Three years and over 1,000 eBay auctions later, the actual value of model trains remains a mystery to me. The final auction price of whatever I’ve listed for sale depends greatly on how many modelers are looking it at the time. Regardless, the value of most items has decreased since I inherited them. My father had a pretty good sense of what his collection would earn if sold piece-by-piece, but how many people would invest the time and energy to tackle such a project? It would surely have been easier to take a lump sum from someone else more eager than I to do it. If I hadn’t had the time, I’d have emptied out Dad’s house a lot faster than the two years it took me. (My two brothers confessed they’d have cleared it out in a week, its contents (trains included) transported swiftly by dumpster to the nearest landfill.)
As seniors retire, downsize, and eventually transition through various stages of assisted living on the way to their graves, what, exactly, is happening to their stuff? Why do they hold onto it for so long? It’s clear that many Americans have a problem with this; we actually spend billions annually just to store the stuff we don’t use:
Reality TV shows, like Storage Wars, Pawn Stars, and Hoarding: Buried Alive, chronicle our obsession with buying, selling, collecting, storing and parting with “stuff.” Even Antiques Roadshow can hoodwink you into buying some ugly urn for $20 at a garage sale on the chance that it’s really a $60,000 Ming vase. On some level though, we Americans know we have a problem: it’s no accident that two recent books on clearing out household crap have become best sellers, urging us to either “tidy up” the Japanese way, or undertake Swedish “death cleaning.”
Consumerism is partly to blame for our ever-expanding accumulation of stuff. New technology convinces us that wants are needs; the smarter TV, the faster laptop, the self-driving car. Virtual servants transform our desires into smiley doorstep packages containing printer cartridges, beach umbrellas and WiFi routers. Although you can ask her, Alexa will never take out the garbage. Visit any garage or tag sale; despite our new purchases, we retain whatever technology replaces, decades of it: old speakers, computers, monitors, vinyl records, books, linens, dishes, kitchen gadgets, lawn mowers, and billions of yards of fabric patterned into the clothes we store and never wear. Why is at least one typewriter and one old sewing machine on display at every garage or tag sale? How many used curtain rods do you have stored in your basement or attic? How many twin bedspreads to do have for twin beds you no longer own? Do you have more than one Christmas tree? Quick…how many pairs of shoes and t-shirts do you own and never wear? One motive for hanging on to clothing, at least for me, has been the fleeting wish that I will once again be a size 4, even though the clothes make me feel bad when I look at them. Perhaps such wishful thinking is really about fear of aging, death, or perhaps, our own legacy.
My father inherited an intricately carved, well-crafted Victorian-style living room set from his mother; he paid dearly to have it re-upholstered. Despite the furniture’s value to him and my grandmother, upon his death nobody wanted that “old stuff.” Today people who buy used furniture look for brands: Pottery Barn, Crate and Barrel, Ethan Allen and anything “mid-century modern,” the new “vintage” term for old, used furniture from the 1950s and 60s. If you value something, you hope your children will too, someday; but just because you like something doesn’t mean anyone will want it when you’re gone. Maybe they’ll hold onto your things for a while out of guilt (“I can’t throw out that stained, embroidered tablecloth that-doesn’t-fit-my-table; my mother made it.”); although it’s far more likely that the more stuff you store, the more your children will resent you when you’re dead.
My father did not keep his trains because of what they might be worth to his heirs; none of us expressed any interest in them anyway. I believe he simply enjoyed owning, and yes, even hoarding them. The dollar value of what I’ve sold so far is minor compared to the time and effort I’ve invested; far more rewarding to me has been the process of researching and learning about his hobby—and discovering him through the experience.
Within the heart, there is free and infinite space for our most treasured possessions: relationships, experiences, and memories; the rest isn’t really worth very much at all.