Building your life on your stuff ends in tears
Things end, but memories last forever.
It sounds like a lovely idea. It certainly makes for a great share-with-your-friends-on-the-internet meme. It's just I'm not so sure it's true.
Things end, yes, of course. And memories do last. But they only last for a time. At the most, it's the length of the lives of the people involved.
The problem is that we all *want* our memories to go on forever. And so we create symbols of them, we assign items and things value based on memories and then, when we're old, we try to give them away to other people. People who don't want them.
Have you guessed yet? This blog post is about decluttering.
I write a piece in our local paper/monthly mag thingy called 1-2-3 Out! It's all about, yes, getting rid of stuff and simplifying life and possessions. A couple of months ago I was approached to write specifically about the issues faced by seniors when it comes to downsizing, so I decided to give it a go.
Of course, I had to do some research, so I went to trusty Facebook and asked all my more 'mature' friends what they thought of the topic.
Almost to a person, they said that it was hard, emotional, difficult and fraught. And it became clear that the reason for all the heartache was that elderly people aren't just getting rid of their possessions when they clear out. To a large extent, they're getting rid of their memories and experiences.
And no one else wants them.
Here's an example. Our family’s favourite beach holidays are held at my Pop’s coastal cottage that he and Nanna built over 60 years ago. My extended family often spent time there together as I was growing up, and one evening, with the nightly game of Scrabble finished, we got to idly chatting about my aunt’s plans for a kitchen renovation for the little shack. She explained what she thought we should do and then we started to talk colours and new décor. Nanna was enthusiastic about all of it – until I said what turned out to be completely the wrong thing.
I picked up an old, ugly decoupaged vase that appeared to me to have no aesthetic value at all, and which certainly didn’t seem to match the room, and said, “And we can finally get rid of this!”
My Nanna’s face went from a smile to a scowl in about 0.3 seconds. She took the vase from me and said, “Excuse you. My sister Effie made that for me. It’s one of the most precious things I have.” I gulped. Effie had died two years before of leukaemia and she and my Nanna had been very close. Nanna hardly spoke to me for a day and I had to let her win at Scrabble the next night before we became friends again*.
Someone else told me about a friend of theirs, an elderly woman, who was moving from a three bedroom house to a one bedroom unit. She was very aware that all the furniture couldn’t come with her, and kindly offered to pass it on to someone who might need it. Unfortunately, although it was well-loved and had been cherished for years, none of it was in good enough condition to give away. She was horrified and devastated and said, “But it’s all lovely. We brought up a family in this home with this furniture. Why doesn’t anyone want it?”
Another friend’s elderly parents in their nineties try to give gifts to their children and grandchildren which the recipients neither need nor want. My friend said, “I have found that grown-up kids don’t necessarily want what we think they might. This is a major mental adjustment that we seniors must go through.”
Most of us assign our possessions values based on our memories, or our idea of who we are or who we want to be. So when someone else doesn’t value what we value, or want what we have chosen to give them, it can feel like we ourselves, our lives and our dreams are being devalued and rejected.
I’m certain that when I criticised Aunty Effie’s vase, even though it was innocently meant by me, my Nanna felt it as a personal attack. My wanting to throw out the symbol of her precious relationship with her late, loved sister must have felt like she was about to lose her all over again. Of course, at 17 I wasn’t even close to understanding any of this.
Seniors who need to declutter can go through tremendous emotional upset as they see the physical symbols of their lives being dismantled before their eyes. It must feel like a literal destruction of the memories they (and we all) think will 'last forever', but which, clearly, won't survive past the skip out on the pavement.
If they try to damp the pain by making gifts of their most precious items to younger family members, they risk even more rejection. And younger family members who don’t want to have to deal with ugly decoupaged vases (for example) can become frustrated and annoyed.
Two things need to happen.
From seeing the unappreciated gift-giving of her parents, my friend has resolved to do the first in her own life. She says, “We must keep memories for ourselves, not for anyone else.” If you’re a senior, enjoy your memories, but know that they are yours and they don’t belong to anyone else. Don’t try to give things to people to don’t want them. If you really do want to give your things away to family, ask them what they’d like.
If you’re a younger person (and I'm really talking to myself here) be aware of these things: First, be sensitive, compassionate and patient as you help the seniors in your life to downsize. They’re not just getting rid of stuff - they’re moving from a big, rich, full life to one which is probably going to be smaller in many ways, and that can be a huge grief.
Second, as you grow old, hold your possessions lightly. Find other ways to carry your memories with you through your life instead of turning physical objects into symbols of who you are and where you've been.
At the very least it will make for more honest Scrabble games.
*this is probably actually not true. I don't think I've ever let anyone win at Scrabble, and Nanna was more competitive than every single person in the family. Perhaps I sat back when she won and acted very graciously instead, which may have looked like I won...