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Giving Away the Stuff but Keeping the Memories

Personal Perspective: Objects retain memories, even after you give them away.

We downsize for many reasons. Perhaps we've Marie Kondo'd ourselves out of things that no longer spark joy. Maybe we've moved to smaller quarters. Perhaps financial considerations factor into why we get rid of stuff; we look at what we own and decide we'd rather have the cash.

So we turn to Craigslist, NextDoor, eBay, or even the pawn shop. (True confession time: I once pawned the sterling silver service that was a wedding gift from my parents, who lived across the country. Then they arrived for a last-minute visit and I had to hock it back before I had to explain its absence!)

Magazines aimed at boomers who are looking at their empty but cluttered nest publish articles like "Why Your Grown Kids Don't Want Your Old Stuff," and in most cases that's true—tastes change, and maybe they never really liked yours. But many objects have memories embedded in them even after they're no longer yours.

When I see the blue and gray rug in my daughter's house, I remember bargaining with the shopkeeper in the Plaka in Athens on my first trip to Greece; the geometric pattern is faded but still makes me hum the music from Zorba when I visit her. She also wanted the mahogany commode with the marble top even though the drawers always stuck. When she moved into her first apartment she brought it with her, and she still has it. Now, when I visit her, I'm reminded of Mrs. Ramey, the farmer's wife outside of La Grande Oregon who had five barns of American antiques, from butter churns to cheval mirrors. My friend Lila and I stumbled across her and we both furnished our new houses with her old things; not just the commode that Jenny has now but the Eastlake pine bed that I saw first and bought for my son's room. When he grew up I gave it to Lila, whose own son slept in it until he too grew up and moved away. Then Lila moved it with her across the country, and now that it's in her guest room I sleep on it whenever I visit.

In another friend's family room, some of the masks I bought in Africa bring all the sounds and smells of that extraordinary continent back to me. Others hang in my son's house; we took that trip together, and often when I visit him I remember what he said on the flight home: "I'll remember this trip long after you're dead." He also has once-treasured possessions, relics of my marriage and divorce that still stir emotions in me when I see the pictures of his father, the framed photographs he and I bought together on our honeymoon, his duck decoys, fishing rod, and shotguns.

I love to see my friends and family wearing or using things of mine I've given them. I used to collect amber, and although I no longer do; you can only wear so many necklaces and bracelets at once. My granddaughter has one of them, as well as the emerald studs I bought myself when I sold my first book. A friend who lives in Vermont is glad to have a somewhat ratty and threadbare old fur coat given me by an aunt who called it her grocery mink; although its present owner agrees that it's politically incorrect, she says it's perfect for shoveling snow. When my grandson whips up a smoothie for me with the ancient but still working Waring blender I acquired five decades ago, I remember being young in another place, another time. Even if the drink he pours me is healthier if a lot less tasty than the milkshakes I used to make in it, I'm delighted that he's enjoying it.

In all the downsizing I've done, I've given plenty of stuff to thrift stores and other charities. But first I've always asked my kids and friends if they wanted them. It's okay with me if they say no; that’s what Goodwill is for. Still, being able to revisit old things made new by the pleasure their new owners take in them sparks joy in me too.