Seven Confessions – and Lessons – from a Pack Rat

A few years ago – six, to be exact – I had some confessions about being a pack rat.  That’s because we were doing some remodeling and I had to decide what to keep and what to throw away.  This article was printed then in the online ezine Discover Southside.  

I am a pack rat. ’Always have been, and probably always will be. I married a pack rat, and if you do the math, you’ll know that 1 pack rat + 1 pack rat = 2 much stuff.

So, for the past weeks, I’ve been sorting through tubs and trunks of things we have accumulated in twenty-five years and six kids of marriage. I am getting rid of things. Somethings, that is.

My siblings and I grew up watching our mother stash things away in cupboards for later,because “I might need this someday.” Bookcases housed old books that our father had salvaged from junk piles; some of these books are over five centuries old and worth hundreds of dollars today.

Older half-siblings fixed and patched up things that most folks would have thrown away. Having grown up during the depression and World War II era, they learned well the motto:

“Use it up, wear it out; make it do, or do without.”

Between our parents and our older siblings, we learned well. Perhaps too well!

I keep things in case I might need them some day. I have trouble parting with books because books are my friends. I want to hang onto things that produce nostalgia, even if I will never, ever use those things again.

And so, of course, the older I have become, the more I have accumulated. And, the more I accumulate, the larger my piles of “stuff”. This horde includes things I could do without but to which I refuse to bid adieu. There are more memories and more moments of poignancy as I look at my “things” and ponder:

What is a pack rat to do?!

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The other week things changed at our house. We’re beginning a remodeling phase of our upstairs. Everything I had stored on the upstairs sun porch (my “attic”) had to be moved somewhere. After it had all been moved to a presently unused bedroom, I decided, It is Time.

Our family has a joke about keeping things “for the day of the sale.” That’s because we’ve seen so many folks hang onto things that are never used, hardly appreciated, and easily forgotten until the day of the estate sale. Children and grandchildren are left to sort through things their parents should have discarded years before, and then either take it to the dump or watch it being sold the day of the sale.

I’m not getting any younger, and my kids won’t appreciate having to sort through this accumulation on the day of the sale.

In sorting, saving, and discarding, I have re-learned some things about myself and about life:

  • I can’t take it with me when I go. Yes, I know that, but I do like to keep it with me until my time comes to go. Some of my “stuff” makes the journey here more pleasant. Some of it warms my heart and makes me want to hold my children as infants one more time. Some of it brings a smile to my face as I realize those experiences that seemed so important back then fade in comparison to the present.
  • If it matters so much to me today, then keeping it for a year or two might make it easier to dispose of later. In addition, I might end up getting rid of more rather than less if I wait. I can set aside things to decide on next year, and by that time, I’ll realize how ridiculous it was for me to even think I needed to hang onto this or that.  Truth!
  • If I haven’t used it or missed it for a while, then it probably isn’t worth keeping. I discovered that truth when I unpacked a box of books that had been left in a closet after our move here. ’Hadn’t seen those books in years—forgot I even owned them—so it was easier to say goodbye knowing I had never missed them anyhow. That’s why I’ve made several trips to the dump and three trips to Goodwill in the past week, delivering my unwanted goods.
  • If my kids will find this paraphernalia more a delight than a dismay on the day of the sale, then it’s a keeper. If, however, the contents of boxes I thought were so important would mean nothing to them years from now, I have wasted my time and my attic space. They won’t appreciate having to sort through things that should have disappeared years before, but they will thank me for hanging onto possessions they will treasure later
  • You can’t put a price on nostalgia. While it might not mean anything to you, it conjures up images and feelings in me when I relive a moment as I hold a relic in my hand. So there are some things that will remain: the red and white “one-year photo” outfit each of my boys wore; the blue dress worn by my girls in their “one-year photo shoot; baby blankets crafted by grandmothers or aunts; a tattered quilt pieced and stitched by a great-grandmother; the afghan made by a dear neighbor; another one made and given as a gift to my infant by a neighbor in her nineties; books that belonged to my aunt and a great-uncle; and worn books that were favorites of my kids when they were growing up.
  • Sometimes it helps if there’s a partner in crime. Someone else can be objective for me when I find it impossible. My daughter will say, “Aw, Mom, you won’t miss that.” Other times I’ve heard, “You might as well keep that, Mom. I can tell by the look on your face that you really don’t want it to go.” I believe in that support system and have disposed of more stuff than when I wing it alone.cynthia
  • It is easier to get rid of someone else’s things than my own. I’m still not sure what to do with Cynthia.  Well nigh to fifty years of age, Cynthia was my doll.  Cynthia had brown hair (like mine) and had a sister Deborah whose hair was black (and belonged to my sister Rachel who also had black hair). Cynthia and Deborah were large dolls with moveable arms and legs. They were made of hard plastic and therefore not easy to cuddle. My girls never liked playing with Cynthia because, they said, “She’s too hard.” Cynthia’s hair is gone and she is missing a foot, so it doesn’t make sense to donate her to anyone else. She’s probably only good for the dump.

I asked my sister thedeborah other day what she has done with Deborah. The way I saw it, if Deborah no longer existed, I could get rid of Cynthia.

Alas, Rachel replied: “Deborah is in the attic; I’ve been meaning to get Katharine (another sister) to fix her up, but haven’t done it yet.”

It would have been okay if Deborah no longer existed. Yet how can I get rid of Cynthia when Deborah is still being stored in an attic?!

 

So what is a pack rat to do?!

I’m trying to learn to live more simply. I’m trying to learn to let go of things and remember that the people in my life are more important than possessions; that the memories we make together far exceed the memories kept stored in a box in the attic.

I am indebted to the perseverance of my parents and older siblings in preserving the history of our family and community. I am grateful for lessons in holding onto things of significance that can be passed on to future generations. Because of their diligence, I now own some of those very items that have remained in my extended family over hundreds of years. Those treasures help me understand who I am.

I appreciate as well the sense of freedom that comes with letting go of things that won’t matter a few years — or a hundred years — from now.

I’m trying to maintain a fresh perspective and ask myself these questions as I sort things:

  • Why does this matter to me? Why do I want to keep it?
  • Am I being a better steward if I give it away rather than keep it?
  • Will it matter to my kids when I’m gone?

As I answer those questions, I more clearly know what to do with each item I hold in my hand.

Pack Rat, you are losing your grip on me!

 

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