large cardboard box, is a pile of books, quaderni (notebooks), photographs, family documents. One day my wife pulls out a quaderno, reads a short essay she wrote in school when she was eight years old.

When they left San Marino for America in 1959, my wife’s maternal grandmother said to my mother-in-law, “You will lose.” Meaning all your stuff, the shared history, the family, your life—will be ripped away from you.

In that cabinet, in an earlier quaderno, my wife’s calligraphy practice. V v v v v v v v i i i i i i a a a a a a.

two spoons

In the end my brother and I decided on an auction. A guy named Marty came to the house. We walked around the basement, out to the garage and dad’s shop, into the bedrooms.

“Good Will should take that,” Marty said, pointing at stuff hanging in their bedroom closet.

“Sure,” I said. “And?”

“I can do this auction,” he said. He had a team. They would come into the house for three days ahead of the sale and prepare.

I said, “What about, you know, everything that’s left over?”

“We sell everything,” he said.

“I don’t know,” my brother said. “There’s probably stuff no one will want to buy.”

“We’ll sell everything,” Marty said.

The day of the sale I drove north ninety miles to the house. It was a sunny day in late June. On the lawn, in the front and back and sides of the house, everything. All the furniture. On the beds of farm wagons, in boxes, everything. On tables between the farm wagons, more stuff: from half-full boxes of laundry detergent, a couple boxes of garbage bags, and plastic bags of plastic flatware already-open to two ounce metal boxes of cinnamon, cloves, and black pepper, baking sheets and nut crackers and mixing bowls, bug repellents, tubes of pencil leads for dad’s Eversharp pencils. Everything.

At three o’clock, the cars and trucks began to arrive, parking up and down the street, many of them with trailers hitched to the vehicles. These, I later gathered, were Marty’s groupies. They followed him from sale to sale. They parked and roamed, covered the territory, moving across the lawn, inspecting goods, sniffing out deals. Waiting.

The auction began at five o’clock.

Bidding on our father’s chair started at $125. It sold for $35.

Bidding on the old green davenport, ugly, and with a definite slope to the center, but kept good as new, started at $100. It sold for $25.

The billcaps went for a buck.

Tom and I circulated, watched, nervous and elated. In a state of shock.

By nine o’clock, laden with our parents’ stuff, vehicles crawled out of the subdivision, disappeared down the road into the dusk.

At ten o’clock, the house and garage and shop and yard, all were empty. Marty had sold everything. Even the garbage cans were gone.

It was a robbery, an evisceration.

An erasure.

Since then, I’ve thought of these lines from The Grapes of Wrath, Tom Joad saying, “How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? How will it be not to know what land’s outside the door? How, if you wake up in the middle of the night and know–and know the willow tree’s not there? Can you live without the willow tree? Well, no, you can’t. The willow tree is you.”

Before the auction I grabbed a few tools I wanted. In particular I looked for screwdrivers, the old ones with wood handles, with dirt and sweat massaged into the grain from long years of use. They were his. Now they’re mine.

Yesterday at a grocery store in San Marino, in a moment of what-the-hellness, I bought two wooden utensils, ideal for turning scrambled eggs on the non-stick pan we bought down in Rimini last week. They will join my mother-in-law’s collection of wooden spoons in the drawer over here. I’ve used one of my new pieces already. It’s just what I needed, just what I wanted. (The difference between need and want is difficult to unblur.) It takes years to season a wooden spoon. The ones I just bought are smooth and blonde; those in the drawer are dark, stained by decades of olive oil and meat fat and tomato, nicked and pitted from use. They are historical spoons.

one spoon

Someday someone will have to open the drawers and empty them. I’m thinking about that, about zones of economy and excess, what I can and want to do, what I should do about stuff.

Who needs 49 beach towels?

Who needs 26 bill caps?

Who needs dozens of screwdrivers and wooden spoons?

Who needs an anvil?

Some of our stuff we need. It’s how we know we’re us. It’s a reminder of where we’ve been and who we come from; a reminder that now we’re them.

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