“Simplify! Simplify!” ……Henry David Thoreau
My father’s dark brown hair began to thin and turn gray when he was in his early forties. He had the barber cut it short in a “wiffle.” Whenever someone remarked on his receding hairline and his expanding tonsure, he’d laugh, rub his hand back over what hair remained and say, “I came into this world with nothing and that’s the way I’m going to leave it.” When he shuffled off his mortal coil at eighty-one, he left with a nearly bald pate and very few material things that he and my mother didn’t own in common. A half century old cribbage board, his fishing gear, his briefcase, a Catholic missal, a book about his Navy outfit, some tools, two rosaries and the daily diaries he started keeping after he retired. There were a few family photos from his childhood in Sparrows Point, and his clothes.
My mother died a few years later. She spared us the sorting, the divesting, and the squabbling. She,too,had spent decades giving away things she no longer used or needed. Her will was detailed and explicit, down to the Lenox china, the dining room furniture set, and the manufactured home in Florida, where she spent her winters.
In contrast, my 95 year old neighbor, a widower, died leaving his two bedroom ranch house crammed from attic to basement with stuff. Three sets of china filled the kitchen and dining room cabinets. Thirty year old draperies hung in the windows, and more were stored in the closets along with wool blankets, table linens, towels, and sheets—most of them untouched for many seasons . The basement was overflowing with his late wife’s craft items—dried flowers, jars of pipe cleaners and paper fasteners, glues, wires, rolls and sheets of crepe paper, and scissors of all sizes. The pastor from the little white church down the street and I volunteered to help clean out the house, as there were no close relations in town. One hot summer day, we dragged a tall ladder from the garage and opened the trap door to the attic, where we found the wife’s wedding dress, dry rotted and carefully packed away in a large flimsy cardboard box from Jordan Marsh, and a World War II air raid warden’s helmet. Even after the man’s cousins and their children claimed a few chairs, or a set of dishes, there was more stuff. We called the Salvation Army to haul away some of the better furniture. The Vietnam Vets and Big Brothers took even more–fifty years of accumulated, mostly useless possessions.
We arrive in this life with few accoutrements—the umbilical cord is cut and taken away, we get a fresh little diaper and a onesie suit, and we’re off to the races, a lifetime of accumulating stuff. Three months before my first son was born, he’d already owned a brand new crib, a hand-me-down changing table, a freshly repainted chest of drawers that served his father and his two uncles in succession, and some very cool outfits his cousin Nico had outgrown. Within weeks the baby had a menagerie of stuffed animals—a monkey that almost accompanied my son to college 18 years later, a windup plush cow that shook its head aback and forth to “Hey Diddle Diddle” music, a farm mobile that played “It’s a Small, Small World,” and a special mirror with Velcro straps that fastened on to the crib bars, so the baby could see himself. By the time the baby was a year old, his toys filled the shelves in his room and overflowed on to our wide sun porch.
Our older boy was joined a few years later by his brother. We added to their paraphernalia large cardboard “bricks” for playing “Master Builder,” wooden train sets, Playmobils, Legos, GI Joes, and Lincoln Logs At first tricycles, then two wheeler bikes, in-line skates with lots of padding for elbows and knees and wrists, and soccer, baseball, and track gear, gym bags, spikes and shin guards filled our basement garage and laundry room. Remembering my mother’s mantra—when they outgrow it, get rid of it, I obsessively cleared out the gear as soon as the younger boy outgrew it.
Ours is a culture of acquisition. Without fully realizing it, we accumulate decades of electronics, books, suitcases, CDs, magazines, appliances, baseball cards and tee shirts. The antidote, I suppose, lies either in taking one of those pledges where you don’t buy anything new—except food—for a year, or in ridding the home of places in which to put things—and forget about them entirely.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to dispose of my American lit paperbacks from college. I haven’t opened them in at least 20 years, and they are literally disintegrating on the shelf. In the close summer air, I smell the sweet scent of liberation.