The Care and Feeding of Stuff

I like to think I was weaned from stuff early. I was 10 when our military family was transferred from Texas to Germany and we had to divide our stuff into three parts: hold, the essentials that would arrive first; household, the extra things that would take three to six months but would make our government-issue, furnished apartment home; and storage, the items we wouldn’t see for three years. For the two-month journey itself, I was allowed one suitcase. Bravely, if somewhat tearfully, I managed to subvert my pack rat urgings. At first I looked forward to seeing my stuff again, but when the boxes arrived and things were broken, mildewed, or missing altogether, I began to let go. Unpacking the stored items years later, I wondered why those tired, worn objects had been so important. I hadn’t needed them, and had learned not to miss them.

The pattern was set. As a teenager, moving once more, I was unfazed when our old, funky furniture arrived but our new, top-of-the-line television didn’t. As a bride, I went home to finish clearing out the remains of my school years; my mom held open the cover of the Salvation Army bin while I cheerfully tossed in my trophies. As a mother, I was delighted when a truckers’ strike forced us to spend two summer months in a house with nothing: no beds, couches, pots, pans, or vacuum cleaners. We slept in sleeping bags, ate finger foods, haunted the library, and even welcomed houseguests. I did worry about how the deprivation would affect my daughters, then 5 and 9. “I remember eating hot dogs with my friend next door and squirting milk out our noses,” the younger one said. And her sister? “I loved that summer, because we ate out a lot. But I was glad I didn’t have to sleep on that blue carpet, because it smelled like vomit.” Neither remembers having no stuff.

So I’ve been cured, right? Stuff no longer has a stranglehold on me; I know life can be happy and simple and full without it. But like a starving child coveting a crust of bread, I’ve only learned to love stuff more.

Certain stuff. The Japanese doll my father brought me when he returned from the Korean War. The old piano, which my mother found in a basement and restored, the doll sits on. Stuff with meaning; OK stuff to have.

A houndstooth hat with flaps I wear in winter. It caught my eye as I sprinted through Barney’s on my way to somewhere else in New York City. I stopped short, backed up, tried it on, grinned into the mirror, and bought it. I don’t know why. A strapless blue gown, known in family circles as my Barbie doll dress. I’d wanted something special to wear to an awards show I’d helped produce. For the first and only time (so far anyway), I went to one of those fancy stores where they hide the good stuff, deposit the shopper in a dressing room the size of most living rooms, and present each gown as if it were Princess Di’s. Each time the painted matron swooshed in and out, my daughters and I collapsed in giggles. But I did find a dress that made me feel glorious and elegant that evening; I bought it off the sales rack.

A writing desk. One Saturday morning, recently divorced, I woke up with an image in my mind. I’d never had a writing desk, nor wanted one, nor even thought about such a thing. But there it was, a clear picture. So one Saturday afternoon some months later, I visited my first antique store and walked straight to where my desk stood, exactly as I had envisioned it: small, with drawers on either side, little cubbyholes in back, a top to close over the mess of papers I knew I’d collect. I charged it, brought it home, and put it in my bedroom. Every morning for a year, I sat there and wrote my dreams.

I didn’t understand it then, my attachment to a piece of furniture that could be lost or broken, stolen or marred by children or pets. But I understand it now. I was living in a house full of stuff that had been about us, not about me. Chairs had been bought to fill corners, and paintings to match the chairs. There were bookcases and dishes, a sewing machine and a stereo. Yet I had no tangible symbols of who I was, or what I wanted to be, or what–other than arms, legs, and eyebrows–signified my presence on the earth. I wanted that. I still do.

I’m no different, I think, from everyone else. What we each want is unique but we all want something. And when we get it, we’ll want something else. Isn’t that growing and changing, and isn’t that good? When I was poor, I wanted a television, a car that worked, and four chairs, so we could have friends over. Now I have those things, so I don’t think about them anymore.

But I still want stuff. Last Saturday it was a small tin toy, a carousel of airplanes that fly in a circle when you push a lever. Those little planes kept going forever, and I liked that. But I didn’t really need it. I stood in the store for a long time trying to decide whether to spend the money: $6.50. I left, then came back. Now it sits on a table by the couch, and I make it go when I come home from work, and it gives me pleasure.

Take away my stuff, and rip a piece from my soul. And don’t worry about the house burning down or the movers losing everything. Forced to start over, I will. I’ll find stuff, or make stuff, or buy stuff until the day I don’t need it anymore. Today, I do.

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