Why it is Easy to be Ruthless with Other People’s Stuff
I went around to Kirstie’s last week to help her pack up her house. It has been her home for about 25 years. Plenty of time, in other words, for junk and sentiment to mate and produce riotous litters of objects she didn’t need but would be inclined to keep. My job was to cut through the sentiment and throw out the junk. Her junk. My junk would still be safely cluttering up my place.
She’s moving into a flat about an eighth of the size, and nothing concentrates the mind about possessions like extreme downsizing. It’s almost as good as dying in that respect. Death, like strong daylight, has a way of turning your idea of priceless treasures into someone else’s idea of genuine trash. I often look around my own house and imagine my relatives sifting through the ruins of my future deceased estate with brutal precision, holding up something like my extensive rubber band collection and exclaiming, ‘Can you believe she kept all these?’ But then one will find something else and say, ‘Oh, but remember this?’ And then they’ll cry. Hard. And then they’ll throw both of them out. So there we were at Kirstie’s house. What to keep, what to let go? It’s so much easier to be merciless with other people’s stuff. I picked up a sugar bowl with a chipped lid and raised an eyebrow. ‘Keep!’ Kirstie yelled. ‘It was given to my grandfather by an Austrian princess. Or so the story goes.’
An hour or two in, Kirstie was beginning to doubt some of the family lore. For example, the drab sideboard her late mother had always insisted was solid oak was now revealed to be veneer. Ditto the glass and silver carafe—not from the 1800s, after all, but the 1930s. Had there ever been an Austrian princess with a sugar bowl? It was starting to feel like a particularly sobering episode of Antiques Roadshow. Still, she wasn’t ready to let go. A fatally strong sense of duty meant Kirstie had become keeper of the flame for half a dozen dead relatives and their former possessions, regardless of her own feelings towards them—the possessions, that is. It had been part and parcel of curating the family stories and honouring her forebears’ history, she said, yanking the sugar bowl from my hands.
But wasn’t now the moment to throw off the yoke of obligation, I asked. Invoke a statute of limitations? Especially with the ugly stuff? I tried that line with the horrible 1930s Jacobean- style lounge suite as we broke for lunch. Some people like the style, with its dark, carved wood and rattan sides, and if you had an Elizabethan lounge room, it would probably be fine, but Kirstie didn’t. I’d always disliked its squat, heavy look and said so, knowing it was inherited but also that Kirstie is the kind of woman you could say that to and she wouldn’t take it personally. She once told me in a matter of fact way that she had no taste—meaning no good taste, I suppose—making her possibly the only person in the world ever to admit that. Everybody thinks they have good taste, just as everybody thinks they’re a good driver. So, would the lounge suite be going with her?
‘I have to keep it,’ she said.
‘It was custom-made for my grandfather after the Depression. See how the arms are flat and wide like that? It was designed so he could balance a cup of tea on them. And it meant a lot to the family, being able to buy something like that after the hard times.’
‘Touching,’ I said, ‘but the point is, do you like it?’
‘Is it comfortable?’
‘Will it suit the new flat?’
Her aunt had minded it for years. On the aunt’s death, Kirstie had assumed custody, like a kind-hearted relative taking on an unattractive orphan nobody else wants. That was 30 years ago. Was the plan for her children to inherit it?
‘No, they hate it. Too old-fashioned,’ she sighed. ‘And it doesn’t mean anything to them. Anyway, it’s coming with me. Non-negotiable.’ Code for: go back to bubble-wrapping the china, my friend, and shut up.
Kirstie comes from a generation, the last perhaps, that valued the notion of things being ‘handed down’. Anything that was ‘quality’ or prized or held a history. Anything that carried fond memories of the person who had once owned it. It’s hard to imagine now what might be passed down. Can an object from IKEA or Fantastic Furniture mean something? On the other hand, object-inheritance can be a burden. As Kirstie would admit later, she found it quite liberating to be told she didn’t have to haul these things around, albatross-like, until death, if she didn’t care for them.
‘At first I thought, well, liking or not liking them isn’t the point, but then I thought, yes, it is the point.’ In principle. After a few hours, we’d got down to the last few things in the china cupboard.
‘What about this undistinguished grey cup without a saucer?’ I said. ‘Chuck?’
‘No way!’ Kirstie yelped. ‘I’m sure the saucer is here some place. And look, see the anchor symbol? It’s off a ship. It must have been when Mum sailed to . . . somewhere or other.’
My own house, of course, is loaded with such odd mementoes. Very often, they are random physical reminders of our cherished dead. My mother’s china. My grandmother’s snowdome and old- fashioned brooches. My late ex-husband’s cigar boxes, still filled with a spicy odour that brings him back in a moment, for a moment. We keep them because they have the power to summon up a vivid presence in the face of an utterly mysterious absence. How many do we need to hang on to? Probably not as many as we think, but I wrapped the little grey cup anyway.
From the book How To Fake Being Tidy, and other things my mother never taught me, by Fenella Souter (Allen & Unwin).