I pulled the hoop building door open and peeked into my garden. With pleasure I admired a row of blooming yellow and purple violas. My chrysanthemums had survived the winter; all six plants were bravely pushing up mounds of fresh green shoots. Even the yellow tea rose bush was fully covered with new leaves. Wishing I could till the garden and get it ready for planting, I backed away and shut the door.
I thought, “Before I can take care of the garden, I need to clean out my childhood home.” I had just moved my two elderly bachelor brothers into an assisted living home. The farmhouse was sold and my brothers were depending on me to sort though and manage their belongings.
After a short drive, I got out of my car and walked into the family farmhouse. An accumulation of books, papers, clothing, furniture, tools and hunting paraphernalia cluttered each room. My family had lived there for over six decades and seldom threw anything away.
The job ahead of me appeared insurmountable. I wondered, “How does a person approach such a huge task? Where should I start?” Instinctively, I slipped into triage mode. I said to my daughter Niki, who had come to help me, “Until I get a dumpster, let’s pile the stuff we are throwing out in the living room and the stuff we can sell in the patio room.”
After my husband Arnie died, I had cleaned his messy workshop and sheds. That had been a big job, too, but I went into it desiring order. The only way I knew was to sort through everything and gather like things with like things. It was surprising how much that helped me get a grip on the situation.
In one of the farmhouse rooms clothing filled the closet, covered the easy chair and other pieces of furniture. Several boxes of paperwork were scattered throughout the room. Everywhere I looked were trophies, mounts and hunting equipment. My heart sank. It would take a long time to sort though everything.
I thought, “My garden can’t wait until I am finished with this job!” I clearly needed to prioritize my time, too. That meant this spring I would have to spend a few days each week clearing out the house and a few days each week working in the garden.
Like a time capsule, this room contained coats, pants, shoes, paperwork and toys from as far back as 1950. As I slowly sifted through things, I thought about the private joke Arnie and I had about the word “stuff”.
After one of his farm customers had called telling me he needed, “stuff”, I asked my husband, “Is that stuff as in Capital ‘S-t-u-f-f’?”
He said, “Of course it’s stuff spelled with a capital ‘S’. It’s important. Stuff that’s spelled with a small ‘s’ is not only unimportant, but not worth keeping.”
Looking at multiple packages of unopened fishing lures that I’d found, I looked around to see if I was alone before asking, “Arnie, if you are listening to me…please explain to me how I’m supposed to know if this stuff is capital ‘S’ or lower case ‘s’.”
He didn’t send me an obvious spiritual inspiration to supplement my native intelligence, so I assumed that what I knew was sufficient. My eldest brother would be very upset if I didn’t save every sports-related item. My triage mentality kicked in. I’d have to set up separate boxes, one for hunting and one for fishing. After a quick scan of the room I mumbled, “I’ll probably need separate boxes for gun hunting and crossbow supplies.”
That evening as I talked to my younger daughter Tammie on the phone, I complained, “There is just so much stuff there! Your Daddy and I sometimes talked about some stuff being unimportant. Stuff is fun to own and to use, but sometimes I wonder if we can have so much stuff that it takes over our lives. In the end, what does any of it matter? We can’t take it with us when we leave this world.”
Tammie said, “You’ve complained in the past year that everything at the farmhouse is rubber-banded together; money in their wallets, bundles of mail and so on. Perhaps my uncles were trying to hold their lives together. Maybe they thought that if their stuff was securely bundled, life would be able to go on as it had always been.”