Monday, May 25, 2009

Cherishing Keepsakes

Here are some thoughts from a "work in progress."

Mom and Dad and I moved into my childhood house in 1960, when I was three. Dad was a truck driver; Mom had worked in retail until she became pregnant with me, their only child. Our house was brand new, and so was our car: a ’60 gold Cadillac, complete with fins! Unbeknownst to us, the house would ground our lives for many years. Although my folks lived in other places before my birth, they never moved again, and Dad died in the house. I lived there through college and then moved out of state in 1979 to work on my master’s degree. Since then I lived in six states, but of course I returned home many times to visit.

Our house was strewn with the toys that my folks loved to buy me. I even had a toy gold 1960 Cadillac, which I crashed around the living room with aplomb. Not surprisingly, several of my toys had tie-ins with television shows or with kids’ products advertised on TV. I had a Popeye watercolor set and a spy decoder gizmo from Keds Shoes. Santa brought me a Western-style BB gun, but unlike Jean Shepherd’s Ralphie, I liked but didn’t crave it. I liked model airplanes and science-fiction toys the best. One toy became a source of reminiscence between Mom and me. It was Fred Flintstone atop a “dino-crane,” and the thing ran along on battery-powered wheels. Dad bought it for my fifth birthday, in 1962, when The Flintstones was in its third season. For some reason the toy made me cry, and so it went, box and all, into the attic. Dad’s feelings were hurt; he thought I’d love the gift. The attic became the place where, eventually, Dad stored nearly every toy I’d outgrown.

As a little kid, I didn’t think too deeply about the plan of our house, which is typical of the era. The one-story house has a low, rectangular design, a pitched roof with deep eaves, brick siding, large picture windows, and an attached one-car garage, plus a full, unfinished basement. Inside, a minimum of interior walls divide the rooms. If so inclined, a person could run laps through the living-dining room, the kitchen, the den (my parents’ office), down the hallway by the full bathroom, past the two bedrooms, and then back into the living room.

For over these years, Mom and Dad filled their house a lot of “stuff.” Before they traded the Cadillac for a more modest, 1966 Chevy Impala, our one-car garage had become an extra family room, though never decorated as such. Mom and Dad began to place their “overflow” belongings into the garage. With stuff in the garage, well . . . why not put some chairs out there? And also the old black and white television! Mom and Dad purchased an upright piano and set it in the garage. I could practice for piano lessons and also watch Lost in Space.

Our house became full with belongings as the years went on. Beginning in the late 1960s, Mom and Dad collected antiques. Many of our Sunday afternoons were spent shopping local antique stores or in shops in nearly small towns. My folks loved antique clocks, and their living room and bedroom walls became decorated with gorgeous clocks: twenty-nine in all. Mom and Dad enjoyed antique furniture, too, though they needed a vaster house to hold their treasures.

Mom and Dad were formed by the Great Depression. Be saving; everything (an empty box, an old towel, out of style clothing) might have an eventual use. Food should never be wasted; money should be watched carefully. Dad loved to drive among our small town’s groceries to find the best buys. Neither of my folks could part with things easily. My old toys resided in the attic and the basement, while cast-off items became stored away. I told my folks that, if they ever wanted to have a big garage sale, I’d come home and help with it. They thought that was a good idea for extra money. But they never wanted to take the first steps; each looked to the other to take the initiative. Eventually they resented my offers: apparently I didn't respect their things or their desire to give them to me someday.

I speculated what to do, someday, with the house. At that point the issue was theoretical, but since I’m an only child, I knew that the house would become my responsibility. Mom and Dad always wanted me to have a nice inheritance, including their belongings. I was grateful for their love and treasured their many gifts, but I couldn’t keep and cherish all of their possessions. To paraphrase a popular mid-Sixties song, “cherish” is not the word I use to describe old newspapers and broken appliances. The house, and also a small and a large shed in the back yard, became filled with stuff, good and useless. By the late 1990s the basement had scarcely a one-person path through the empty boxes and cast-off belongings.

Dad died in 1999. I kept Mom at home as long as possible but, eventually, she had to go to a nursing home. After she moved there, I readied the house for eventual sale by hiring an auctioneer to handle her better belongings and also a team to dispose of junk. The “junk” part of this story is appalling; the stuff in Mom and Dad’s house that wasn’t worth selling filled three large trash bins--I mean the big bins that you see at construction sites. The positive part of this story is that the better belongings provided a good source of funds for Mom’s care.

During this whole process, I rediscovered my childhood toys, so much a part of my memories of home. The attic was accessible only by ladder through the ceiling of the garage, and so anything stored there seemed far beyond the ken of man. But I hired a team of courageous fellows to empty the attic’s contents into the garage. There were other things besides my toys—old chairs and stools and the like—but the resulting pile filled nearly a whole side of the garage, nearly over my head. “Paul never lacked for toys!” commented a friend whom I’d hired. I decided the now-vintage toys should be sold at auction, for they’d bring an excellent price for Mom’s finances.

Of my childhood keepsakes, I was satisfied to locate a few representative items. If possible I wanted to keep that Flintstones toy. Thank goodness the 40-year-old Fred and dino-crane, still in the box (and with the D battery), made it to the top of the pile. I’ve displayed the toy atop my bookshelves. Hey, Dad, now I’m not afraid of the toy! It’s cute! Thank you. I also wanted to locate my 1960 gold Cadillac. It too wasn’t difficult to locate. The toy, with its smashed roof and loose tires, has “condition issues,” as they say on Antiques Roadshow.

Don’t we all? I think about all this because, at this moment, my wife, daughter, and I are getting ready for a move from Northeast Ohio to St. Louis. We’ve been moving out things that aren’t worth moving, tossing away some things, donating others, selling still others at an upcoming garage sale. My feeling of nostalgia for certain belongings intermingles sometimes with a feeling of … revulsion, not revulsion about the object itself, but the terrible feeling of keeping belongings too long, allowing them to accumulate, allowing them to control your life in a way. That’s a good lesson which my folks unintentionally taught me. You can own something that has wonderful personal meaning--I’m about to sell my old art easel, for instance, which my folks bought me years ago--but if it has no space in your new location, perhaps you shouldn’t keep it. "Things" are crucial for our sense of well-being---remember George Carlin's famous routine about "stuff"---but stuff can overaccumulate, and you have to stop sometimes and do some soul-searching about your belongings.

Developing a proper attitude about belongings is a very important aspect of both emotional and spiritual growth, and one thing we can do is to make those choices about representative keepsakes as we proceed through life, preferably with the input of our family members, rather to wait until some point when our belongings "take over."

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