The Things We Still Carry

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When my husband and I first moved in together twenty-five years ago, we had a cobbled-together collection of furniture but no real couch for the living room of our tiny little row house. It would be the first thing we would buy together.

I remember my mother-in-law (to-be then) counseling us to be careful about the couch we chose. “A couch is with you for life,” she told us. At the time, I hoped she wasn’t secretly counseling her son about me. In any case, the longevity of the couch was not top of mind. As evidenced by our color choice – beige and white – nor was practicality. It was a pull-out for friends to visit, lovely and comfortable for the two of us.

When we got married and moved to Baltimore, the couch came with us, the centerpiece of our new living room. It soon accommodated cats and dogs, and then a little boy, and then two more kids. The white took on a grayish tinge, the feather cushions deflated a bit, but with pillows, pets and people scattered across it, you couldn’t really tell.

Meanwhile, we accumulated other things. Baby gear. Dining room furniture. A grandfather clock. Bureaus. Toys and books. Books and toys. Decorative objects. Pots and pans. We burst the seams of our first house and moved to a larger one, arriving with a wave of young families to our neighborhood to begin filling our new home. With love and laughter, and… with more stuff. LOTS OF IT. It seemed like we always needed something; it seemed like we had space and time for it all.

But now the tide has turned a bit. Our youngest child is picking a college and soon we’ll have an empty nest. In our neighborhood, it seems as if something of an exodus is underway. For the second spring, “For Sale” signs have blossomed like daffodils. Families have reached crossroads of one kind or another and are moving on, resizing or downsizing.

I am watching this process feeling, and seeing, a mix of emotions – everything from sadness to glee. Tag sales are organized. Belongings are donated to charity. Consignors are consulted. For the things that can’t find a home or have no use, dumpsters are filled. Some toss with abandon, others reluctance. One neighbor told me she now aspires to live in a monastery with just one robe hanging in the closet.

Part of me is envious: How cathartic to be rid of so many things! I am eager to join the movement, to pare down and live more minimally. Do salt and pepper shakers clone themselves? Do soap dishes, flower pots? Are junk drawers magical, with the ability to infinitely replenish? How many kids did we have? From the number of lacrosse sticks, baseball hats, soccer cleats and more it looks as though we fielded entire teams.

Conversely, I feel a midlife angst. How absurd to have collected all of these things we wanted, or thought we needed, only to feel a bit trapped by it all now. A recent article making the rounds among the AARP crowd doesn’t help – apparently, most of it is worthless (literally), and our kids won’t want it.

I am somewhere between skipping and trudging my way to the dumpster. Should it stay or should it go? Should we? A lot of things will be easy to part with, but other things feel too precious. There are memories tied to this souvenir from a trip, to that gift from a friend, to a piece of furniture or art. Childhood itself is embodied in my kids’ belongings. What if they need to revisit something? Am I not the archivist?

Functional or decorative, necessary or frivolous, things are a part of our story.

Perhaps it is just time to edit, little by little, even if we stay right where we are. Time to make our wonderful wordy novel of a lifestyle read more like an elegant haiku. Isn’t it a Japanese writer who penned the current bible of anti-clutter?

Maybe our fledglings will even help out as they make their way. One of them might consider a certain worn-out couch. It’s held them through hundreds of movies, thousands of video games. If they don’t look under the red slipcover to see the wear and tear to the original pinstripes, and they disregard the fact that the cushions are almost completely flat and they can feel the frame of a mattress that no longer unfolds underneath, it’s a great piece of furniture.

But if they should want their own stuff, I’ll understand. They’re beginning to write their unique stories. I will, however, pass on my mother-in-law’s advice. “Choose carefully.” People, people are always central in life. Yet things have a role too. There is a mindfulness that should come with acquiring, with having.  And also with letting go.

In any case, there are things to think about. So many things.

Christine Kouwenhoven

Christine Kouwenhoven is a local freelance writer.She writes the column "Now We Are 50" every second Tuesday in the Baltimore Fishbowl.

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