Sunday, August 17, 2014

The discontent of owning nice things

We just got back from a week of family vacation, a week that we spent at the very new home of my dad and his new wife, "Sarah".

"Sarah" is a great companion to my dad; we're all glad that he found someone who shares his love of travel and square dancing and even math and physics.  And she's been delighted to be welcomed into our large and rather active family.

Still, this past week was  a bit of a soul-sucking adventure for me and my kids, all because of the wonderful new home that my dad and Sarah bought together, and also because of the wonderful stuff they filled it up with.

Sarah has played piano all her life, and now, at the age of 79, she has finally treated herself to a present she's waited for, for years: a Steinway grand piano.  This piano costs more than any car I'd ever bought, and so it's no surprise that our family members all got this little caution as part of a pre-vacation message from my dad:
 Which reminds me of a rule - no one, even me, is to touch her new piano without getting Sarah's permission first.
So, when on Tuesday night, one of my sons touched the piano, it was an occasion of great grief. First, Sarah told me she saw one of my the boys lean up against the piano and lay his hand on it.  (Sarah had given permission for another child to play the piano; apparently my son was listening and got too close). Sarah found a fingerprint on the glossy black finish, and this really upset her.  I immediately took off, rounded up both sons, had them apologize, and had them both promise not to go near the piano again.  I warned them ahead of time that their apology would be met with a stern lecture, not with forgiveness, and I told them they had to suck it up and apologize even more, not talk back.  Which they did.

But my dad came over to me shortly after, and told me Sarah was still distraught about the fingerprint, which she'd need a special cleaner to get off.  So, knowing that my kids couldn't make it right, I went and did the apology also.  I let Sarah vent at me for a half hour or so -- I knew she needed an outlet and a target.  After all, this was her dream piano, and she HAD warned us not to touch it, and we HAD touched it ourselves.  I totally get that this was our fault.  I apologized for my kids, and thanked her for her graciousness in hosting us, and I told her I completely understand wanting to keep her beautiful piano sacrosanct, because I *do* understand that.

But that doesn't mean the vacation was fun.  The rest of the week, Sarah was on edge about her belongings.  We went berry picking, and while the children delightedly showed their baskets of berries to her (still out in the orchard), she recoiled at their juice-stained hands and turned the happy day into one of dismay.  There were serious discussions launched by my sisters about the very slippery throw rugs Sarah had placed on the floor near the front door (many of us found them a tripping hazard), but Sarah rankled at the possibility of removing them because she fretted over having so many people pass over her shiny hardwood floors.

If the tension wasn't fun for my kids, I'm sure it was hard on Sarah, too.  She's used to living alone, and all of a sudden, because of my dad, she had nineteen people descend on her home and her belongings, swarming around her and leaving her no peace.  If we had been somewhere other than her home, I'm sure she would have found the crowd overwhelming just because of the number and noise of us.  It's even worse inviting these people in where they're in a position to inflict damage and dirt on her own carefully chosen, dearly prized belongings.

I understand Sarah, because I'm still a little wistfully bummed about dings in my own car (not even a brand-new car -- a 2001 Prius with 98,000 miles on it).  I'm not bummed enough to actually pay to *fix* my car, but I think about my crumpled old car, and I sympathize with Sarah's desire to protect the beauty of her new home.

At the same time, this week has reinforced my resolve not to buy anything nice until my boys move out of the house, because I just got another first-hand lesson that owning nice things doesn't always make you happy -- in fact, owning nice things can make you and everyone around you miserable.  And so maybe, even after the boys have grown up, if I want to get visits from my kids and their kids I'll try not to buy anything so nice that I care too much about my things.  We'll see.


  1. Eeek. So cringey. You and your children responded like saints and, though I know I might try, I'm dubious I would have achieved such grace even in the name of family harmony. Though I can attempt to feel compassion for Sarah, mostly I wonder how she has been able to reach her senior years without realising material things aren't as important as people.
    When I see a Porsche taking up two parking spots because the owner fears it will get dinged, the thought crosses my mind that we shouldn't own things we live in fear for. Goodness knows there are so many things out of our locus of control already, who needs to add to it?

    1. From what I can see of their combined belongings, Sarah hasn't had much chance to own or care for really fancy material things. So I'm sure part of the problem is that she's upgraded from laminated 1960's-era mass-produced stuff to, well, to some really solid, well-crafted furniture. And I can see how that would create a sense of obligation . . . (but I am making excuses here for her. I have no idea how protective she was of her previous stuff). -MM

  2. Well, I already had seen the short version of this in your comment on my blog (thanks!). One reason I like buying things at thrift stores is that it's not a tragedy if they get ruined. This was especially true of children's clothing.

    As I get older, I like perfection even less.

    But, as you say, poor Sarah. Perhaps she is hardwired for perfection. How nice that your Dad has a companion for his old age. Give your son a hug from me--it's hard to be a klutz (ask me how I know).

    1. Hug delivered!

      (And the klutz connection . . . I didn't even add in the story about how he leaned forward on a chair so he could talk to someone, and the chair tipped over and fell on top of him. That was *another* tense moment . . . sigh). -MM

  3. Absolutely. The main reason we currently have Corelle! And a lot of other things (like outdated wallpaper... we'll replace it when DC2 stops drawing on walls).

    1. Of course, the ENTIRE time I was writing this, I was thinking about your post, "

      But I'm inclining more and more to "Things I Can't Have Until My Grandchildren Put Me in the Nursing Home". Drawing-on-walls is probably too early a cut-off point for me and my family, since my kids grow up to put holes in walls. -MM

  4. I got my dream piano (a brand new gorgeous baby grand) in 2003 when our oldest was 14 and our youngest was 5. The only rule I had was "You may play the piano, but you can't BANG the piano, and no eating or drinking while at the piano." It got fingerprints all over it; they rub right off; it got dinged from the vacuum cleaner, but that's life. It was more important to me to ENJOY the sound of the piano, than protect it as if it were in a museum. I LOVED that piano and bawled when I had to sell it to move. I had worked cleaning houses, and housing foreign exchange students to pay for it. But I value people over things and find it difficult to be around those whose values are opposite. You and your boys showed grace and restraint, kudos to you!

    1. Our city has about a dozen pianos outdoors, in public places. Check this out:

      I love the idea of just letting any old person come up and make music. Or noise. Or art. These really are about my favorite pianos in the world. (But of course, I never got to meet YOUR piano!). -MM

  5. I've learned I enjoy letting people do what they want more than I enjoy having "nice things." I first noticed this when I got a car. I like letting people eat in the car and get in the car even if their shoes are dirty, etc.

    I also prefer having durable, low-maintenance things over "nice" things. Example: laminate countertops. To me, durability and low-maintenance *are* nice.

    Admittedly, I did not like when my baby sister took a bite out of my perfect sand dollar. (She thought it was a cookie and was probably just as upset when it happened as I was later when I found out!)

    When I first saw the title of this entry, I thought you were going to talk about how once you have one nice thing, the things around it don't look so good and you want to replace them in an escalading chain of events!

    Sorry your vacation was so stressful!

    1. Do you notice that it's the people with the clean cars who apologize as you get in, "Oh, sorry for this mess! Here, let me move that tissue box and magazine out of your way!"

      I'm one of those people who really value having a clean (as in, no piles of things) car, and try hard to keep mine from junking up. I don't mind eating or such in the car; it's just that I always try to clean things out once I get back home. It is, embarrassingly enough, one of the reasons my husband and I haven't gone down to just one car, because his car is a traveling library/cafe. I'm steeling myself to get over my neurosis . . . but knowing how I feel about that is part of why I can empathize so much with Sarah, even though my neurosis isn't about a piano or a floor.

      Sorry about the sand dollar. Now, THAT's traumatic!- MM

    2. I haven't really noticed that--everyone apoligizes, no matter how neat or cluttered their car is! However, it's always been very easy to scootch a few things over and make loads of room for myself, so I never feel the need to be apologized to!

      I'm with you on the car. Trying to train the man to bring things into the house when he gets out of the car. Admittedly, just things he doesn't actually want in the car--not library/cafe supplies!

      Empathy is always good.