22: The Undecided Pile

22: The Undecided Pile

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Joy of Less


The Undecided Pile

Self Storage: When you care enough to just hide the stuff from his bachelor days rather than throwing it all away.

~Author Unknown

“There’s a car under there?” I stared at the five-foot pile of junk that filled one entire bay of the garage.

“Yeah, a VW Rabbit. I’m going to get it running and sell it as soon as I have time,” said my soon-to-be husband, Jimmy.

“How long has it been there?”

“Ten years.”

For the first time, I realized the full extent of the project to move both our households into the house we’d just closed on. I was already having trouble making decisions about my own belongings even though I had considerable experience with downsizing from my frequent moves. And Jimmy! My God, had the man never thrown anything away in his entire life?

We had started our packing project with good intentions and mutual consideration.

“What’s in that box?” I’d asked.

“My grandmother’s dishes. No one else wanted them when she died.”

They were really ugly and chipped, but our relationship was still new enough that I hesitated to object to a family memento.

After a day at his house resulted in only a piddling pile he was willing to give up, we moved on to my apartment.

“How about this?” Jimmy asked, nudging a wicker basket.

“All the programs from the plays I’ve gone to over the past twenty years. I thought they’d make a great collage someday.”

He started to say something but apparently thought it prudent to let it go.

After a few hours I realized that, at this pace, we’d never be ready to move by our deadline, so we agreed that it all would go in the attic, with the stipulation that as soon as we settled in, we’d ruthlessly go through it piece by piece. Maybe have a yard sale.

“But the Rabbit goes!” I said.

He was wise enough to realize he’d won the war, and easily agreed to offer the car to a single co-worker with a junk-filled back yard.

Our move was accomplished; fifteen years passed. New stuff came in, old stuff went into the attic, or the cabinets, or the too-large closets, sometimes into the basement. I was fairly confident there was room for at least two vehicles in the garage since I never saw Jimmy’s van or truck on the street, but I preferred to stay ignorant of what might be stored in the rest of the space. We occasionally talked about that yard sale, but somehow never found the time.

Then we decided to retire and follow our dream of buying a motorhome and wandering around the country having adventures. We took a year to plan our escape down to the tiniest detail. Or so we thought.

“They made a bid on the house, but if you accept it, they want to move in a month from now,” announced our real estate agent.

We wanted to jump up and down and shout “Hallelujah!” The one element we’d had no control over was how long it would take to sell our house, and here the third couple to look at it actually wanted it! Thank God our motorhome was ready to move into. We were in the home stretch.

Thus began the most challenging period of our marriage. Jimmy was still working every day, so I went through the house room by room, with the exception of the basement, the attic and the garage, which we would handle together. I began by assigning each item to either the “keep” pile, the “thrift store” pile, the “junk pile, or “undecided.” Eventually it became obvious that the largest pile of all was the “undecided.” I invited friends and relatives in to take what they wanted, but still that “undecided” pile filled an entire room — two rooms after Jimmy and I finished with the basement and attic. The garage turned out to be the easiest. Jimmy agreed to sell most of its contents to the new buyer of the house, who apparently didn’t have enough garage junk of his own.

“We just can’t keep it all,” I wailed, as we looked at the huge piles of “undecided” stuff on our last Sunday evening.

Jimmy looked up from the box of Grandma Sowder’s ugly dishes. Was that a tear in the corner of his eye?

“Okay, listen,” I said, knowing a quick solution had to be reached. “Let’s just rent a second storage unit, move all this stuff in, and once we get into the motorhome, we’ll sort through it, keep what we want and sell the rest at a yard sale.”

Well, our site at the RV park didn’t have a yard, did it? Besides Jimmy had sold his truck and van, so how could we move the stuff out of storage?

Six months later, off we went, heading west for the beginning of our adventure, one substantial monthly payment automatically deducted from our checking account for two large storage units. I only thought about them when I balanced our checkbook at the end of the month.

Then one day the manager of the storage facility called. A junk dealer was offering five hundred dollars cash for the contents of our “undecided” unit. Jimmy balked when I told him.

“If you can name five things that are in it, we’ll keep it.” I said.

“Uh, Grandma Sowder’s dishes. And I think there’s a table, uh, maybe some pots and pans?” He held up his hands in surrender. “Okay, we’ll split the five hundred.”

Every couple of years, we go through the remaining storage unit while visiting our hometown, and over the years we’ve downsized to the smallest unit available. It’s been surprising how little most of the stuff we’d deemed keepers seems to matter anymore. All that remain are family documents, a few antiques, and some artwork we still can’t relinquish.

The reasons people hold on so tightly to stuff they don’t use is because they think they might need it someday, or because it reminds them of a person or a time from their past. Maybe it gives them a sense of security, of safety in a world that sometimes feels too large, too impersonal, too lonely. Jimmy and I have learned that most stuff can be easily and cheaply replaced if you need it, and is quickly forgotten when out of sight. And those forever memories are carried with us in our hearts, not our attics, and are all we really need. How often do you actually dig Aunt Helen’s teapot or Grandpa Jack’s old derby out of the attic and think about the departed? More often it’s an old song, the smell of fresh-dried lavender, the taste of rhubarb pie — catching you unaware — that triggers memories and brings those loved ones back to you for a brief moment.

We still constantly fight the impulse to acquire, but it’s now kept under control by the limitations of our space. And to our surprise and delight, having only as much as we actually need gives us as much of a sense of freedom as does living in a home on wheels.

~Sheila Sowder


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