The Stuff Was Mine, But I Didn’t Care About Stuff

Last year I was in Western Massachusetts. I hadn’t lived there in years, but I was there, driving around, and I drove past this place that used to hold auctions. It’s a barn, located at the end of a long road, as so many things are in that area of the world. There’s a sign at the start of the road that advertises what the place does. Every time I passed it, I wondered if they ever had my stuff.

My grandmother lived with my mother and me when I was growing up, and her stuff did, too. Some might refer to her stuff as narishkeit—silliness, foolishnes—but my grandmother called her stuff her antiques, which admittedly some of the things were. It was collection of things she’d been accumulating since she’d started working at 13. Vases, teacups, unworn clothes. My friends thought I lived in a museum. My mother thought we were two steps away from having a show on TLC.

My mother died when I was 20, and my grandmother’s mental and physical health declined quickly after. My other relatives scurried around to find her an assisted living facility, and I had to figure out what to do with the crap—I mean, antiques (apparently, I developed an opinion about it).

My grandmother had constantly reminded me that that this was “my inheritance,” and getting rid of it didn’t feel like an option. I was in college at the time, and I couldn’t fit her things into my super tiny dorm room. When my mother died, she left me $25,000, the amount of her life insurance policy. I used some of that money my mother had left me to hire movers, filled up the car that was hers that was now mine, and followed the movers down the highway to the storage unit, located near my college campus. I rented a locker for $75/month.

Some of the things in the storage locker: An upright piano, which had a great deal of mysterious and sentimental value to my mother and grandmother, but to me had just been an instrument of a series of painful and unsuccessful lessons on; a giant rocking chair, featured in a snapshot taken of me, crammed onto the chair with my high school boyfriend, both smiling like idiots; boxes of vases, teacups, set of dishes, figurines, tablecloths, lamps, pictures and clothes no one had ever worn; more boxes filled with I-don’t-know-what, packed by my aunt, piled into the van. I would want this stuff when I was older, apparently. I should keep it until then.

I rarely visited the storage locker, except when I needed to get to my own stuff—winter coats, old papers, books. Once, I found a dead mouse while digging through a box. It looked helpless and mummified and trapped.

The point of having a storage locker,  I gather, is that you have a place to put crap you don’t need until you need it. In the meantime, you don’t have to think about it. But I thought about it all the time. Whenever I would talk with my grandmother on the phone, or visit her at one of the facility or home where she lived, she’d ask me about specific items. “Do you have that yellow and pink china tea set I bought in 1971 that used to be in the cabinet in the den?”  This was the bulk of our conversations, as if the point of me calling or visiting was to go over a checklist of things, rather than to spend time together. She’d get sad and frustrated if I didn’t know what she was talking about (I usually had no idea what she was talking about). So I said, yes, I have it.

My mother’s $25,000 didn’t last long. I blew through it in the year after her death. And by “blew through it,” I mean: I bought a car and a computer; paid for books, gas, food, a heavily subsidized tuition bill, movers, health care, and clothing. There were moments, of course , when I was not the most financially prudent—there was a road trip taken to Canada in the middle of the night.  But it’s terrifying to see how quickly what seems like a huge amount of money can evaporate in a year.

The storage bill ($75/month) did not help matters. Three times I was locked out for failure to pay, and I had to pay off the balance plus the cost of getting it unlocked before I could get into it again.

Two years and four part time jobs later, I graduated college and moved to Boston. I lived in a house with eight other people, none of whom were interested in having their space filled with porcelain vases or Persian rugs. I kept the storage locker.

My grandmother continued to ask where things were, but now, the questions changed: Which of her things was I using in my new home? It was not okay to tell her the truth. The stuff was supposed to fill me with delight, to ground me in my former life with my grandmother and mother. But that life that was now broken, and I didn’t want to be grounded in that life—I liked the one I was currently living. I felt resentful of the assumption that I would want to be as tied to physical things as she was.

I moved again, this time to the Midwest. I started to miss storage locker payments again. Everything I needed was in my new apartment, the first place I had ever lived alone. My grandmother grew older, and frailer, and although she talked constantly about somehow moving out of the nursing home and into her own place again, my family knew this would not happen.

The storage locker had become something that kept me up at night. I felt chained to it, although it was in Massachusetts, and I was in Ohio. If I kept the locker, I’d always feel like the stuff in it would somehow control me, that I wouldn’t be able to break with it and have my own life on my own terms. I didn’t want her antiques, and I’d never really let myself admit that.

I stopped paying on the storage locker. I don’t think they ever sent me a notice that it had gone to auction, or maybe they did and I never saw it. It’s possible. The conversation between my grandmother and me didn’t change, and neither did our relationship. I lied my way through the last three years of her life.

I live in Brooklyn now, and the stuff I own can fit in a small moving van or a room the size of a large closet. I go through phases when I want to purge the contents of my life, and moments when I miss very specific things—my mother’s orange cardigan sweater that was constantly draped over the back of the chair she sat in at the table. I didn’t bring that to storage. In the insanity of moving myself, I forgot about it, and it went to the trash.


Chanel Dubofsky lives in Brooklyn./photo credit M. Markus



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