A snuff jar sits on my fireplace mantle. It joins a newly acquired collection of family artifacts that have moved in with us. It’s beautiful in a distressed kind of way (and distressed is my favorite kind of beauty).
Last fall, within two weeks, both sets of our parents decided to move from their homes of 40+ years. Our folks (all four of them!) are in their mid 80’s, living independently, far away from kids who can drop by to help trim a hedge, run an errand, or sit alongside at a doctor’s appointment. We help as best we can, but it requires an airplane flight to provide the support they deserve.
Steve’s folks are moving from their family home in the hills of Redwood City, to an independent living facility in San Diego near his sister, Sue. Their home was built by Adeline’s grandfather when she was ten, and while humble, has a fantastic yard and a view of the bay. It also has magic closets, full of generations and generations of stuff. My parents are moving from their home of 45 years, a two-story, four bedroom house in Orange County, with a smaller but lovingly-tended garden and the staircase of death (my words) to a small home here in Davis, a few miles from me. I thought I knew what was hiding in the closets, but they were deceptive. And what we didn’t have in stuff, we made up for in plants. Also, rocks from Dad’s garden, to which I have become weirdly attached.
Stuff, so much stuff. Hand saws, power saws, wheelbarrows and ladders. China, crystal, silver platters and candlesticks. Needlepoint (finished and not), buttons, bias tape and ribbon. Wedding dresses and christening gowns, hats, gloves, baby shoes, train sets, photo albums, books, paintings (many done by Steve in high school and college), doll collections, tea cups (so many tea cups), mixers and bowls and sugar and creamers and salt and peppers, tablecloths, pillow cases and more tea towels than one can use in a lifetime (case in point). You get the idea.
We have spent many weekends visiting, sorting and sifting, filling our car with more stuff than will fit in our home. After dinner we drive away humming the Beverly Hillbillies theme song.
But we’ve also been filling our hearts with stories. Every item, every cookbook, every photo (and there are some very big boxes of photos) has a story we have been privileged to hear from our storytellers. Steve’s grandfather’s hammer, forged just for him by a blacksmith, when he worked for the WPA on the entry to the Golden Gate Bridge. Tea towels woven by Steve’s great grandmother, with flax from her farm. A platter my grandmother made and etched with poppies, after WW2 and metals were available again. Danish side tables my parents bought when they were first married, along with some very cool mid-century modern ceramic vases that will always connect me to them. I am still working on proving that I should be the keeper of the concrete Buddha that has been in every garden my parents have loved.
My mom has been keeping a notebook for years, and every time the girls visit, they get a tour of the treasures, a few stories and a chance to claim something special. This Christmas Kate and Alex sat in the sunroom with their Grandma Adeline and chose from her treasures in overflowing boxes. Eventually the girls’ boxes will move from our garage to their homes, but I am certain it’s the stories they will value the most.
Now we know Adeline had a dog (how did we not know that before?). We know Cousin Sal’s story, because of the letters he wrote from the front lines of the war to Steve’s grandmother (reading them is like being in a Ken Burns movie). We’ve been reminded of Steve’s family cross-country trip in 1969, and our big family trip to Italy in 2002. I can imagine my two grandmothers, who were friends, discovering and experimenting with this newfangled Mexican cuisine, and Italian and Chinese! I have handwork done by all of our grandmothers, or as Adeline says, what we did before we had TV. We have an incredible patchwork quilt, and with it Adeline’s memories of being home sick, her mom sitting by her, describing the suit she made for her own father with the houndstooth, touching each piece of fabric with a story of its own. I know that the big rock isn’t just an ordinary rock, but the one from Anza Barrego that took out Dad’s transmission one spring…motivating him to return the following year to retrieve it and give it a place of honor in his yard.
Yes, we have too much stuff. We don’t have room for all of it, and we aren’t ready to get rid of it just yet. Steve doesn’t need 6 handsaws, but they hang neatly in his garage. I don’t need a silver coffee service, but I love looking at it every day in my dining room. I use the bowls, I admire the handmade rugs, and I linger over the photos. A silver candy dish sits under votive candles, the ceramics nestle on my book shelves, the Jello cookbooks, well, I have no idea what do to with those. But if you ever need a recipe for Avocado Strawberry Jello Salad, I know just where to find it. And I am going to transfer as many rocks from Dad’s yard to mine as I can possibly carry.
I’m so grateful we’ve had this experience with both sets of parents. I am thrilled they’ve all decided to move, when they can do it together, and not under duress. I am happy for the stuff, the stories, and the time to sort through them all. I feel like I am a steward of their stories. Last week we moved Steve’s folks into their retirement resort (yes, that’s what it’s called). One of their new friends told me, “If you are lucky enough to grow old like us, you see lots of changes, and they aren’t all easy, but they are all part of a long, good life.”
Yes, indeed. Story and stuff, included.