Sassy at seventy: The woes of being a ‘stuff’ keeper

Aug 09, 2022
'Stuff' Keepers, hoarders and decluttering. Source: Getty

Starting to write this column feels like walking into a room full of strangers and having to introduce myself. Daunting in that I can’t see your reactions as I let you into my life, but also intriguing to see what you will make of me.

I was born in a small country town in Queensland but moved to Sydney with my mother and brothers when Mum discovered Dad was having an affair with the young woman across the road.

Two years later Mum and Dad reunited and we moved to Brisbane. Well, you know the old saying about leopards and spots – it was only a couple of years later that Mum was shocked to find Dad had ensconced his girlfriend in a house in another suburb. This time Mum made him leave. I found out later it was on advice from her mother-in-law. Seems like the apple and tree was another true saying.

Now, you’re probably thinking I could write a book about that and the various happenings afterwards, and I did turn out to be a writer, but one of the legacies of my childhood was being curious about what motivates people. Why they do what they do and why their choices can seem so bizarre to others.

I come from a long line of “stuff” keepers. Not hoarders. Hoarders have stuff everywhere. Stuff keepers have sentimental reasons for not being able to throw things out and try to keep them squirrelled away only to be brought out when urged by social media to “declutter”. My mother was adopted (now there’s a story) and her childhood was one step above poverty. As a child, she went to a fancy dress school event as grass – green crepe paper shredded from her shoulders. So she treasured any and every precious little thing.

Umbilical cords are strong, and in my chaotic childhood, I too, treasured things that gave me consistency, reassurance, and a sense of belonging. But now, as someone who is definitely on the wrong side of sixty (okay, seventy), and a widow of two years, I’ve felt the need to declutter. With forced enthusiasm, I started on my husband’s side of the walk-in robe. I dragged my lightweight, aluminium, three-step stepladder in and started on the top shelf (thank you, Bunnings, for stocking this wonderful piece of equipment).

Of all the things I expected to find, my father’s 16 gauge shotgun was the last. Dad had died decades earlier and somehow we’d ended up with it, but Rob, my husband, had declared it was so rusty it would have been suicidal to attempt using it, so had decided to cut it up and throw the pieces out.

Now, much as I loved my darling husband (I know he wasn’t perfect, but he was perfect for me), I could never get him out of his “I’ll get around to it” mindset. Unfortunately, he’d got half around to it and had sawn the barrel off. With great trepidation, I phoned the local police station and shared my dilemma. An understanding constable said, “Not a problem. There’s an amnesty. Just bring it in.”

The next morning I tucked it in the car boot, drove to the station, parked, and realised my predicament. Walking into a police station with a sawn-off shotgun would most likely see me tackled, spread-eagled, patted down and handcuffed before I made it to the counter. I doubt my diminutive size and obvious age would have saved me. Thankfully the receptionist was sympathetic and took it from the boot for me. Gotta love the dedication of public servants.

A big problem with decluttering today is that our kids don’t want our “stuff”. I can understand that some things just don’t fit their lifestyle – hey, as a kid I was grateful to have anything, let alone a lifestyle – but sentiment seems to have gone the way of our ancestors.

My mother was an expert at passing things on to me that I didn’t want, and she laid the guilt on so well that I still have them to this day. “You know how much I love this <insert vase, necklace, owl-faced jug, wizened Granny Smith apple wearing a checkered apron and wire glasses and carrying a sign extolling the virtues of Tassie’s famous export>. I know you will look after it.”

Well, Mum’s once-much-cherished vase has grown on me and I now don’t mind it, but Granny Smith has long been relegated to the compost.

Kids today are tougher, they flatly refuse to take the seafood cocktail bowls with the tiny forks, the pyrex with the missing lids, the lace tablecloths, the pottery that came from that cute little shed on that winding road in the Gold Coast hinterland. Even op shops are getting fussy, probably due to so many offspring with different lifestyle tastes.

So what should I do with the tiny prayer book from the mid-1800s with printing so small I need a magnifying glass to read it? Hardcover, gilt-edged ultra-thin pages and made by the “Printers to the Queen’s Most Excellent Majesty”.

And what about the large peg doll carved by a steamboat captain from a gum tree bordering the Murrumbidgee River? Surely this example of a father’s love should not be thrown onto the discard pile. Think of the tales it could tell if only it could speak.

Back they go in the KEEP pile. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life, as we get older our memories become more precious. And the things we treasure remind us of those times that affected us deeply.

Besides, after we die our kids will have to get rid of our stuff, and we won’t have to worry about it.

And so the guilt trip lives on.

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