Friday, July 1, 2011


by Sheila Connolly

I was planning to write a post about how we accumulate Things in the course of our lives, and then become stymied with what to do with them all.  Then a couple of weeks ago I came upon an article in the New York Times Sunday magazine written by Carina Chocano ('Underneath Every Hoarder Is a Normal Person Waiting to Be Dug out'), and she said many interesting things about hoarding, its history, and our cultural fascination with it.  Plus she said them well, and I'm not going to repeat all her points here.  However, I think she missed two important aspects of Keeping Things.

I live in an 1870 Victorian house, that most people would consider large--you know, twin parlors with sliding doors, nine-foot ceilings, spacious entrance hall with sweeping mahogany staircase.  There's one problem, though:  a dearth of closets.

Or, I should say, a conspicuous absence of clothing closets.  On the ground floor there is a walk-through butler's pantry with a china closet, and in the dining room there is another china closet with a glass front--I guess that was for the "good" stuff.  There is a pantry closet in the kitchen, and I think there was once a second, long since converted into a powder room. 

But clothes?  Ha!  Coat closet?  Nope, only two rows of wall hooks by the back door.  Bedrooms?  One has no closet at all.  Two have very shallow closets flanking the chimney flue (lined with hooks, but not deep enough for a modern hanger), and the last has both a closet and a linen closet.

To put it simply, the storage in this house is lousy.  Or at least, the easily accessed storage.  We have a full basement--damp.  We also have a full attic--which is either freezing or broiling, may have a mold problem, and is not easy to access, especially carrying anything larger than a breadbox. 

I have a lot of stuff, and I've filled every closet, and a lot of the attic.  In my own defense, let me say that it is not stuff that I acquired; mainly I inherited it.  My grandmother, a fiercely independent woman, lived for the last twenty-plus years of her life in an exquisite studio apartment facing Park Avenue in New York.  Everything she owned was encompassed in that room, plus a walk-in closet and a storage closet on another floor.  She chose carefully and cherished each item she kept.

My mother shared her mother's taste, and kept many of the things that my grandmother relinquished.  One of the first purchases my mother made when she married was a matched pair of glass-fronted corner cupboards, to display "nice" pieces.  I still have them (yes, they're full).

And I inherited all of it.  When my mother died, my sister and I divvied up what we wanted, and sold the rest.  There were still two trucks' worth that we carted away.  The furniture was nicer than anything I had managed to acquire by then, so I was happy to have that.  But it's all the other stufff...and I find it almost physically painful to part with something that carries memories.

Someday my daughter (our only child) will inherit most of this stuff.  Much of it won't mean anything to her, since she doesn't have the memories that I do.  How do I pass those on?  What about the collection of demitasse coffee cups that my grandfather--who I never met--collected and enjoyed, as my mother told me on more than on occasion, cradling the cup in her hand?  What about the pink jade Buddha with a removable fan?  I remember playing "hide the fan" in my grandmother's apartment in the 1950s (we always found it, as you can see).  None of these will mean anything to my daughter.  But how can I get rid of them?  I haven't come up with any answers yet, but I pity my daughter in advance.

The other topic that Chocana didn't address is collecting books.  I've always loved books.  I truly believed that our local library was giving me books to keep (so I hid them under my bed).  My grandmother and my mother read books, usually hardcovers.  I had the full set of Nancy Drew before I was ten.  I started on science fiction in college, then shifted to mysteries, and never looked back--and all this was long before I ever thought about writing myself.  My husband and I collected mysteries when we were first married, and inherited more from his father.

So I have thousands of books, and those are only the ones I chose to keep.  I'll admit up front:  there's not enough time left to me to reread all of them, especially if I want to keep reading new books as they come out, and now I have to read the ones that my many writer friends are producing.  And's painful to part with a book that I love.

How do you handle it?


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sheila, what you said about the objects that represent memories of mother and grandmother struck a chord. I have a few pieces that I treasure because they were displayed in my parents' house for over 50 years (from as long as I can remember until they died). My son doesn't care about them, and my granddaughters don't visit often enough for me to tell them the stories and try to instill a sense of family continuity in them. I guess the bottom line is "You can't take it with you."

Diane said...

I have a few small things that were my maternal Grandmother's. She didn't have much. She was widowed in the Spanish flu epedemic, left with a daughter less than a year old. She ended up working - all of her work life - as a clerk in a department store. So I cherish the few things of hers I have. But my daughters didn't know her, much less my grandchildren. Sadly, those few possetions and their original owner's histories will be lost to time.