by Nathan Hansen
Grandma died a decade after grandpa—we weren’t close. On the surface, among other things, grandma was a curator. When you walked through her home, at least the parts that were open to guests, everything was meticulously placed and cared for. Just like other things in her life, she crafted a façade. Her death exposed it.
Grandma was one of thirteen depression-era children. Growing up on a farm just outside of Hillhead, South Dakota they didn’t have much, so they did their best with what they had. Clothes were handmade on a treadle sewing machine and bread was baked in pluralities. When coal for the stove ran out they would use dried horse manure. The farm was worked with teams of horses—they didn’t get their first car until 1936. Grandpa lived in an adjacent town, same era, similar story. This was the origin of their need to cling to things.
The home my grandparents lived in together, for as long as I knew them, was nestled in the rolling golden hills of Washington’s wheat country. It’s picturesque. However, most people don’t consider it an option for a place to live. Thirty minutes down the highway to the nearest grocery store, even farther to the nearest hospital, is just too far for most people. It was far enough I used the distance as an excuse to not visit. That seemed easier than bringing up our opposing ideologies.
Before I was born, the original house in the hills burned down. What’s it like to watch your home burn? What do you do when everything you’ve worked for goes up in flames just to fall as ashes? Grandma and grandpa’s answer reflected their depression-era resolve; build a new house—one with plenty of room for stuff.
Together, grandma and grandpa filled three buildings with stuff. A barn, a house, and grandpa’s old shoe shop. Nearly all of it, unveiled upon their deaths, has become absurd.
In the ’80s grandma sold Fuller Brush products, a fact that ended up being mentioned at her funeral thirty years later. Troves of unused air fresheners, dusters, detergents, disinfectants, and brooms were tucked into closets and crawlspaces. Grandpa had cans full of rusting nuts, bolts, washers, and nails he had hammered back into straightness. He hid them in the spaces between studs, under the stairs, and overhead in the rafters. Why keep any of it after all these years? Why keep any of it now that they are gone?
As I carried grandma’s casket to the back of the hearse, I reflected on how a funeral service is the reduction of life to a list. The weight of the casket was nothing compared to the weight of knowing your list could contain selling toilet brushes. It was also nothing compared to the physicality of having to deal with the stuff they left behind.
My dad, aunt, and uncles have to deal with all the stuff from their parent’s lives now—rusty bolts, crusty air fresheners, and toilet brushes included. The thought should make them bristle, but it doesn’t. They dig in like hungry carrion crows. My dad, the oldest son, who has ample space of his own to fill and, ultimately, feels compelled to do so, presides over the head of the table.
Box after box, dad unloads items viewed as his parent’s memories shouldering a burden. An orchard of Washington apple boxes, unintentionally left behind by my grandparents, grew covering the floor of his barn. How do you curate lives that were previously uncurated? How do you make decisions about what was important to someone who kept everything?
Standing in the dimly lit center of his barn, dad waived a wooden yardstick like a cavalry general waving charge with his saber. Embossed in navy blue lettering was the name of a hardware store and a city in the Dakotas. Holding it with reverence he proclaimed, “Your grandpa’s brother owned this hardware store. He came over and helped dad build the house after the fire.” As I watched dad sort through their stuff with childlike glee, I realized perhaps my strained relationship with my grandparents left a stain on their stuff for me.
Dad set the yardstick aside, intending to keep it. I looked around at the stacks of boxes, old coffee cans, and wooden crates and asked, “What value do you get from keeping a bent yardstick?” He talked about the story and the history. For him, the item sparked a memory. I realize that now. At the time, I didn’t.
In the second third of my life, I have the fortunate ability to recall memories without the aid of an object. He’s in his final third. Time is slowly stripping his ability. Objects give him something tangible to wrap memories around. However, problems arise when the objects weren’t meant to spark his memories but were meant to spark those of his dead parents. Dad feels compelled to curate the items in honor of them.
Sometimes it’s easier to throw out your own memories than it is to throw out the memories of those you loved.
I watch my father keep grandma and grandpa’s things, tucking them into corners of his barn to jog corners of his memory and pay homage to corners of theirs. As I watch, I can’t help but think twenty years ahead to when I will be challenged to do the same. The thought of having to deal with that yardstick conjures contempt.
I don’t know why dad keeps the stuff he does, not just my grandparent’s stuff but stuff he doesn’t need. He can point to a gigantic electric motor, asserting it’s worth $3,000 with pride. It’s sitting, unused, on the floor of a shipping container—a container he had to buy to put more stuff in. If he sold it, he could take a nice trip with his wife—they have retired after all—but he won’t. For him, the item holds more value than the potential experience. It is part of his forest of things.
Twenty years from now, dad’s motor will be worth twenty bucks in scrap. I’ll earn a quarter tank of gas for spending an afternoon hauling it to the recycle yard. A memory rimmed with contradiction that will likely stay with me until I die.
Dad’s stuff has bled into the yards of two of my brothers. They seem happy about it. Their wives seem dismayed. His stuff now fills a house, three sheds, a giant barn, two full-sized shipping containers, a substantial part of his yard, and smaller portions of my brothers’ yards. Perhaps my brothers’ wives are looking at the historical progression within the family and wondering where their husbands are headed.
I’m ashamed to admit, that if you ask my wife she will tell you I have some of the same tendencies. I’ve been known to save an item because I may need it one day, even when it’s not probable. However, unlike grandpa’s multiple cans of hardware, which were added to dad’s collection, I only have one. Over the last few years, I’ve conscientiously curbed my impulse to hold onto stuff—mostly, I can’t let go of grandpa’s old spurs. My wife and I have made the decision to live more deliberately, asking what kind of value each item brings into our lives and curating those which make the grade. Sometimes, that’s all it takes—a decision.
I used to sit at my grandparent’s kitchen table and play pinochle. It was a rite of passage. After years of watching the game, a decision was made by the elders to let me play. Analyzing my cards I would place my bid, watching for context clues from my partner, while listening to the banter that went back and forth between the other team and us. A gesture so simple; a deck of cards and people to play with, good conversation, and time pregnant with a depth of meaning beyond what any item can produce. My warmest memories of my grandparents are from those games, not from the stuff that surrounded us.
The best present is often presence.
Realizing the oxidizing effect being buried in boxes of other people’s stuff has on memories like these, I can’t help but feel that living deliberately and curating your life intentionally is one of the most profound legacies someone can leave behind. Torturing those you love with your stuff after you die is the final act of a sadist.