This is why people tend to stay put

Photo by aung nyi on Unsplash

People in Buenos Aires live in little apartments crammed full of collectables handed down from generations. At least, that’s the impression I was left with after a trip to Argentina some time ago. A couple members of our team stayed with a petite, cranky woman who had a spare room in an apartment wherein every square inch of flat space was occupied by vases and candlesticks and clocks and various and sundry other tchotchkes she’d inherited. Almost every home we visited in the city felt the same. Very elegant and perilous at the same time. I remember thinking any sudden move on my part could bring down any number of heirlooms.

I also remember thinking what a pain in the ass dusting must be for the Argentines.

Mike and I have been working on getting rid of crap for the last few months in preparation for a move. Judging by the contents of our cupboards and closets, it’s been a while since we’ve engaged in any kind of purge. I’ve forgotten how much dang storage space we have in this house. We thought the cupboards and built in shelves were cool when we moved in––all this space to store crap! We had more room for stuff than we thought we would ever need.

We’ve since filled all that space.

This means I’ve been sorting through art supplies for Sunday school classes we taught fifteen years ago, through sheets that don’t fit any bed we have in the house. There’s a cupboard in the laundry room where I thought it would be clever to store canned goods and granola bars and bottled water in case of disaster. Well, said disaster would have had to happen prior to 2011 for those foodstuffs to have been of any use to us. I guess I must have skipped the section in the disaster preparedness brochure on rotating your stores.

I’d make a terrible pioneer, you guys.

Anyway, Operation Purge and Pack has been happening in fits and starts, and there’s faint progress to be shown, interspersed as it has been with all the stuff we have on our plates, like life and work and fulfilling various not-related-to-moving obligations. Every once in a while, though, I do get a notion to just knuckle down and get something done in the packing department.

Just one box, I tell myself if I have, say, fifteen minutes or so. Maybe two if I have twenty. Sounds simple, no?

It was this notion that had me downstairs last weekend staring at a cupboard in which were stored my grandmother’s glasses and dishes and things from when she lived with us. We’d sorted and packed up all of her other things when she moved out in 2007, but not this cupboard. Once in a while I’d pass it and wonder why her stuff was still there. I guess we knew she wouldn’t be needing dishes where she was going and we didn’t need that particular cupboard, so it must have been fine to let a bunch of fancy glasses and vases and things just keep their home in my family room for a good, long while.

But on this day, I resolved to get that stuff packed up for the thrift store or Salvation Army or wherever. It was going to go. I was in a good get-it-done frame of mind. I wasn’t even going to rinse off the dust. Nope. I lined up my boxes and paper and started pulling glasses out of the cupboard.

And then I found the note.

It was in my grandmother’s cursive. Not the wobbly handwriting of her last years, but firm loops and whorls. A note from earlier in her life. Maybe from when she first moved in with us.

To Whom it May Concern, it said. This crystal is to go to Shelly and Gene, the stemware and all the rest of it you can divide up amongst you three (presumably my mom, her sister and late brother). The vase was a wedding gift from 1945.

Now I remembered why we left this cupboard alone.


Which crystal was she referring to? And which pieces were crystal versus just plain glass? I remembered my dad running a wet finger around the rim of one of his mother’s goblets to demonstrate the high, clear sound it would make. I wet my finger and ran it around the rim of one glass, then another. Nothing. Maybe I didn’t have the knack.

Did grandma really want me to ship this stuff from Idaho to my Aunt in North Carolina? She’d been gone for more than a few years now. Would it be disrespectful to just ignore the note?

There were tumblers and large wine glasses and small sherry glasses and champagne glasses and pink-tinged parfait glasses, glasses with gold rims, and water glasses with filigreed silver plating wrapped around them. I imagined my grandmother with her curls in an updo serving cocktails to friends in her bridge club in tumblers that matched the cut class salt and pepper shakers and cream and sugar bowls also stowed in the cupboard. There’d be little, crustless Wonder Bread and cucumber canapés for the ladies to pick off a silver tray with their manicured nails on a sunny Sunday afternoon in her smoky living room.

If I’m the one doing the entertaining, I’ve got a mish-mash of wine glasses (stemless ones if you’re a clutz) and pint glasses to choose from. Some might bear an imprint of the restaurant from which they were pilfered. For everyday use, we’ve got cupboards full of plastic cups we brought home from concerts, water bottles, and (no kidding) sippy cups from when the kids were little, and then there’s that one cloudy glass left from the set we were given as a wedding gift almost twenty-nine years ago.

This is the thing with purging. The stash of expired food was not necessarily a problem, but everything else, every other cupboard in that house, is a cache of memory. The Sunday school supplies include the popsicle sticks Colin used one year to make those yarn stars for every single member of the family. That box of school supplies include notebooks over which Jack whined and I pulled my hair out by the roots while drilling him on math facts. Those crappy ceramics were hand made by some exchange student or another who lived in grandma’s room after she moved out without her glasses.

I really, really hate packing.

I pulled the glasses out of the cupboard and washed them and lined them up on the counter. I called my aunt to see if she knew what pieces grandma had been talking about. She didn’t. Nor did she recognize anything from the photos I emailed her.

“Maybe sell it, if you feel like it,” she said, which is when I realized I had a mission now, beyond just pack one box, maybe two.

Maybe I could make up for the times I was short with grandma in the years she was living with us and her memory was failing and she’d follow me around in the kitchen telling the same story over and over again. Maybe this was a way to honor the traditions of my ancestors, through stemware.

Whatever. There’s also not much of a market for crystal. I looked it up.

So I reached out to my sister. Turns out grandma’d given her a plate that matched the tumblers with the silver filigree, so she’d like those, and she kind of liked the weird pink glasses. Yay!

I messaged my cousins. Two of them said they’d take whatever I wanted to send them after everyone else had chosen. One said she hadn’t any space, the other was still wondering what to do with the glassware from another side of the family. Mike kind of wants to keep the cocktail tumblers, even though we’re not cocktail people. It’s more hospitable to offer your guests refreshment in something other than a sippy cup, I guess.

All of which is the story of how my one-box mission is now at least a four- or five-box mission, with a trip to the post office and a bunch of sturdy tape and bubble wrap.

Only ninety bajillion or so cupboards to go you guys.

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  1. I don’t envy you. Periodically, I just do some cupboard purging, but not often enough. I do have the fancy stemware set that I wanted for my wedding 28 years ago. I think we’ve used one or two of them about six times (if I’m generous). And I have dishes from grandparents, gravy boats, an odd tea cup with saucer, and a complete little girl’s China set that my grandma used as a girl. It’s wrapped in paper from 1965 (which I find more fascinating than the tiny cups and tea pots). Like you, I’ve just set them aside for years with the thought that “I’ll figure out what to do with it when I need to figure out what to do with it.” Good luck and keep us informed on your progress! It might inspire the rest of us to tackle it sooner rather than later.

    1. I LOVE looking at the newspapers we wrap things in, like the Christmas ornaments we pull out every year. What a trip. I’m currently trying to work on getting my mom to sort through her stuff before that day comes when it’s up to my sister and me to!

  2. Love it! I have to say, when I began reading this, I felt the stirring of incentive to go ‘tackle’ the cupboard in which we have stored my own mother/grandmother/great-grandmother’s articles of china and crystal. One of the sets is to serve 18. Eighteen! Plus all the associated serving bowls/plates/tiny salt & pepper shakers.
    This is not the stuff one pulls out for a chili- or spaghetti-feed. Or stew (the third in my menu repertoire for multiple guests). So – they have all been stored in the guest room closet for years. Sad, really. Neither daughter nor DIL are interested… I’m pretending our granddaughter will be thrilled.

  3. Beth, I hear you. We just moved, after 24.5 years. It took place quickly–offered, bought, packed, listed, sold, and moved, all within a month. I’m exhausted! I love our new (to us) house, but I also really miss features of the old one. Several times, my husband and I look at each other and say, what did we do before we moved? Moving is all we do now!

    I made countless trips to the thrift store with my stuff, and about twenty to various grocers haunting them for boxes. Albertsons on 36th and State gave us so many.

    My high school yearbooks didn’t make the cut. They’ve been recycled, and I do have a little regret. As for the other stuff, so much of it is still in boxes, and I can’t say I’m dying to unpack it and clutter up this new house. TRUTH: we found a box we’d never unpacked from our move all those years ago. I’d wondered idly about its contents, but never really missed it. I’ve learned that stuff is just stuff. When we prepared our house to list, we went super minimal, even rented a storage unit; and I loved the clean look our house (finally!) attained.

    I’m enjoying getting to know the new neighborhood, but also… sheesh, change, it’s tough! Wishing you the best with the process and finding the perfect spot.

    1. Thanks, Heidi. Congratulations on your move! I didn’t realize when we started what a Herculean task this was going to be. Part of the problem is we have no set date to put the house on the market, so this could potentially stretch out for a while. I need to set a deadline.

      That reminds me there’s a box in my closet labeled “stuff I need to return.” It came with us during the last move. I hope nobody’s waiting on whatever’s in there.

  4. Hi, Beth, what fun! I moved a ga-zillion times and STILL didn’t get rid of enough stuff. And yes, it is just stuff.

  5. I totally understand.
    We’re about to do a purge too as our son is going to be 18 and wants the use of our house for his birthday party so time to put some of those precious things away!

    In doing so, we have realised that some of his baby / teenager stuff needs to go into the cellar as he’ll be going to university soon, and the jigsaw puzzles (mine), the boxes of photographs of when I was in university, the crockery and linen of my husband’s German family, also need to go to the cellar as he can’t bear to part with them, even though they’ve both passed away.

    However, as an only child (him and our son), and the only girl (me), we still feel the pain of loss or want the memories, so down they go, until the next 5 or 10 years I guess!

    1. I have boxes of toys our boys loved that I think will have some value if they ever have children, toy train sets that were quite expensive to buy when we were younger, we just purchased one precious piece at a time. We also kept the legos that that played with until they were teens. There are just some things that are hard to part with!

  6. Thebritishberliner, you may want to ask your son to purge his own stuff and donate to ady cares, etc. it is not fun to still have that stuff fifteen yrs later, b/c he may not have a big enough space or is too far away to ship (baby stuff!?). wish I had done it.

    1. We asked that of our son, who was home from a break in university. He didn’t do a good job at purging, just put everything in boxes to deal with later. The apple doesn’t fall far, I guess. Still, I’m impressed he packed his whole room up himself!