I’ve spent a lot of time this past year thinking about people’s old stuff, and what exactly to do with it all once they’ve left it all behind. This wasn’t driven by the suddenly ominous proximity of mortality during the pandemic; not directly anyway. It was driven by the suddenly ominous proximity of tons of people’s old stuff. Boxes and boxes of it. Mountainous piles of it. Garages chock full of it.
My wife, Jaime, and I spent most of the year at her grandma’s home in Huntington Beach, a place that stores not only Jaime’s grandparents’ old stuff, but also most of Jaime’s parent’s old stuff, too, after a house fire a decade ago nearly vaporized it all. It’s really a miracle any of it is there, but it doesn’t feel miraculous when you, bleary-eyed and frazzled, are trying to figure out where to put the 11 different three-hole punches you stumbled on while trying to sort through it all. But organize we did, over months of work and behind the 3M paint respirators we hoarded during the early days of the plague, barely throwing any of it away or carting it off to Goodwill - though the number of people recklessly shoveling bags of old clothes into the cargo truck when we did go to Goodwill made it clear we weren’t alone. Not even close.
We weren’t even the only people in our own family doing it. A couple months ago, Jaime went to her mom’s late aunt’s house in Monterey Park to see if we would want to take any of the things stored there. Two weeks ago, we visited her great grandparents’ old home to decide what to do about a beautiful and fragile antique china cabinet. In a couple weeks, I’m going to Jaime’s aunt’s house to help go through old stuff and translate the Japanese written on it - an increasingly common activity for me - to figure out what they are and if someone should keep them. Not all old stuff comes from the deceased, either - recently, my best friend Joey, trying to declutter before moving to New York, unloaded four boxes of old DVDs on me that I, in turn, unloaded on my dad.
Joey is moving to New York right as Jaime and I plan to relocate to Tokyo, a move that has been delayed by the pandemic and has also delayed the panic and apoplectic yelling that will surely rain down on me when we finally try to move all my old stuff - The shoes! The guitars! The wall art! The distressed outerwear! The vintage textiles - yes, some of my old stuff itself is old stuff! We took some of it with us on a cross country trip last year and sprinkled it around at our parents’ houses like billionaire plutocrats hiding income in different Caribbean islands to evade taxes. I shudder at the thought of my future children sighing in frustration when they crack open yet another box of dad’s old denim jackets.
That's because decisions about what to keep and what to throw out are always fraught. Ultimately, the conundrum is that the objective question “who needs this stuff?” rarely wins over the subjective answer, “It’s sad to get rid of it, so let’s keep it anyway.” As much as people fret over craven, hype-cycle consumerism and valuing experiences over objects, that can go out the window when emotions get involved. It’s hard to tell what’s worse - the feeling of throwing away things that someone you loved thought they wanted to keep, or the feeling of throwing away things that have come to symbolize them, and all the things you knew and didn’t know about them, in their absence. Nobody wants to direct the controlled demolition of a loved one’s memory.
Some of that dynamic certainly plays out between the differences in generations. Our grandparents, who had lived through the Depression and wars, were more likely to keep whatever they had, and the things they bought were more likely to last forever. Our parents took that lesson and many became hoarders. And now, in a time of planned obsolescence, disposable fashion, and rampant capitalism burying the world in its own trash, sometimes you’re guilted into keeping things against your better instincts, and sometimes old things can have a charm, a beauty, and a character that can feel in short supply these days, like the pair of pewter and enamel cufflinks Jaime found recently while sifting through her aunt’s garage.
Part of me thinks this is an affliction that is particularly deep for Americans, for three reasons. First, obviously to have a lot of stuff, you need wealth to buy it and space to store it, and the U.S. has an abundance of both. But also, the United States itself (the nation, not the land) is so new and so obsessed with its own microscopic history that almost anything can seem like an old, fascinating artifact worth relishing. That dynamic doesn’t exist in most other countries, where much longer histories, real and imagined, can affect perception. When I lived in London, for example, the building I lived in was older than most of the states in the Union. Meetings I attended were held in a castle - a castle! - not once but twice. It’s harder to be enraptured by old stuff in your attic when you’re surrounded by relatively ancient things all the time.
Our grandparents, who had lived through the Depression and wars, were more likely to keep whatever they had, and the things they bought were more likely to last forever.
Or take Japan - yes, Japan is home to obsessively thorough and specific collectors, but it is also a culture that seems disturbingly quick to demolish the old to make way for the new. Chalk it up to a unique market dynamic, a legacy of valuing object impermanence, or just really liking new stuff, but Japan gave us Marie Kondo for a reason. I live with a constant low-frequency fear that my relatives in Japan, who casually bring out items from 100 years ago and act surprised when they blow my mind, will throw out things before I can claim them or sell off the house my great great grandparents built in the mid-1800s because it’s a hassle to keep.
And that gets at the third reason: obviously, most Americans’ families came, at some point in their personal histories, from other places. A lot of times, these things represent ways to cling, in small ways, to those old places as they sink into the quicksand of collective generational memory. This is particularly stark for many Japanese-American families, who were split from Japan by war, immigration policy, and reactionary assimilation. For those whose families moved here in the original wave of immigrants during the 1800s and 1900s, the stray daruma or lacquer box can represent a rare strand of cultural identity, even when the original context or meaning has gone missing. My personal platonic ideal of this dynamic are my grandma’s graduation certificates, hand-written on heavy paper stock, from elementary school and middle school in Wakayama, Japan - items no one in my family can read but me, and that have no practical use decorative or otherwise, but also seem absolutely insane to ever throw away.
Some of these things we inherit aren’t even objects, and don’t seem to make sense in our modern world, try as we may to hold on to them. The way my mom cooks sukiyaki is certainly not the way any of my relatives in Japan make sukiyaki, and its an approximation of Japanese flavors that really isn’t necessary now that my hometown has a Tokyo Central and Japanese food recipes can be Googled. The sparse count of Japanese words most late generation Japanese Americans know - yakamashii, benjo, zori, ne ne, bocha, the way nisei Japanese Americans pronounce words with the emphasis on the final syllable, like pronouncing mochi as mo-CHI - have been passed down through a game of generational telephone and now exist out of context of how modern Japanese is used and spoken. Imagine if the only English you knew was taught to you by someone from 1915. You could keep using it, but, to quote a wise man, I do not think it means what you think it means. Even still, losing them feels slightly tragic.
These things represent ways to cling, in small ways, to those old places as they sink into the quicksand of collective generational memory.
But we have, one crowded household at a time, managed to keep the physical objects around. It’s why I’m so often asked to help translate the Japanese written on old items. It’s why somewhere in every Japanese-American home you can stubbornly find a geisha doll in a glass case. And it’s why the answer to the age-old question, “I wonder if the Japanese American National Museum would want this?” is almost always a firm no (if they didn’t want my grandpa’s shogi set he carved out of ironwood, they definitely aren’t going to want this musty box of old kimonos). One museum’s trash is another man’s treasure is an entire community’s attempt to hold on to its wilting identity.
Last week, we were driving on the freeway when Jaime suddenly asked - she likes asking questions that will shake you to your core when you’re least equipped to handle them - if I thought I’d want to keep my parents’ house someday. It was a question that I realized got at the very heart of the matter involving all this old stuff, small and large, because on the one hand, I grew up in that house, and it’s filled with so many memories, and it still makes me sad to think our own family no longer owns my grandparents’ houses and all the things that filled them. But on the other hand, my parents’ house is in Yorba Linda, a place I see no need to spend any real time even with my parents living there, so what’s the use in keeping it after they’re gone?
But maybe it’s enough that some of this old stuff can keep us company while we’re still here. Or maybe we just want to force someone else to make the hard decisions for us when we’re gone. Or maybe, on the balance, it’s okay that it's a little of both.