A few months ago, my husband and I visited an acquaintance who owned thirty cut glass decanters, each one artfully arranged on his dining room buffet. Though he prepared an exquisite meal for us, we were unable to enjoy it in the dining room, as the table was piled a foot high with fine linens and coffee table books on Italian Renaissance architecture.
We were able to carve out space at the kitchen counter, though just barely, as hundreds of never-read cookbooks surrounded us in every nook and cranny. I would have gladly chosen to relieve him of a few, but, alas, I was not asked to. There was nary a horizontal surface in the entire house that was not turned into a spectacular tableau of china, sculpture, vases, and books.
What was driving the insatiable desire of this lovely and erudite man to own the finest of everything?
I grew up in a less affluent alternative of this compulsive behavior. My father had three garages packed floor-to-ceiling with the “good stuff”. Used tires for cars no longer owned and fishing poles that would never touch the water. Every tool possible, no matter how obscure or rusted. Most of it future landfill, if ever I saw it. Remarkably, like an air-traffic controller, he knew the location of each item in its vector and whenever one of us needed something, he could locate it in minutes.
In high school, I decided to sculpt a clay bust, and in minutes he had MacGyvered a rotating base upon a pole just high enough for me to work comfortably. He refused to throw anything out—not the trash of television show hoarders, mind you—just something someone might need someday sometime.
The garages took months to clear out after he and my mother relocated to a small apartment. Suddenly, there was no use for the peeling Victrola or the garden hoses neatly wound and tied securely, but never used. Or the lengths of blue paneling stacked against a far wall, now warped from dampness. It was true that some of the items belonged to his parents, and like all deep memories, were enough of a reason to keep. But the engine to a long ago discarded vacuum cleaner?
When is enough stuff enough?
If there is an acquiring gene, I was surely born without it. Instead, I take a perverse pleasure in the discarding of things. Recycling them, donating them, passing them down to the children, just plain getting rid of them. I suppose it is a reaction to my father’s hoarding. Our childhood home was tidy and uncluttered, as my mother was not to be crossed about such things, but the garages? Oh, the horror!
I consider that I am not a Depression-era child. And that I have the means to replace that which I may later regret tossing. But still, it seems to be something deeper.
I am calmer with fewer things to keep track of. A full refrigerator makes me anxious. A closet I can’t see the back of does the same. I have many nice things. I am attached to relatively few of them. My electric blanket, surely, as I chill easily. And my toast tongs, perhaps the greatest kitchen invention yet.
No compulsive neatnik, I. One of my desk drawers looks like this:
Let me repeat. ONE of the drawers in my house looks like that.
I’ve wondered what drove these two men to hold tightly onto more things than they could ever use in a lifetime. Our host was clearly delighted in his possessions— sharing their histories, their importance, their perceived value. Truly, it seemed sad to want that much and never find happiness in what you already had. I wondered if both men collected to control their anxiety. Was each acquisition a satisfying, but temporary hit on the pipe?
And maybe the joy I get out of winnowing the things I possess is just my way of controlling my environment, much in the way the men did.
Perhaps these are sides of the same coin.
I guess we all just need to find our way.