What our stuff says

I have a lot of stuff. I realized this when my husband and I moved into our first apartment. He neatly packed his clothes, books, a few antique cameras, and a box of photos into his little white Neon. I had to make 10 trips in a Mercury Sable that was bursting at the seams.

“What is all this?” he asked, pointing at the pile of boxes and bags in the middle of our living room.
“It’s my stuff,” I replied. “Can’t you tell?”
“Well, that’s ridiculous,” he said. “Every time you move, you should get rid of everything.”

Obviously, I hadn’t changed apartments in a while. I tried to convince Drew that my stuff was important, that it ensured my comfort and happiness in an ever-changing, crazy world. Stuff, to me, remains constant and stable.

My collection of notebooks, for instance. I have leather-bound notebooks, silky ones, notebooks with gilded pages, notebooks with and without lines. I have a notebook in every room.

I have a scarf collection from around the world. My husband claims that he first fell in love with my scarves, so he doesn’t complain about them too much – even though they take up most of his drawers and jump out at him from the coat closet in the hallway.

It is hard to explain my relationship to my stuff. But in a strange way the things that surround me – just like people – represent who I am.

When I was little, my grandfather’s room always seemed incredibly warm and mysterious. He believed in conserving energy, so the lights were always off, except for a small reading lamp on his computer desk. In high school, when I needed help with my math homework, I usually found him behind that computer desk, peering up at me from some complicated equation. We sat in his dark room several afternoons a week; I was not exactly a math genius. Grandpa made up little rhymes and poems to help me memorize rules and equations and hoped earnestly that I would become an engineer just like him.

I didn’t.

His room was the only one in our apartment that had paintings on the wall. If I remember the story correctly, he told me once that they belonged to a great-great-uncle who once owned a movie theater and whose wife owned a stationery store. The paintings were of a young woman in a hat, a small country house, some trees, and the interior of a room. When my grandfather was away, I liked to go into his room and snoop. I don’t know what I was hoping to find, but there was so much stuff everywhere I was sure he was hiding great treasures. I also liked to inhale the smell in his room: a mixture of chamomile and shaving cream.

His closets and drawers were full of mysterious tools, notebooks, his stamp collection. He believed in keeping everything: plastic bags and bottles (he was a plastics engineer), carbon paper, old envelopes, anything that could be reused.

I wasn’t there when my parents cleaned out his room after his death. But I often wondered about what they would uncover, the family mementos, silly souvenirs from trips, or secret diaries. I was hoping for some stuff that represents who my grandfather was and wasn’t. When my parents were done, the picture was sobering: My grandfather left behind 20 bags of trash and about $900 in a bank account.

His long life had seen him hiding from Nazis during World War II, getting married as Budapest was being bombed, finding his wife alive in the Dachau concentration camp, having successful children and grandchildren, writing books, learning to use a computer late in his life. But his room had no personal belongings that he held dear or wore every day. We couldn’t point to anything and say: “That was his favorite so-and-so” or “Remember when he bought such and such?”

I was disappointed. There seemed to be so many mysteries about him, so many unanswered questions. In the half-darkness of his room I’d hoped to find answers to why he was always seemed unhappy and lonely even though his daughter and grandchildren lived with him.

I realize that one’s legacy should not be measured by the amount of stuff. But I couldn’t help but wonder about my own stuff: Am I just collecting trash? Will my children and grandchildren walk through my house, discarding my collections? Will my notebooks and scarves seem like the goofy habit of a crazy old woman? I hope that maybe one of my grandchildren will wrap one of my big, silky scarves around her face, inhale the scent of my perfume and say: “This used to be Grandma’s.”

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