My Old Stuff — A Little Moldy, a Little Dusty, but Unlike Certain People It’s Still With Me

My grandmorther's pince-nez with gold chain, hairpin and laminated metal case from J.H. Chinnery, optometrist, Scottville, Michigan. Photo by Barbara Newhall

My grandmorther’s pince-nez with gold chain, hairpin and laminated metal case from J.H. Chinnery, optometrist, Scottville, Michigan. Photo by Barbara Newhall

I love my old stuff. I couldn’t get rid of it when I wrote this piece back in 1987, and I can’t get rid of it now. The ski boots and baby bottles are gone, but we still have the crutches.

By Barbara Falconer Newhall, The Oakland Tribune, Sept. 6, 1987

Things. They stay where you put them. They don’t talk back. They don’t upchuck on the Persian rug. Things don’t have to be fed, clothed or diapered. They don’t require thank-you notes or post cards from Tahoe.

They might fade and gather dust, but they are not subject to mosquito bites, splinters, chicken pox or lung cancer.

They don’t invite someone else to the Sock Hop. They don’t divorce you.

a pair of old alumunium crutches with disintegrating padding. Photo by Barbara Newhall

“You never know when you’ll need a pair of crutches,” Jon says. Sure enough, they’ve been used more than once over the years. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Clearly, things have their place in the good life. But last month the time had come to part with a few – just a few – of my things. We were in the midst of a housecleaning frenzy at our house, and by golly I was going to get rid of some of that old stuff.

Getting rid of stuff is easy for some folks. Jon keeps careful track of his school yearbooks, photo albums, chess manuals and 1977-’78 Stanford football programs – and lets it go at that.

Peter, on the other hand, needs his things. He can’t think or play without an object or two gripped in his wide, 6-year-old hands. Waiting in the doctor’s office, he goes wacko if there is nothing on hand to help him act out his dreams of conquest and adventure.

Same with Christina, who agreed to give up her nightly bottle in honor of her fourth birthday. But she would not agree to give up her bottle collection, which is considerable. Not yet.

Peter likes his old koala bear. Christina likes the watercolor she made last week, the one she caught me trying to throw away.

I like my Navajo rugs, my Austrian pottery. I like the pearls my father gave me on my 21st birthday, the bust of Ike I made as a fifth grader, the diary I kept when I was 8, the miniskirt I wore when Jon and I were courting.

Last week, during our cleaning frenzy, Jon and I parted with some things – an American flag with a peace symbol where the stars should be, ten stuffed animals, an incense holder, two vacuum cleaners and a key-chain roach clip.

Every few years I take such drastic action as this. My things, meanwhile, remain steadfast until I am ready to let go. They don’t move to South Carolina and have teenage children I have never met. They don’t cross me off their Christmas card list. They don’t die.

One by one, the uncles, aunts and grandparents who peopled my childhood are disappearing from this life, like ducks in a shooting gallery.

There was Toto, my grandmother, who smoked, drank and dyed her hair black until she turned 90 and moved into a nursing home. Toto’s main vice after that was the drawerful of candy she kept for visiting great-grandchildren.

“What will the doctors do with her candy?” Peter wanted to know when he heard Toto had died.

My uncle George was a sweet man with a gruff voice. He hunted deer for his children to eat

A 1960s era American flag with the peace symbol on a blue field where the stars would normally be. Photo by Barbara Newhall

I thought we’d sent this 1960s era peace flag off to the Salvation Army in 1987. But it still flies in a corner of our den. Photo by Barbara Newhall

during the sparse Michigan winters after the tourists had gone home to Chicago and Detroit. When I was 6, George made me eat all the peas on my plate.

On my father’s side of the family, over in Scottville, Mich., others are gone – Aunt Emma, Uncle Squawk, Grandma Falconer. Born in 1876, Grandma Falconer used words from another century – such as “’tis” and “’twouldn’t.” she wore a real pince-nez, which she fastened to her updo with a gold chain and hairpin.

Each thing I own represents a person or a moment in my past. If I give away the Mexican blankets, will I forget Jon haggling for them in the mercado? If I let go of the picnic basket my high school best friend gave me, will I forget her? If that blue knit dress goes to the Salvation Army, will I ever see size 8 again?

How about the espresso coffee maker Jon and I so loved the first year of our marriage? The pair of crutches, the ski boots, the two baby potties, the portable crib we bought the day we found out we could adopt Peter?

All day, I sorted through my funky old things, making room for the two boxes I brought back from Michigan in July. My parents had had them since I left home two decades ago. This morning I cut the boxes open.

Inside, amongst the molding books and papers, I found Tony Benton, who died of Hodgkin’s disease. There with Tony, was Professor

A child's blue green, white and red tempera painting on newsprint. Photo by Barbara Newhall

A painting that did not get thrown away. Photo by Barbara Newhall

Ginden, who taught Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence. And Shirley Wagnitz, who was prettier than I in 1953, and Carli Parnall, who was smarter in 1962.

And, what’s that falling out of a crack in the box? My entire college sorority. I studied the photo, carefully marked with everyone’s name for this very moment, decades later, when memory surely would have begun to fail.

Our faces were moist and firm with youth. These were the same sisters who razzed me on my 21st birthday by singing “nine more years till you’re 30.” To us, then, 30 was old age. Forty was oblivion.

Great stuff, I thought, closing up the boxes. I think I’ll keep it all.

Another story about my old stuff at “Time to Crack Open that Hope Chest and Live a Little.”  More about my Grandma Falconer at “Watching My Grandmother Disappear.”

© 1987 The Oakland Tribune  Reprinted by permission

A small, coarsely woven Navajo rug of grey, black and gold. Photo by Barbara Newhall

This Navajo rug — possibly a saddle blanket — was all I could afford as a young writer traveling in New Mexico in the 1970s. Photo by Barbara Newhall



  1. Sue Watson says:

    And, I carefully placed the crystal wedding gift from you the other day. It is next to the first Christmas candlesticks from Tom and a Wedgewood platter from my mother – all so special – and allowing me to have secret anniversaries of the heart


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