Confessions of a gift-guilty packrat

“Guilt: the gift that keeps giving.” —Erma Bombeck

“Guilt: the gift that keeps giving.” —Erma Bombeck

I’ve written more than once about being a packrat, especially recently, as the process of packing, purging, moving, unpacking, purging some more has really driven home just how much stuff we had squirreled and stashed away all over the place. One aspect of the packrat I’ve only touched on briefly is the guilt over gifts. Anxiety comes in many forms for packrats. We worry that if something we need breaks, or is stolen, or stops working or whatever that we won’t be able to afford to replace it. We feel guilt at the thought of spending money to replace something that we could have avoiding spending if we had simply kept a backup. We worry that someone we care about will be left in the lurch if something they need breaks and they can’t afford to replace it. We grow up being taught that people who waste money, or who don’t plan for an equipment or other failure, or who aren’t in a position to help a loved when when something breaks down are bad people. And so on.

It’s a really complex web of guilt trips that we’re programmed with. And while most of those guilt trips are about necessities, not all of them are. We also have been taught to feel guilt over a lot of useless stuff. Specifically: anything that has ever been a gift. Don’t get me wrong: I love gifts. I love finding gifts for people I love. I love giving them. I love when someone gives something to me. Most people do. But we’ve all gotten those gifts that leave us scratching our heads. Why did this person think I would love this strange, ugly thing whose only purpose is to hang on a wall or sit on a shelf and isn’t like anything else I own at all?

The truth is, we know that we’ve made similar mistakes in gifting to other people. We found something we thought was cool, or that they would like, but it’s really not. So when we get gifts like that ourselves, we smile and say “thank you.” And we are grateful that they thought of us and went to the trouble and expense of getting this thing for us, even if we have no clue what we’re going to do with it.

But no matter how useless or inappropriate the gift is, we packrats have a very hard time getting rid of it. Years later it will still be on a shelf or in a closet somewhere, next to a bunch of other things I never use. Even if I’ve decided that it’s time for a purge and I’m specifically going through a part of the house looking for things to take to the thrift store, I’ll pick up the thing I never use that was a gift and immediately hear my grandma’s voice in the back of my head: “You can’t get rid of that! So-and-so gave it to you, and what sort of ungrateful person would get rid of a heartfelt gift?” Getting rid of the gift would be the same thing as saying I don’t love that person as much as I think I do. Getting rid of the gift would mean I don’t appreciate how lucky I am that people think of me fondly enough to get a gift. Getting rid of the gift means that I’m a very bad person.

All of that runs through my head at the thought of getting rid of any gift. Even a silly old knick knack that I don’t merely don’t like, but actually think is repulsive. Even gifts given by people who are no longer a part of my life.

When my parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and various aunts and uncles were inducing all this guilt, they weren’t meaning to turn me into a borderline hoarder—they were trying to teach me not to be ungrateful. Thye wanted me to treasure friends and value friendship and be thankful for the love that came into my life. Just as they had been taugt. The fact that they were all packrats because of it didn’t eve cross their minds.

Every single weird little kickknack and odd odject d’art that was crammed into the homes of each of my great-grandparents had a story. If I pointed at something and asked about it they would tell a story about the dear friend or long-deceased relative or whoever that had given them the thing. The story they told didn’t always involve the gift itself. But it was about the person and how wonderful or funny or dear they had been. Each dusty item was a memorial to someone they cared about.

And it isn’t just gifts that do that. My late husband, Ray, was even more into plushies than I am. Some of the plush tigers and bunnies and such he owned for a very long time before we met. Many of them had spent years in storage while he was living in a series of rented rooms in other people’s houses. But some went with him to each of those rooms. Some were later kept near his favorite chair in the apartments he and I shared.

The problem is that Ray was a heavy smoker—like his mom and sister and brothers who liked to visit a lot. And many of those plushies became badly nicotine stained. I’ve spent years periodically taking the stained ones out and trying various cleaning solutions on them. Some cleaned up easily, but other have just resisted.

But every time I thought it was time to throw in the towel and admit they couldn’t be cleaned, I would immediate think, “But Ray adored it! What kind of heartleass widower would throw away something your husband loved!?” So they would go back into the closet or the back of a shelf until the next time I tried to clean them.

The process happened again during the move. For the first time in a long while I had all of the stained ones in a single place and I went through trying to clean all of them yet again. As before, they resist the commercial soap and various homemade concoctions I’ve put together from recipes on the web and so forth. They just won’t come clean. And since they are so badly stained, they shouldn’t be donated to a thrift store. When I mentioned this to Michael, he very delicately suggested it was time to “retire” them. I probably should have made a Bladerunner joke, but instead I just said, “I know. I just may have to hold a funeral for them.”

When Grandma died, we found literally hundreds and hundreds of teddy bears, easter bunnies, and assorted other plushies, each packed in plastic bags and crammed impossibly densely into a couple of closets. A lot of them had little notes attached in Grandma’s handwritting with some person’s name and a date. The vast majority of the names were people none of the family recognized. Grandma did lots of volunteer work at church, and over the years she helped and came to know a dizzying array of people who were there for a while and moved on with their life when they got through whatever calamity had brought them to the charity program. And Grandma seemed to remember them all.

For a few years after her death, everytime I saw either my mother or my aunt, they would try to foist some of those plushies off on me. “It belonged to your grandmother!” they would protest if I suggested donating it to a thrift store. It didn’t matter that many of them looked like they had come from a thrift store before Grandma got them. It didn’t matter that they had been hidden away somewhere in some cases for many decades. It didn’t matter that none of us had any knowledge of their existence before Grandma’s death; not one of us had a fond memory of Grandma telling the story of how this one was given to her. To my mom and my aunt, suggestions that we didn’t want them amounted to saying we didn’t want to remember Grandma, or something.

I don’t want to be that person. I recognize that hanging onto these things that I don’t and can’t enjoy simply because they were his is as irrational as my Mom being upset when I suggested a hunk of junk that had clearly once been a dime store window display that one of Grandma’s charity cases had picked up as salvage somewhere and given to her wasn’t a family heirloom.

There’s a difference between hanging on to something that you love or reminds you of someone you love (and that you have room for and you can enjoy and/or it serves a purpose), and hanging on because you feel guilt toward someone who is not going to be harmed in any way if you don’t keep it.

But I’m still probably going to hold a little funeral for the plushies…

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About fontfolly

I've loved reading for as long as I can remember. I write fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and nonfiction. I publish an anthropomorphic sci-fi/space opera literary fanzine. I attend and work on the staff for several anthropormorphics, anime, and science fiction conventions. I live in Seattle with my wonderful husband, still completely amazed that he puts up with me at all.

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