Spring Cleaning: A Matter of Life (and, yes, Death)

I have so many Spring Cleaning posts written… in my head.

I wrote actual posts about spring cleaning my workspace and what it says about the way I work, and spring cleaning my closet and what it says about the way I dress, and shop, and live with my body. Then I spent the rest of April writing—in my head—posts about spring cleaning my books and what it says about the type of person I want to be, the type who reads (not just collects) “smart people books.” About spring cleaning my CD collection and what it says about what an old fogey I am (I still prefer to own CDs). Spring cleaning the stacks of games and the boxes of toys and what it says about how our family is changing (and how we are all growing up).

I’ve been thinking and thinking about Spring Cleaning And What It All Means but I haven’t actually written any more about it, until now. And this is the biggie, the one that brings it all together, prompted by a new… hobby? distraction? entertainment activity? we’ve discovered lately.

Online estate sales.

The irony.

Yes, I appreciate the irony that I’ve been thinking about decluttering and paring down, all while browsing online downsizing sales. I don’t know if this is a local thing, or a Covid Time thing, or just a new era of high-tech garage sale-ing, but with a few taps of the screen, a secondhand world is at your fingertips. Literally. I’ve been tempted by everything from a ’50s Seeburg jukebox to tables and chairs from a favorite restaurant that has closed its doors. I know perfectly well that we don’t have room for another stick of furniture, much less (to my great regret) a jukebox. But books? dishes? a cool piece of costume jewelry, or vintage needlepoint Christmas stockings, or mossy garden planters?

The agony.

Maybe being stuck at home in Covid Time has prompted people to go through the process of evaluating and unloading, but the story of Nobody Wants Our Stuff has been around for several years now. There have been countless articles about it, including this one from author Ann Patchett, a new book on Swedish death cleaning, and an estate appraiser’s personal experience.

It’s fair to say I have a smallish savior complex when it comes to old stuff. If I don’t rescue that embroidered tablecloth, what will become of it? For every tablecloth (which I would actually use and enjoy), there are pages and pages of links representing stacks and piles and boxes of things that once meant something in someone’s life. I have this struggle while browsing the left-behind stuff of strangers; how much harder is it to not have room, or the right kind of life, or even any interest at all in the things our parents and grandparents hoped would be passed down to us, and to our children?

The worth.

So far we’ve purchased exactly one item from any of these sales—a vintage framed print that fits a bare spot on a wall that has been bugging me since we got here. It may turn out to be one item (perhaps the only item we own) that will be worth more than we paid for it. Or it may not.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the worth of all the stuff of our lives. It’s not just spring cleaning blog posts or online estate sales; it’s been coming up other places too. Between the time we found this house and the time we moved in a month later, the elderly man next door died. Six months later, the man’s son is still cleaning up and cleaning out the house. He even held a sparsely-attended open-door estate sale. The old man had been a geologist for the Smithsonian, but that was in the pre-tech days. No modern museum is interested in his lifetime of collected stuff, the boxes and trunks overflowing with tools and resources and references. It’s a hard truth that the things we once found so worthwhile—the things we invested not just our money but our selves in—are, financially and functionally, worthless.

One of the estate sales I browsed last week struck a particular chord with me. There was listing after listing of porcelain figurines, expensive ones like those my grandmother placed on high shelves out of our reach. Bins of tools, like the ones my grandfather kept meticulously organized in his shed. Decorative plates, like the ones my grandparents stored safely in boxes for decades so they would, theoretically, increase in value.

And it was all listed for next-to-nothing.

What it all means.

I keep trying to mind-read the generations that came before me. Why are online estate sales and antique stores overrun with used-to-be-collectibles, formal housewares, and goofy sit-arounds that nobody now wants? I suspect it had something to do with surviving the Great Depression. Perhaps it was an era when disposable income grew and investing in perceived valuables—and even just collecting knick-knacks—suggested financial stability. Maybe they needed, used, and appreciated hand-me-downs from their own parents, and expected we would need, use, and appreciate the even better stuff they would hand down to us.

Maybe it’s simpler: maybe they just liked it. And hoped we’d like it, too.

What it means to me.

When we went to pick up our new-old wall art, we paused to appreciate the beauty of the old home, the lilacs blooming in the garden, the lovely antique furniture and much more valuable artwork than ours still waiting to be rescued (not by me). The art appraiser was on site, and told us a little about the estate. The couple had both been medical researchers many years ago. The old man had died; the woman has dementia and lives in a senior care facility. They will never know what happens to the lifetime of things they loved and invested in and looked at every day.

On our way home, the Woman With Flowers rode in the backseat. My husband and I talked about whether she’s really worth anything, and whether it matters. I thought of my grandparents, and all the figurines and collectible plates they thought would be worth something someday. I thought about the pieces of their lives that actually do have worth to me. They’d probably be surprised it’s not the “valuables,” but everyday things they found useful or delightful that I now use and delight in.

I’ve decided it doesn’t really matter whether the Woman With Flowers is worth anything to anybody but me. I hope my kids will want some of the stuff that surrounded them in their childhoods, but I won’t begin to guess at what might be valuable to them, what might spark their memories of usefulness and delight. Or, for that matter, their memories of me.

Sad, but not.

This whole topic feels kind of sad, I know. But it doesn’t have to be sad.

Instead, it can be freeing. Rather than hoping our stuff will be worth something to someone someday, we can simply enjoy what it is to us for now. We can choose wisely, but without counting on an unreliable future payoff. We can surround ourselves with things we love, with usefulness and delight, whatever that means for us. And then when it’s time, we can let it go.

If we do that, we’ll have gotten our money’s worth.

One thought on “Spring Cleaning: A Matter of Life (and, yes, Death)

  1. I have a couple of items that my mother has given me because she thinks I have always wanted them. I took them because I didn’t want to upset her but I really can’t remember saying that I wanted them – maybe it was when I was a little girl!!

    I also have a gold charm bracelet that I was left by my grandmother, because I was the oldest grand-daughter. My cousin who is 6 months younger was put out because I was given it. She wanted it but I didn’t. It sits wrapped in tissue paper along with the silver bracelets I had as a very small child.

    All these things are not things I would choose or even use, but there is a connection for me with the past.

    I am sure that you will enjoy your piece of art. It doesn’t matter how much you paid for it or how much it is worth. It moved you enough to want to own the piece and to be able to enjoy it day by day.

    Now I should go and declutter the things I have collected over the years, that are no longer useful but I hold onto just in case!!


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