Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Stuff

One of my favorite movie lines ever comes from The Jerk, when Steve Martin's character has just lost his fortune and his wife, played by Bernadette Peters, whines "it's not the money I mind losing; it's the stuuff," as she surveys a pile that includes things like velvet-shaded lamps and umbrellas for drinks.

And one of my favorite short stories is Alice Walker's Everyday Use, in which a college-educated daughter comes back to her childhood home and tries to carry off anything she thinks would be nice to decorate her modern home, including the top of the butter churn her sister and mother are still using, and the quilts her grandmother made. She wants to display these things to anyone who comes in her house, while her sister and mother use them to remember the people who made them. There's even a passage that reminds me of what one of my relatives said about me, when she learned that my great-aunt had left me some Portuguese china that she wanted for herself: "but she won't appreciate them!" (You can be sure that whenever I get out that china and use it, I always declare that I don't appreciate it.) Here's what the college-educated daughter says about the quilts:
"Maggie can't appreciate these quilts!" she said. "She'd probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use."
"I reckon she would," I said. "God knows I been saving 'em for long enough with nobody using 'em. I hope she will!" I didn't want to bring up how I had offered Dee (Wangero) a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told me they were old-fashioned, out of style.
"But they're priceless!" she was saying now, furiously; for she has a temper. "Maggie would put them on the bed and in five years they'd be in rags. Less than that!"

The thing that these two stories have in common, of course, is the attitude towards the sentimental value of the things we buy and keep. If it were just the money that was important, few of us would have things like under-the-bed boxes and even rental storage units. I could buy a new chair to replace the one where I nursed both my babies, as my father has repeatedly said I should, fingering the cat-clawed holes in the upholstery. Maybe my brother could have bought his seven-year-old beginning pianist an instrument in the city where he lives, rather than having my parents ship their grand piano hundreds of miles across the country.

In the last few years, my parents have begun to give away some of their things (like the piano) and several of my friends have gone through the wrenching death of a parent and then the disturbing experience of trying to clean out and sell the house. Watching them deal with the overwhelming accumulation of stuff and the usually well-intentioned missteps of siblings has been my usual behind-the-baby-boomer-generation experience: the boomers do it first, and then I try to do it differently, because I've seen how NOT to do it!

So when I got an offer of a free book in exchange for a review on this blog, I accepted a copy of The Boomer Burden: Dealing With Your Parents' Lifetime Accumulation of Stuff, by Julie Hall, the Estate Lady. It's written for people who are trying to deal with parents who are becoming increasingly incapacitated while living in houses full of, not only their lifetime accumulation of stuff, but also the stuff they inherited from their parents and even their grandparents. As Hall points out, sorting out all this stuff can be an exercise in frustration, when it could be an opportunity for siblings to comfort each other.

The book has some practical suggestions for how to do this, like excluding in-laws from discussions about inheritance and making "wish lists" of things from the parents' house in order to see if there's any overlap. The most non-obvious and therefore helpful part of the book, for me at least, are the ideas for ways to ask parents questions like whether they've made a will and if they have a health care power of attorney.

The last chapters go into detail about what can happen to an unoccupied house full of things that have both sentimental and real value, and how to go about emptying it and preparing it for sale. There are a few details most of us wouldn't have thought of, like using bug spray in the attic before the day you go to clean it out, but the rest is pretty much common sense. It reads like something a person might need in the middle of an enormous emotional upheaval, which is, of course, one of the ways this book will probably be read.

For most of the people I know, a book like The Boomer Burden (with its nicely ironic echo of Kipling) will have three or four ideas we hadn't already thought of. But it could have a different three or four ideas for my parents, and maybe even a few more different ideas for my brother, so I think I'll pass it around my family this holiday season. If your family is like mine and comes too close for comfort to the extremely taciturn family in Catherine Murdock's Dairy Queen, then this book could help you find ways to discuss difficult emotional issues before the discussions become all about the stuff.

1 comment:

Libby said...

Wow, does this sound like a useful book! When I think of what happened in my family when my grandmother's stuff got dispersed...well...too bad we didn't have the book then!