As an early believer in the "less is best for a simple life" movement, I've spent a year sorting through inherited family possessions with the intention of getting rid of most of them. When they're gone I won't have to care for them, feel obligated to use them, or resent their uselessness as they take up valuable space. Noble goals. Noble, but decidedly difficult.
Supposedly simple criteria such as "Have I used it in the past year? Will I use it in the next?" don't apply when it's your mother's embroidered honeymoon gloves dangling over the "out" box.
At that moment, gloves are not just old leather and stitching. They're the intimate history of a woman in love with her high school sweetheart. Forget that their marriage later ended in divorce. On that day the gloves represented hopes, dreams, plans, and joy.
You can see why my progress has been slow.
I realize that there is a fundamental conflict in this custom of handing things down from generation to generation. When parents and family members give family possessions to children and relatives, they are saying "This is important to me, and so are you. If I am important to you, you will cherish what I am giving you."
Translation: Keep it forever and care for it as I would.
What does it mean then, if we don't polish the silver or oil the antique music box, or worse yet, get rid of them? That we don't care? That we're untrustworthy? How can we justify to Mom and Dad that Grandma's prized bowl is now a thrift-shop special?
When families lived in one community or the same house all their lives, they could keep everything received from everybody - especially since a woman's role was then defined by maintaining it all in order.
But our lives and culture have changed in ways our parents never imagined. I've lived in 10 places on two continents since graduating from college. How many sets of silverware must I haul around to how many locations to prove that I honor my heritage? Is maintaining material possessions the best way to do that anyway? What's wrong with trading in high-maintenance stuff for more free time? Shouldn't I spend more time living life and less time taking care of useless things?
It's a fundamental conflict that neither side thinks of when giving or receiving. Saying "No, thanks" to something generously offered is a slap few of us can deliver without remorse.
As an only child, I have not only what my mother wanted me to have from her, but also the mementos she kept from people important to her. What do I do with the wooden step stool her father made that is not useful, being narrow and somewhat tippy? I don't use it. I just keep it. Stay or go?
Mother-daughter aprons sewn by my maternal grandmother in the 1950s? Pinafore-style, white rickrack trim, all cotton, need ironing. I have no daughter. My Generation-X son has no significant other, let alone children. Stay or go?
Yards of Chinese fabric from the house my determined mother struggled to buy in the days when single women were not welcome at the mortgage-lending table. I've moved it to closets in three houses in the past 20 years. Thumbs up or down?
Sterling-silver candelabra, a gift from my mother's boss when she left his employ after 20 years of exemplary service. Would it be crass to sell them and put the money toward my retirement? Would that dishonor the decades of her hard work that they rewarded?
There are successful models of how to walk this emotional tightrope. I think about my friend, Alice, from a Mennonite farm family. When her parents decided to leave the farm for an assisted-living community, the pragmatic Mennonite approach to possessions was set in motion.
In round-robin selection process, each child chose one item from the family home. Then grandchildren and great-grandchildren had their chance. What remained was sold at an open auction on the farm, where family, friends, and neighbors could bid. The money was added to the elderly couple's savings to ensure their financial security.
The tradition is understood and accepted without remorse. In fact, the family considers it a blessing to be relieved of the decisions I am now facing.
But I have no siblings to help me out of my dilemma. My son has no need of Grandma's candelabra. My age-appropriate friends have exchanged high-maintenance for low-impact. They run screaming from the thought of my fine china dessert plates with matching cups, cream pitcher, and sugar bowl.
What I dispose of goes to strangers, charity groups, and bidders at a local auction house who have no interest in the personal history of the merchandise. I try not to dwell on that, preferring to think the people who buy them will build their own memories with their chosen treasures.
I intend to save my son from this burden. I give him the chance to claim items hovering over the "out" box. What he takes immediately becomes his responsibility. When he says "No," I don't second-guess his decision in case he might change his mind years from now.
I believe that the most important material possessions I can give him will be irreplaceable family photographs and films that chronicle family history. The rest is temporary and expendable.
OK, decisions have to be made. Grandpa's step stool? It stays, because it is the only tangible thing of his I have.
The aprons? They go. Some mother and daughter will love them. Wear them in good health.
The Chinese fabric? It goes. Three houses and 20 years are three houses and 20 years too many.
The candelabra? They stay. Every woman looks fabulous by candlelight. And I still have some years left to build up the retirement fund.
Things that need cleaning and polishing are reduced to five items. Compromise is good.
As I load up packing boxes, I send many a "Sorry, Mom" heavenward. But I know she'd be all right with my decisions because, above all, she was a dedicated mother whose first commitment was to my well-being. The relief I feel from my new freedom would make her happy, too.
That's the only keepsake I need, the one that I carry with me wherever I go.
Everything else is just stuff.