A few months ago life presented us with a rare opportunity. My aunt was moving to a smaller place and couldn’t keep all of her furniture. We got a call, asking us if we wanted it – otherwise she would have to sell it or give it away. Normally Cheryl would answer a question like this with an unqualified and unequivocal: “No, we’ve already got too much stuff.”
It became my mission in life to change her mind.
It was my aunt’s furniture, but she wasn’t the original owner. Neither were the previous owners, nor the ones before them.
In the early to mid 1800s, the Kauffmans settled in Walker Township, PA. They built a house and made a home. They made more than one actually, but one in particular stands out. It was never more than a small family farm, but I always knew it as the Kauffman family farm – a focal point for my family’s history – in a country that doesn’t have much more (in terms of time). I’ve only been there a handful of times, the last more than twenty years ago, but I look back on them now as almost religious experiences. In its later years, as fewer people lived at the farm, some of the original belongings at the house scattered. Quite a bit ended up at my grandparent’s house, mixed in with some old Rice family furniture (my grandmother’s family).
My aunt got it all (or most anyway) when my grandmother moved into a nursing home. Now I was getting a turn. (To be fair, I didn’t have to do much convincing. Cheryl knew it meant a lot to me. I’m very lucky, in many ways.)
The furniture arrived Wednesday afternoon, after weeks of anticipation.
We’re still making room for it all, but it’s exciting – and a little scary. No one in my family lives in a house that could be mistaken for a museum. Furniture gets used, and I’m afraid of being the one to break something after over 150 years of service.
Now we have an old rope bed, the same one I slept in when I visited my grandparents as a child. My great-great grandfather Rice (or someone in his immediate family) was probably sleeping in it around the time Florida became a state, before the Civil War. A dresser, dining room table, and (buffet like) cabinet came with it – among other things. Some of it was made by my great-great grandfather Kauffman.
I’m just as excited as ever to have it, but the little boy in me who lets anxiety get the better of him feels the weight of responsibility – the keeper of family history. I had a few small pieces already. When my grandfather died he left me some of the small tools used by the early Kauffmans of Walker Township, but it was different. Old tools can be safely and easily stored, not that anyone has much use for 150 year old planer.
You’d think having children would make me used to responsibility. After all, it is just stuff, right? I’ve never cared much about my stuff – with a couple of exceptions, but these are not like a television or computer designed for obsolescence. A grain bin finished with milk paint, built by my great-great grandfather Kauffman, sits in my family room. It’s basically a tall brown box. I’ve had it less than a week and it already means more to me than my bike. A month ago I didn’t know what milk paint was. I get chills and a little choked up lying on the bed, thinking about my grandparents, the time I spent with them, and the family I never met who sat where I lie now. The forks in my family tree suddenly feel like a straight line.
Is it still just stuff?
I’m not quite into the idolatry realm, or even valuing objects more than people, but I suddenly feel like I have more to lose. I like having a home and I’d be upset if we lost it, but I don’t think it would have been an emotional loss – assuming the people in my life were ok. I can’t say that now.
I can’t decide whether it’s unhealthy to place this kind of value in things. Granted, this is different than a desire to accumulate things for their own sake. These things have come to be more than they were, by what they’ve come to represent: family, loved ones, shared history… and yet… none depend on the thing. If the bed goes up in flames I still have family, loved ones, and shared history.
I think I’m ok as long as I DON’T start to value them more than the people in my life. We’re allowed to let things make us happy, right?
Maybe emotional attachment to the things we have isn’t as bad as lust for the things we don’t, and I’m confusing the two. Are we (in general) a disposable society relative to other parts of the world? Do we make fewer emotional connections to things, with a perpetual eye for the greener grass? Maybe valuing some things, depending on what they are, makes us less superficial, not more.
Maybe, in my typical fashion, I’ve WAY over-thought this.