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updated: 11/14/2017 5:38 AM

Constable: Getting rid of your stuff is a gift to your heirs

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  • A lot of the Christmas stuff in these boxes pulled from the attic has never been used, or hasn't been used for decades. But dealing with loved ones' stuff often is more emotional than practical.

    A lot of the Christmas stuff in these boxes pulled from the attic has never been used, or hasn't been used for decades. But dealing with loved ones' stuff often is more emotional than practical.
    Courtesy of Cheryl terHorst

  • All that stuff you put in a safe place in case you need it? Do your kids a favor and get rid of it.

    All that stuff you put in a safe place in case you need it? Do your kids a favor and get rid of it.
    Thinkstock photos

  • Video: George Carlin's take on stuff

 
 

I notice that friends have one of those giant, metal trash receptacles in front of their house.

Remodeling the kitchen? Adding a room? Updating the bathroom? Getting a new roof? Basement flood? Why do you need a dumpster?

"It's a gift for our kids," says the woman, explaining how she and her husband are getting rid of stuff now so that their kids won't have to do it someday.

As I'm crawling through the attic at my father-in-law's house, unearthing containers of my late mother-in-law's stuff, I understand completely. She had stuff. My 90-year-old mom has stuff in her attic that was her parents-in-law's stuff. My wife and I have stuff we haven't thought of since we put it in our attic 25 years ago.

"It's a difficult, difficult thing. All of us are different," says Joyce Palmquist, executive director of the Barrington Area Council on Aging. "For people who grew up during the Depression, they have an interesting relationship with stuff."

Palmquist says her parents, who saved the foil from gum wrappers for the war effort, kept those aluminum trays from old TV dinners in case they might have use for them someday. Even saving things of value can be a bit much.

"As we were going through my father's things, we found six chromatic harmonicas," says Palmquist, a musician who has some empathy for her dad's collection, since she does a bit of the same thing. "I play the mandolin. Do I need three? I can only play one at a time."

My mother-in-law had dozens of containers filled with Christmas goodies, from 60-year-old tree ornaments to modern stuffed reindeer, from still-in-the-box peppermint-striped mugs to red-and-green place mats that last were used in the previous millennium. Most of the stuff will be donated to a local charity. Then we stumbled across the pointed hats with built-in elf ears she bought for the grandkids and remember how much we laughed at the sight of that bunch wearing those goofy hats 15 years ago. We can't give those away.

"What is the relationship with stuff?" Palmquist says. "It's emotional."

The University of Illinois Extension offices in the suburbs have been presenting a program titled "Who gets grandma's yellow pie plate?" since the 1990s.

It advises people to talk about all the stuff now and fill out paperwork about who gets what, or at least who wants what. Palmquist says she was happy to find letters her parents exchanged before they married.

But sometimes the things parents save to give to their kids (whether it is a set of china, grandma's dresser or a bag of baby teeth) aren't wanted by the next generation.

"Anyone who's working with older adults, it's something you encounter," Palmquist says. "Nobody says, 'I can't wait 'til I'm 45 and can look at my baby teeth.'"

Palmquist recently worked with a family who discovered their loved one had 10 electric irons among her stuff. It wasn't a collection, but a symptom of memory issues. "You put it in a safe place and forget it and then you buy it again," Palmquist says.

"Stuff is interesting," Palmquist says. "But the stuff isn't a measure of your value."

She calls attention to an old George Carlin comedy routine where he points out the reality of reducing your expanse of stuff to the stuff you really need when you go on vacation. As I'm thinking about how my Sunday afternoon would have been easier had my mother-in-law not stored away so much stuff, I'm also reminded that she saved all that stuff out of a desire to bring happiness to the people she loved. The stuff has little value, but that feeling behind it is worth saving.

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