Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Stuff of Memories

First published in The Oxford Journal on Wednesday, May 1, 2013 by Sara Mattinson.

Before my husband had surgery on his shoulder early last month, we had a conversation about our wills because this is what you do when someone is going under anaesthesia. 
In our house, there are three people to consider: me, my husband and the person who lives in apartment 2A (my mother). Our main goal is to protect Mum so she doesn’t lose what is now her home. Turns out the house is the easy part.
What’s hard is figuring out what to do with all the stuff that’s in the house. Because, seriously, the small stuff adds up and really does make you sweat. (Hundreds of books make for very heavy boxes.)
 In theory, writing a will seems simple: You leave a house, a truck, a cottage, a ring, a gun collection, a set of moose antlers to someone or some people. You write down who gets what. It’s simple if you only have those few things. But looking around my house, I realized I have way too much stuff. It all has its place now but what is its place in the future?
So this is the real reason people have kids! You can pass on, serene and ethereal in the knowledge that your stuff will be dealt with by your children after you’re gone so you don’t need to fuss about it now. 
Do I burden my nieces and nephews, who live in Georgia, with the task of dealing with however many decades of their aunt’s stuff? What will they want with a dozen framed photos of Dwayne and me? Or three jars of dried pussy willows? Or my pig, bird and elephant collections? 
At least they can pawn my jewelry.
Most of my dearest friends live in Ontario so I can’t leave instructions for them to come in and pick over all my stuff and take what they want. I suppose if I am organized enough, lucid enough or warned enough, I can box up items I think each of them (or their children) would appreciate, stick a mailing label on each and hope there is enough money in my estate to cover postage.
In a post last August on the Mother Nature Network, Starre Vartan wrote, “All this stuff does take time, after all, to keep clean, to sort through periodically, to fix and paint and even just to think about.” 
Vartan went on to write about her hardest giveway: Because she doesn’t have children, she mailed several boxes of her Barbies, including the outfits handmade by her grandmother, to a friend whose daughters were thrilled to receive them. 
“These items that had taken up space in my attic for a decade are now being used and played with,” she concluded. “And better yet, I realized I still had all the beautiful memories from my childhood, which of course don’t take up any space at all.”
And that’s why we have stuff. They are a tangible representation of our memories and stories, of the who and what they are connected to: The carved loon made by a dear family friend who died in 2011. The ironwood coyote my father bought me in Palm Springs. The jar of beach glass collected from Pugwash Point. The elephant my husband gave me as a desk talisman at the start of a big writing project.
We worry that if the item disappears, so will the memory, the story, the person. It’s hard to argue that stuff is bad if it has meaning. The trick is to keep the meaningful stuff and let go of the rest.
I mentioned to my dearest local friend that I was figuring out what would happen to my stuff when I die.
“I don’t know anyone who talks about death more than you do,” Jane said. 
“Well, it’s a good thing I do because do you want my elephant collection?”
She said yes. But when I told my mother about it, she said, “I want your elephant collection.”
Okay, I’m not dead and they’re fighting over my stuff. This is unexpected.
So I had to go back to Jane and retract my offer. Jane wasn’t fazed a bit and she solved another problem for me. 
“Oh, I like your mother so I’ll adopt her and get the elephants anyway.”

A sample of the coveted collection

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