Generations of Stuff

by Wendy Burwell

From my late teens through most of my twenties, the only stuff I had was what I could carry.  I didn’t own a car. Nor did I know anyone who owned a car or a house or any structure, with or without wheels, that could be the repository for my stuff as I wandered around the country.  This meant I claimed very little as my own: a change or two of clothes and perhaps a book, but little else. 

I often traveled the way of the hitchhiker, liberated by the times and the courage to just wave my thumb in the air and be free.  I would bloom where I landed for a few months or years and then be off again. It goes without saying that this lifestyle required a very light load. Owning things was not a stabilizing factor and like so many generations before me, I didn’t own much. Oh, how time and life has changed this.

Like so many others, I watched my family’s status in the world shift and change over the course of my life.  And their uplifted status was paralleled by the increase in the amount of personal belongings they bought and saved.  My father was orphaned in Canada, so that part of my lineage is very short, but on my mom’s side we can go back a few generations. My grandfather was born here, but several of his older siblings were born in the “old country.” Unfortunately, in my childhood there was nothing more than stories remaining about their life there and the few possessions they brought with them. 

My great grandmother married several times, so grandma had a few half sisters and brothers. To my knowledge, nothing remains of their ancestral belongings.  But when my grandparents died in the early 1970s, they owned very little save the clothes they wore and a few dishes. I do still have a few pictures of them and her sewing baskets, although I wish I had stronger memories of her sewing to go with them. 

Each generation moved the family along some ladder of success and acquisition.  My mother and step-father took the next several steps on the path: both had jobs and apartments (and two kids in my mom’s case). They married later in life and combined their worldly goods.

I believe it was this house in the suburbs and the upward shift from lower working class to middle working class, which started to send the message to my family that it was okay to not only acquire, but also to keep all their stuff.  All the treasures from the years spent in Japan in the early 1950s went on permanent display, alongside my step-fathers small legacy of items from his Scottish homeland.   It was home ownership that contributed to this illusion of stability, that fostered itself to the idea of keeping it all.  After all, there were family members just a generation or two back who had come from Germany, with little more than what they could carry, and now so very little remains of their beloved items.

And so it was with me: Once I became a parent, and later a home owner, I too felt so different about my meager but meaningful stuff.  I have struggled with this idea and tried to convince myself that none of these things matter in the end. Turns out this may be a losing battle at this time in my life and the evolution of our very material culture.

In the midst of my ineffective efforts to down-size, my parents died and no longer had any use of their precious possessions and I was left with the job of clearing out their retirement home in the mountains of North Carolina into which they had neatly and precisely jam-packed every nook and cranny with all their memories.  Well, I mean stuff. This included everything from the precious few items from past generations to a pork roast and large mouth bass – both dated and formed into solid frozen bricks BEFORE their big move to the mountains. This means they packed them on dry ice for the move and then never ate them!!

Now what?  I started with the low-hanging fruit: clearing out canned and frozen items that had once been edible food and half-empty liquor bottles untouched in the twenty years they had lived there.  As a longtime dedicated composter, this was a challenge for me, but decisions had to be made despite the fact that I had never sent so much tonnage to a landfill in my life.

Then I gave away what I could, I tried to send usable items to those in need, such as the local migrant farm workers and poor, young pregnant women – a personal favorite of mine and my mom’s.  But there was still so much left!  I traded some things for work on their house.  I tried to sell some things of value, but this was challenging because of their isolated location.

What was left, I packed up, inventoried and brought to my house. Well, actually there wasn’t room in my little house, so for about a year I used some of my inheritance to rent a storage locker and systematically continued to go through things.  I took pictures of the things I sold, hoping that those pictures would be honoring of their memories.  In the end I was able to let go of the storage locker, though this is not always possible, as evidenced by the explosion of storage lockers  being used as overflow for so many families.  I still have more than I can keep – boxed and stacked in the cellar – and it’s hard to know what to do with it.

Aging has brought me to a place where I often ponder what to do with it all: their stuff and now my stuff. All my accumulated treasures are so evocative of my memories but meaningless to others.  What good are they to anyone, who would want them?  There are a few small things that trace through several generations of my family, but there is no one left who remembers those ancestors, much less treasures their journeys or their memories. 

I sense I am not unique in this. Many families have no one to pass their prized possessions on to OR their children just don’t want them.  A short stop at any one of the many estate sales that are constantly available clearly illustrates this phenomenon.  So we are left to wonder: who might want all these generations of stuff?  

Wendy Burwell has lived in the South Wedge neighborhood since moving to Rochester in 1987. She has witnessed its many changes and, knowing that living in diversity is where she wants to be, is sometimes challenged by what she sees.