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The elderly guy who lived two houses down (for the last 45 years) passed away two weeks ago.

His grown children have been emptying the old homestead for the past week. See that Santa? I saw that Santa on the old guy’s front lawn every December (OK, I’ve only lived here for seven years, but still: it’s one of my landmarks). I’m surprised that the kids don’t treat this Santa like an heirloom — it’s vintage! And your dad loved that damn Santa!!

Just goes to show you. Everybody you know secretly hates your stuff.

Which brings me to the philosophical question of the day: What makes an heirloom for chrissake? What makes the cut when you’re sorting out your treasures?

In my on-going quest to de-cluttermy life, and beat my non-existent heirs to the punch, these are some of the heirloom-quality objects did not make the cut:

From my shrine to my favorite bird: a Blue Jay planter that I got on eBay ten years ago — it’s a PARMA by AAI Made in Japan,  c. 1960 and the cool thing is that it’s life size. This planter sat on a shelf in my kitchen, above my table, when I lived in my one-bedroom apartment in that little village on the shore of the Long Island Sound called Pelham, my adopted hometown and subject of my book When Wanderers Cease to Roam. That apartment was my nest, and this is how I feathered it — with the next best thing to having my own pet Jay. I now live in Top Cat’s  house, and his backyard is lousy with Blue Jays.

In the late 1980s there used to be a shop off Fifth Ave in New York where Nelson Rockefeller sold reproductions of his prized porcelains. I was working nearby as the concierge at the very swanky Saint Regis Hotel (I spoke French and at the time it was my only marketable skill). I wore a tuxedo to work every day, which was very spiffy, but I also had to wear a name tag. I was worried that I’d always have jobs where I had to wear a name tag. I remember the day I bought this horsey knick-knack. I don’t know why, but paying what was then (and still is) a significant chunk of money (if I remember right, it was $70) to buy this reproduction of a Chinese export horse from the Chien Lung Period (1736 – 1796) made in Portugal by the famous Mottahedeh factory made me feel like an heiress; as if merely by the act of buying this object I had acquired something that gave me class. It was my one and only Gucci moment, except for when I bought an expensive Mark Cross wallet later that year (which I used for  years until it was worn out — I loved that wallet). Soon after I bought it I realized the fallacy of its allure, but it’s a great looking horse (it has a blue mane!) and it’s always had pride of place on my bookshelf. I want to give it a good home before one of my cats finally knocks it off  and I have to see it smashed to bits.

It had been a tough two years and I was more than happy to get the hell out of Africa at the end of my Peace Corps assignment. And on one of my last days in the dusty, dangerous, dismal city of Niamey, Niger I saw a man from Mali on the street selling wooden masks. I thought, Well,  I don’t have one single African souvenir to display forever on my wall to announce that I am a world travelerI might as well buy a mask. This one that I chose has a bird figure perched on the forehead of this face and I liked that. I paid, maybe, $5.00 for it, and since 1982 it’s mostly been stashed away in closets (when it wasn’t packed away in a box in my mother’s basement). It’s never hung on any wall in any place that I’ve ever lived in. I’m not the kind of person who has to display  tchochkahs acquired in foreign lands.

This is one of the neatest things I’ve ever found in a thrift shop. It’s a hand-made wooden box that I found in the mid-1990s at my local Salvation Army Thrift Shop. It’s about the size of a shoe box, and it has ten little doors on it, each one fastened with a different kind of brass latch, hook, snap, or clasp. I call it The Buckle Box. I imagine that there was a little boy who liked to get into things, and he had a doting Grandpa who made this so his darling grandson would always have a toy that would keep him busy. I wonder if that little boy’s mother, who was cleaning out his room when he left for college,  regrets giving this away. I wonder if that little boy, who now might be a father himself, remembers his favorite Buckle Box, and maybe he’s  made one for his own little boy, or girl. It completely slipped my mind to give The Buckle Box to any of my nieces or nephews when they were the right age.

These are some of the things that have become clutter in my life. Not junk: clutter.

Junk is stuff that nobodyhas any use for (a broken Walkman, very old ice skates,  rusty metal filing cabinets, Hartmann luggage from the ’80s).

Clutter is stuff that has immense, abiding sentimental significance to a person you no longer want to be.

That’s how I decide what stays and what goes, whether it reminds me too much of someone I don’t want to be beholden to any more. The things that I’ve listed here  are just a smattering of the stuff that’s in our guest room, which I’m using as a holding area until we head to the thrift shop that benefits and animal shelter in upstate New York called The Heart of the Catskills. I don’t think I’m being delusional when I think that somebody, somewhere might find a place in their heart for these things and would want to help cats and dogs (and the occasional goat) with their purchase.

This is what has made the cut:

A set of stainless steel cocktail forks from the ’50s that has Niagara Falls printed on each little bitty plastic handle.

I’m still the kind of person who likes to spear her hors d’ouvres with a fancy cocktail fork (comes in four attractive colors).

Dear readers: Please post your stories of what it is that you own and love that you hope your heirs won’t toss in the dumpster. One thing I know about us: We all find each others’ prized possessions  fascinating: Please.

Tell.

14 comments to Making the cut.

  • Sallyann

    I just had to empty my parent’s home after their recent deaths. They had lived in the house for over 60 years. I can assure you the job of going through a person’s life and trying to decide what to do with those things is very daunting and overwhelming. I finally came to a point where I had to remind myself that everything we own is just “stuff”. Even so I found myself packing up and bringing home “stuff” that I knew my parents treasured.
    Through this experience that is still so fresh in my mind, I have come to realize that I should not and can not expect my children to treasure what I treasure. I hope that they will treasure memories of me but even that I cannot hold them to.
    But I know of all the things that I brought home with me from my parents, pictures are the things I treasure the most, then things my mother made,and my father’s pocket watch. But you know, I don’t think those were the things they thought of as their prized possessions.
    Our treasures are like paper plates in the picnic of life. Once we are finished with them they are of little to no use to anyone else.
    Sallyann

  • Shelley

    “Our treasures are like paper plates in the picnic of life. Once we are finished with them they are of little to no use to anyone else.”

    What a wonderful way of putting it, Sallyann. I am saving that quote – it’s a treasure for my favorite quotes page!

    Vivian, you hit it on the head when you said that other people find our prized possessions fascinating, or perhaps the flip side – one man’s junk (or clutter) is another man’s treasure.

    My first thought on seeing what didn’t make the cut on your de-cluttering mission was…”hy is she getting rid of that wonderful African mask? And, what a cool little box!”

    It’s a good thing that I’m not in your neighborhood, as I would be hauling home your “clutter” as new “treasures”!

    Shelley

  • Shelley

    oops…missed the “w” in why…wish this thing had an edit button.

  • Deborah

    I think about this from time to time, since I have no chilren, so no real heirs. What will become of my stuff?

    I’ve already found a home for the things I care most about — those things I would grab first if the house were on fire — my grandmother’s journal, my mother’s journals, and my journals.

    I saw a segment on Sunday Morning a couple of years ago about a Women’s History library connected to Harvard that had a collection of women’s journals. Although I don’t think my journals are any more special than anyone else’s, I did think that having 3 generations of women’s journals might be significant. I contacted the library & they said yes, they would welcome them. So. There’s that.

    The one possession that I hope will end up as someone else’s treasure is an ostrich egg carved with likenesses of my first two dogs (Jake and Dollar) which lights up. My father had it made for us — there’s a woman who lives in his area who carves the eggs using dental picks. It’s one of those sweet, thoughtful, “oh-my-God! What am I gonna do with it?” gifts.

    It seem like I keep encountering stories of writers’ grandfathers’ stuff:

    I just finished reading “The Secret Gift” — which describes how the author found a stache of his grandfather’s letters, which started him on a journey of discovering several hidden dimensions of his grandfather’s past.

    And I recently read of one writer’s grandfather who, when he died, had pared away everything but the one suit he was buried in. He’s my hero. And I am no where near that level of letting go.

    In fact, I find myself coveting that blue jay planter.

  • Deborah

    You should give us the address to the animal shelter thrift shop, and give us a heads up when you’re headed that way with your stuff.

    P.S. We need an option to edit our entries, to correct our typos!

  • Shelley

    Hmmm…I do have a feeling that your “clutter” is probably loaded with things we would consider “treasures”…hmmm…blog giveaway contest items perhaps?!

  • Jeannie

    Like you, I have no direct heirs. So, what will happen to my “stuff”? I am hoping my nephew will develop a love for family things or his children (as yet unborn) will. I will not be here, so I guess it is a mute point! A few years ago we had a huge range fire threaten our home. I was home alone and faced with the challenge of what to put in the car. There were the obvious things – me, cats, food & supplies for each, and then the hard part. What treasures were “worthy” to take up valuable space in the car. I couldn’t choose one over the other. I finally realized that it was all just “stuff”. I love my stuff, but if it all disappeared tomorrow, I would go on. Fortunately, I didn’t have to decide, the fire missed us by a mile. I learned a valuable lesson that night and it made a difference as to what comes into the house. Your stuff will benefit a worthy cause and brighten someones day. The box is fasinating.

  • I’m the worst at not being able to get rid of things. When we moved our office I was caught (literally)in the dumpster retrieving some valuable piece of trash. I always think there’s going to be a use for it someday and more often than not there is. And how I love to say “I told you so” when that happens. Since photo styling is part of my business at the moment, I often need odd things for a photograph. So I do have a good reason, although if you saw some of this stuff you wouldn’t think so.
    I wonder if Jeannie lives near me because we also had a really big fire and had to evacuate. I took my 6 cats and their supplies, some clothes and about 5 big plastic bins of photos and letters, etc. The rest I easily left. I actually hoped the fire would thin things out for me…take the decisions out of my hands.
    When we got back I kept those bins near the front door for a very long time.

  • Carol

    Vivian, I LOVE the bluebird, horse and ‘buckle box’. They remind me of my grandparents possessions – all lost in time, now. I have two sons and one male cat to bequeath my world goods. I don’t think any of them will want my doll collection and I would like to give it to someone who would really enjoy it. The hardest things for me to de-clutter are books. Books are my passion but I do keep only those I will re-read or look at again. We did have a smoke alarm go off one time and I grabbed my handbag and my cat. I guess that exemplifies my favorite possessions.

  • Betsi

    What I want to know is why didn’t you go over and liberate that wonderful Santa who was on his way to the dump…….I have to say that I would have…..one way or the other. I still miss the almost life sized vintage santa that I lost in a “parting of the ways” a number of years ago.

  • Our spare room is half full of boxes of the stuff left over from when I closed my bookshop. The other half of the room is empty bookcases from the shop, and things I couldn’t decide what to do with when we moved to this house over three years ago. The rest of the house is fairly clutter-free, but that room, ugh – “…stuff that has immense, abiding sentimental significance to a person you no longer want to be.” Yes, indeed. I’m going to wait for a cheerful spring day to tackle it.

  • Kate

    My Dumpster Santa would definitely be the rubber Dow Scrubbing Bubble that lives on my mantel, the prize from an antique store raid some years ago. When I was little, I pestered my mom to buy a can of Dow bathroom cleaner b/c of the charm of the aforementioned bubbles in the TV ad campaign. She eventually relented, and in that can I found one of the bitterest disappointments of my young life. Where were the frolicking bubbles promised me on screen? Of course, I also learned the power of advertising, so I suppose it wasn’t a complete loss, though my 4-year-old brain couldn’t fully synthesize all the ramifications for years.
    So that’s my Rosebud. I have the requisite books, photo albums, and journals… and a lot of clutter. But not Hoarders clutter. Maybe my kids and grandkids will even find my theme Christmas trees (incl. a Gatsby tree) worth passing on.
    I wish I had a family tiara or two to pass on.

    also lear

  • I completely purged before moving to France, even all my books. But because I am an Amazon and it has taken me forever to assemble my collection, my pants are sacred. No heirlooms, alas no heirs so I’m okay there. But if the house was on fire I’d storm the closet. I’m thinking of getting a safe for them…

    B

  • Susan

    I hope my imaginary heirs would not throw out my small collection of children’s books. My Mom was an elementary school librarian, so we always had a good selection of books around. When she down-sized, I HAD to take some of my favorites! Now I am a middle-aged newlywed, no kids, no step-kids, and those books are sitting in a box in the spare bedroom – but I’m not giving them away. Too nostalgic.

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