Of all the traits my husband brought to our gene pool, one of the strongest is the “pack rat” gene. All four children got it.
I didn't realize it would carry so readily from one generation to the next. Yet it turns out that the propensity to display the plastic bowling trophies you earned as a child in the 1960s recurs and is evident in your offspring, who cling to their old Beanie Babies as if to a life preserver.
There's probably some biological term for this trait (“pack-rattedness”?). Also, it probably reflects some deep-seated psychological manifestation, such as the irrational fear of letting go of broken watches or pilled sweaters. Whatever its roots, the inability to look at a dilapidated board game and see it as anything but refuse is most certainly a function of heredity.
I know this because when my widowed mother-in-law passed away several years ago and left her home and belongings to my husband, her only child, we had to clean her house.
This was a home in which three generations had lived, and where, I discovered, an entire extended family had collected and stored every term paper, prom dress, winter coat, Ping Pong paddle, and paint can with which they had ever come into contact. It took a 15-yard dumpster and a 12-foot moving van to clear out all the stuff, a good portion of which now sits in my basement, neatly packed in U-Haul boxes, awaiting the assessment of a future generation.
On the other hand, I inherited the gene from my parents that compels a person to donate any article of clothing that hasn't been worn in a year, and especially any pair of pants that collects dust while waiting in the closet for your hips magically to reduce themselves to a former size.
Which brings me to the day I cleaned closets.
I had avoided the task for as long as I could, but with the changing of seasons, the inescapable reality that my children have outgrown most of what they own and the fact that Christmas was just a couple of weeks away (bringing with it the promise of even more stuff), I had no choice but to go where no mom had been before or at least, not in a good six or eight months.
Armed with heavy-duty plastic bags, I set about sorting: one pile for trash, one for donations, one for items to be handed down. I don't make a pile for “things I can't bear to part with” but that's the one that seems to grow the fastest.
This is because the closet isn't just a place to store clothing. It's a warehouse for toys, school projects (“I made that for the science fair. You can't throw it out!”), catalogs, art supplies, and an odd assortment of Legos (“I still use those”).
I decided to tackle the clothes first because I get the least resistance about items that no longer zip or button. My son insists he still fits into his “Big Dog” T-shirt, purchased for him nearly four years ago when he was 7. I insist it looks like a candidate for the ragbag. And so it goes.
The strength of the pack rat gene creates a barrier between me and any real progress, which leaves me no choice. I wait until the weekend is over and my children's grip on hoarded goods is released by their absence.
Sack after sack, I load the van with items to be donated to a thrift shop. The Dumpster in the garage fills with “precious” and “valuable” junk that never will be missed, but just in case, I double-bag some of it in heavy black garbage sacks. There's nothing more frustrating than arguing the relative worth of an old stuffed bunny or a framed participation certificate from summer camp 2001 after it gets as far as the trash heap.
Of course, plenty of stuff is left behind. Once the clutter is cleared, I reorganize the closets and drawers, making mental notes of what each child needs to get through the winter.
I rearrange the items in desk drawers so the drawers open without a crowbar. I put the CDs back in their cases; I dust the framed baby pictures and deposit some spare change into piggy banks.
It takes about a week to get from the bedrooms to the basement and out to the garage, but eventually I conquer the task. Order is restored.
Then again, order is not my only objective.
In a culture so focused on consuming, I want to teach my children that ownership should have meaning. I want them to know that “more” is not a goal in itself.
If our stuff is a reflection of what we value, I want them to collect things they actually use or wear or treasure. I want them to keep the things that have genuine meaning and significance to them and let go of items whose only worth is measured by the length of time they have occupied the space in a forgotten corner.
Most of all, I want them to learn that when they give things away to others who need them, they experience one of life's most satisfying paradoxes: Less really is more.
(Marybeth Hicks is a writer and author of the features “then again.” and “A View from the Pew.” A wife of 18 years and mother of four children from third grade to junior year, she uses her columns to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families and the communities we share. Marybeth began her writing career more than 20 years ago in the Reagan White House. She currently writes a column for the Washington Times. Learn more about Marybeth and her work at MarybethHicks.com. This column first appeared in and is reprinted with permission from the Washington Times.)
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