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It takes a long time to fill a large, unfinished basement with belongings, but after 37 years of marriage, three children and 14 moves, I have managed to do it – though not single-handedly.
There are no medals for such an achievement. Quite the opposite.
When I go downstairs, I am disturbed by the contents of my basement – stored furniture, snowboards, old clothing, books and trunks full of Christmas decorations, letters and travel souvenirs.
We have created narrow, winding pathways so you can navigate to the old fridge, the freezer, the washing machine and dryer.
It may sound like I’m a hoarder, but I consider myself more of a “reuse and recycle” enthusiast who has lost her way.
Family circumstances partly explain our mountain of possessions.
My three grown children have collected a moderate amount of memorabilia from their academic, athletic and social achievements.
They have moved in and out of the house several times, always depositing a few more acquisitions in our long-term storage bank.
Now they live in small quarters and are not yet nostalgic for their childhood mementos, nor appreciative of family “valuables.” So it all sits in our basement.
In addition to the family possessions, we absorbed some of my mother’s furniture, china and knick-knacks after she died. My mother was an early recycling advocate who was deeply affected by the Depression years, and an Olympic-class saver.
We keep some items because they have actual or possible value – for example, my mother’s collection of silver dollars and 50-cent pieces.
There are hundreds of baseball and hockey cards that my husband’s uncle gave to our boys.
We have Chinese and Thai furniture and ceramics reflecting 11 years of living in Asia. There are Nintendo, PlayStation and X-box systems that my children believe will make them rich one day.
There are also some items of high emotional value, such as the children`s essays and art works, the 1982 Fisher Price bus, Space Lego and other toys I have stored for future grandchildren.
But there’s junk, too: books that will never be reread, outdated clothing, school and work reports, tools and trinkets.
As I study the basement contents, I realize technological change is a major culprit.
We have Disney movies in VHS and DVD; the Beatles on vinyl, cassette and CD; three movie cameras in graduated sizes; boxes of slides and photographs, dinosaurs in a digital world.
My basement is also a confirmation of consumerism. For as long as I can remember, radio, television and magazines have promoted the joys of acquiring goods.
While prices provided some control on purchases in North America, it was easy to over-shop in Asia, where beautiful things could be bought cheaply. But now my stored Asian furniture, handicrafts and textiles are a mute condemnation of those shopping excesses.
I kid myself that I am storing these belongings for my children, but they probably have little interest in them.
I need to focus on reducing my holdings. I really don’t want to keep all this stuff, but I do want to find a home for it. In the interim, I am running an orphanage for excess possessions.
My problem is a common one. My friends also complain about their over-stuffed houses.
And how else to account for the existence of reality programs like Hoarders and Storage Wars? The storage and disposal of surplus goods has become big business.
The options for getting rid of the excess are problematic. Throwing everything out seems a dreadful waste. Donating to charitable organizations is worthwhile as long as the contributions get to people who need them and are not making middle-men rich. Garage sales are a tremendous amount of work, and the proceeds are minimal.
We need a more effective system that will establish links between those who need to get rid of excess possessions and those who need these possessions.
There is some light at the end of my basement tunnels. My daughter recently moved out, taking a truckload of stuff with her.
My older son returned to school in May, and more clothing, books, dishes and a computer went with him. My younger son is moving to Toronto, so I’m hoping the snowboards, beer-brewing equipment, soccer gear and skateboards will go too.
Once the kids have removed their belongings, I plan to change my hoarding habits.
First, I will launch a basement purge. This will require coaching from my husband, who is a minimalist and would happily consign everything to the garbage.
The second step will be to stage the last great garage sale, in which everything will be sold or given away and nothing will re-enter the house.
Third, I will pledge to buy new things only to replace worn-out items.
And finally, I’ll convert our emptied basement into rental storage lockers and get rich!
Elaine Peebles lives in Ottawa.