What happens when your stuff owns you?

by Brian Clarey

My trapezius muscles are killing me. Likewise with my deltoids, my rhomboids and my vastus lateralis. My sacrospinalis, on either side of my backbone down in the lumbar region, may hurt most of all, except for the spiny twinge of gout that’s settling into my big toe on the right side.

The gout, a genetic gift from my maternal grandfather and my own father both, is likely a manifestation of the poor lifestyle choices I cumulatively made over the past few weeks. But the muscle aches I came by honestly: This weekend I helped my in-laws with their last big move – a jump from a five-bedroom colonial in Summerfield to a double-wide in Reidsville that will act as a storage facility/living space while they spend the first idle years of their retirement cruising the country in a Fifth Wheel camper that is nicer inside than any apartment I’ve ever lived in.

This is the third such relocation I’ve been a part of. A few years ago I filled a truck with furniture and kitchen hardware when my grandmother went to join my grandfather in the New Jersey assisted living community where they still reside. And about 10 years ago I helped my parents after they sold their house and became renters for the first time since they were newlyweds.

I must say I’m fascinated by the accumulations of older people, the detritus of long lives well spent. My grandmother had a 50-year-old bottle of bitters in her basement with a first-aid cross on the side. My father held on to a set of mechanical drafting tools from college long after computer animated design rendered them obsolete and long since they provided him any usefulness after he abandoned architecture for the law.

They kept these things, for some reason. And now I have them in my own house. For some reason.

But nothing I’ve ever lugged compares to the trove packed away in carefully labeled boxes by my mother- and father-in-law.

Antique farming tools. Jars filled with buttons. Crates of videotapes that will soon be unwatchable due to technological advances and physical decay. Six pie pans. Forty-five knives. Silver and china from three families. An old barn door. Rotting wood planks wrapped in old newspapers. Old newspapers saved in an old suitcase. Old suitcases made of tin, steel, cardboard, plastic. Two hundred doilies. A brick- and lead-lined kiln. Documents documents documents; books books books. A hand-held scythe. Canning jars. Brewing bottles. A Depression-era safe. A clipped ponytail from 1958. A milk jug. Dozens of baby books; scores of family portraits; hundreds of photo albums. A washtub. Enough antiques to make a homosexual’s toes curl. And the oldest tennis racket I have ever seen: wooden, bereft of grip tape and stored in a… a pouch, I guess… only there was no zipper along the side – it folded over like an envelope. Zippers were for rich folk.

There was more. A lot more. And because I am something of an insensitive jerk, I found myself needling my father-in-law all weekend.

“When’s the next time you plan to use this slide projector, Jim?” and “You think you’re gonna lay hands on those canning jars in the next few years?” and “I’m not sure you’re gonna fit three couches and two bookshelves into that double-wide.”

My own parents, from lines of Italian- and Irish-Americans fairly devoid of sentimentality, viewed their downsizing as a great purge, and the curbside was lined with garbage bags and crates three deep in the last few weeks they spent in their house.

Not so with the in-laws, who hail from hearty Kansas stock and did a bit of hopping around before settling in the Greensboro area in 1984.

Some of their stuff goes back six generations, when Samuel and Catherine Straily built the big barn across the road from the three-story family house in Hayes, on land bought from the Union Pacific Railroad. The door is from that barn, leveled when the estate sold after Grandma Betty passed in 2001.

And heartless bastard though I may be, in carting this stuff off and trucking it over the county line, something began to take shape for me: a sense of generations past and the power of artifacts to connect us with those who have gone before us. Here are the scissors that the Strailys used to cut the legs off chickens. There is the washtub that rinsed Ginny and Uncle Jack’s school clothes. The scythe reaped thousands of acres of wheat and milo before outlasting its usefulness. The banged-up cabinet was the first store-bought piece of furniture my wife’s great-great-greats ever put in their house.

I started to get it.

So I eased up on my father-in-law who, I then saw, was custodian and curator for the family archives as much out of a sense of love as a sense of duty. These things have been accumulating for six generations, and he and my mother-in-law are certainly not going to be the ones to drop the ball.

And then, as we unloaded meticulously-labeled crates into his new garage, he dropped me a sly wink.

“You know,” he said, “when we’re gone, a third of this stuff becomes yours.”

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