Things our loved ones leave behind

Marketplace Staff May 7, 2010

Things our loved ones leave behind

Marketplace Staff May 7, 2010


Tess Vigeland: Even if a relative makes it to 100, they’re not going to be around forever. And when they do pass on, family members are often left with years, even decades, of treasures, heirlooms, and let’s face it — junk.

In Lisa Tracey’s new book, “The Objects of Our Affection,” she talks about the stories we invest in those things our loved ones leave behind. Stories that make it hard to ever get rid of them. For instance, her nephew’s thoughts on an old milk bottle.

Lisa Tracey: One night his dad was making popcorn in a skillet. And when he took it off the stove and opened the lid, the fluffed kernels exploded all over the place. And when the popcorn blew up, says my great nephew, I was looking at the milk bottle, and it put the remembering right in my head. The memory still makes him laugh uproariously. And this is why, I see, we won’t be getting rid of this milk bottle any time soon.

Tracey ended up with storage lockers full of stuff from her family’s past when her mother died. Some of it valuable, some of it not so much. For this Mother’s Day weekend, we talked with her about her new book, which tells of the struggles she faced in both keeping and selling her mom’s things.

Tracey: When I was doing research for the book, according to one study I saw, Americans spend $20 billion a year on storage units. And another study said that the average American moves 11 times in a lifetime. And I really think this is a part of the crux of this whole possessions issue that I think Americans have. Because we move so much, we do carry things with us, and they sort of become almost our home.

Vigeland: In the book, you detail how you and your sister wound up with a storage locker full of stuff from your family’s past. Tell us a little bit about that space.

Tracey: We actually had two bins, which, of course, were piled to the ceiling. Everything carefully put on top of everything else. But this was because my mom had died in the early 1990s, and my sister and I were kind of, you know, in grief and denial. And we both lived in other parts of the country, so we just kind of, in an emergency measure, threw the stuff into storage and then went away. The storage bins were only a couple hundred dollars a month, which each time you pay it, it doesn’t seem like that much. But then eventually, we had spent about $10,000 in increments of one month at a time, because years went by. And finally, I went and checked the bins and I saw some evidence of some mouse damage and stuff. And that’s when I called my sister, and I said, “What are we doing? This is crazy.”

Vigeland: So was it mostly the cost that was weighing on you at that point or was there anything in the back of your head that said, “You know, this is stuff that belonged to my parents. Maybe I should go through it.”

Tracey: Absolutely. It wasn’t even so much the cost — although, when I stopped and realized that in these little innocent increments, we had spent all this money. But I also thought, you know, some of this is pretty good stuff and in any case, it’s all completely useful and we are just sitting on it. We already took enough things to remember them by, and then the alternative struggle was, but it belonged to the family, and it seems disrespectful to just, you know, we’re not going to put it out on the sidewalk. And that was what led us to the auction.

Vigeland: And you mentioned that it was very difficult to go through this auction. You watch all these things disappear, piece by piece. Describe what that was like for you.

Tracey: It was really grim. We got there and the auction was already in progress, and we were part of a larger auction, but most of the stuff was ours. And just to see the pieces go up on the block and see them go down for prices — at one point, my sister sort of muttered to me quietly, “You couldn’t even buy the wood for the price they paid.” They maybe paid $300 for this big, really gorgeous vanity. But we did end up keeping some things. Some things just because of sentimental value, even a rather large sofa that might’ve been valuable, but it was where my mother always plopped down to read her books. And it was kind of like that was my mother’s home, I just couldn’t let it go.

Vigeland: This whole notion that you talk about in your book, these objects of our affection, it certainly prompted me to look around at all the stuff that I have accumulated over the years. Did writing this book change the way you look at everything around you in your life and maybe wonder where it might end up?

Tracey: It did, totally. And I’d love to know more about what you thought about your own things.

Vigeland: That I have way too much in every little corner.

Tracey: Closets you didn’t even remember you had.

Vigeland: I don’t even want to go up into the attic anymore.

Tracey: Exactly. Oh the attic, God forbid. I can’t look at anything now without thinking, I don’t want to do this to those who come after me, notably my son. I do not want to leave a bunch of stuff for other people to sift through. I want to really deal with it myself and have a clear idea of what’s really useful and what’s really necessary and what are the few things that I would like to allow myself for my emotional satisfaction. And not to have everything invested with that emotional feeling. To be clear that these things can go any time, they’re just useful, and these few things are my treasures.

Vigeland: Lisa Tracey is the author of “Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family’s Past, One Chair, Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Time.” Thanks so much, enjoyed the book.

Tracey: Thank you, it was wonderful.

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