April 16, 2018
I never meant to hurt anybody, especially not a sweet old woman. But it happened.
Her first email arrived last week telling me, gently but clearly, that I had made her feel bad, or, more specifically, guilty for her desire to keep the things she loved around her.
“Maybe it was the title that enticed me, at my very advanced age of 90, to actually read a home decorating column,” wrote the reader, who asked me not to use her name.
The column she’d read was about how to put the “you” in your home, but not too much of you, rather a well-edited representation of you.
When in paragraph three I referred to “those homes,” she felt called out. “You said,” her email continued, “‘those homes’ with a slight sneer. I guess you might say that I am living in a similar home.”
Here’s a replay of the offending paragraph: “I’m picturing those homes where the sentimental owners smother every doily-covered surface with memorabilia… and where oodles of family photos spread across tables like the tattoo plague. Sometimes, less of ‘You’ is better.”
Oh, boy. I am knee deep now.
“Though I am no hoarder, and my home, which I have been in for 52 years, is clean, I am surrounded by stories,” she wrote. “The objects have behind them stories, wonderful stories. The objects remind me of living memories. I live in what some might call a museum — a museum of a life well lived.”
By now, I have slinked like a skink between the cushions of my chair.
“I know you did not mean to do it,” she continued, with a kindness I do not deserve, “but you made me feel guilty for not being more philosophical and for being downright unmotivated to spend the years I have left getting rid of stuff.”
What kind of a brute would tell an old woman she has to give up her beloved belongings?
She granted that although she thought it lovely that I could adorn my office with a few personal items that I liked and warmed to, that captured the essence of a memory or two, that was not how she wanted her home.
“Some people want a sparse office, others want theirs like mine: filled with books, bulletin boards, a rack for greeting cards, many photos of my kids, and rocks my father and I collected — Oh deary dear, guilt has set in again! My point is everyone does not want to live the same way.”
I can hear the crowd shouting: Off with her head!
“I do not think you are wrong about getting rid of stuff,” she later wrote, in what became an increasingly endearing email thread, ten exchanges in all, between a humbled columnist and a wiser, older women, “I am sure you have criteria that I could use to get rid of things.”
“After our discussion,” she writes the next day, “I thought maybe I could really get rid of some things. I know I would be doing my family a favor if I chucked out stuff, and I feel a bit selfish keeping it…. “
I am heartened that she is slowly starting to see my point, harsh and insensitive though I may be.
“So, I either have to spend time getting rid of things or live with the guilt.”
I wisely say nothing.
“…I know that my progeny will have no trouble throwing out and selling objects, and their houses will have less of me and I certainly hope more of them, and I suppose that is the way of the world.”
“Maybe one day you could write an article about an old gal with too many objects writing you a funny note that says it is important for us not to all live in identical houses.”
“And perhaps you can write about what people can give old folks with full houses, so they don’t get more stuff.”
Another good idea.
And so, here are seven gift ideas to give elderly loved ones whose homes are already too full:
- A hand around the house. Ask or look around for what you can do to help maintain the house, then offer to paint, patch, repair, mow, weed, or clean.
- A fun experience. Get them tickets to the theater, a sporting event or concert, or a gift certificate to a dinner out. Or better yet, take them.
- Your time. Visit and create more memories for both of you. Let them share their stories, and advice.
- Perishable pleasures. Give flowers, a fruit basket, or other consumables they can enjoy that won’t last.
- Something for the yard. Seniors often love spending time in their yards, so a rosebush, new plants, or a birdfeeder can bring joy.
- A membership. Enroll them in a coffee-of-the month club.
- A donation in their name to their favorite cause.
“You seem to have a good sense of humor,” my new friend wrote in her last email. “I would love to have tea in your neat house and to have you in my museum.”
“I would love that, too.”
CAPTION: Sentimental Stuff — Seniors often see their life experiences in their belongings. What many want more than anything is to pass down those stories to the next generation. For them, the best gift isn’t more stuff. Rather, give your time and attention. Photo courtesy of dreamstime.com.