Friday, May 15, 2015

A tale of three bags

My dad remarried a few years ago, after my mom passed away. He's bought a new home with his new bride, and he's been slowly slowly cleaning out the old home. About a month ago, my dad wrote to me and my sisters:

In emptying the house, a seemingly endless task, I have come across your mother's Kelty Back Pack, still in very good condition. Would any of you like it?

At about the same time, I was helping with our college's annual end-of-year garage sale, where we sort and sell off things that the students (mostly freshmen) decide they don't want to take home with them.  The stuff students leave behind is often incredible: clothes, furniture, electronics, food, school supplies.    We sell these items for true Miser Mom prices; floor lamps are $5, a complete set of pots and pans for $25, clothes for $1 each or $5 for a grocery-bag full.
This year, someone who knows the names of consumer items came over while we were still sorting the piles and piles of things students had donated; she warned me not to price two purses at our usual $1 each:  these were a Coach bag and a Kate Spade purse, still in their original plastic bag wrapping.  (So bags in bags!)  

 (There were also a pair of Ugg boots in their fancy cardboard box that got a special price, thanks to the same person who knows the names of clothes).

Of course, these cast-offs inspired the usual rant against spoiled students. How could it not?  To have some 18-year-old who gets showered with luxury items that she discards upon a trash heap -- it seems inconceivable to us.  The contrast is especially stark once the sale starts; our city is the home to many resettled refugee families.  We get families from Nepal, the Congo, the Dominican Republic.  Some families come together to our sale and buy enough furniture to stock their whole apartment:  $50 or $70 at Miser Mom prices for a heap of belongings that includes rugs, couches, fans, hot pots, dishes, clothes, shoes, bedding.  But no Coach purses.

The  Kelty backpack seems so much more virtuous; it was used by a woman who hiked through the woods with Girl Scouts, offering her time and expertise to young campers long after her own daughters had grown up and moved away.  Whereas the Coach-and-Spade combo was never even opened up.

And yet, I know my mom probably only used that backpack fewer than a dozen times; she liked the idea of backpacking more than the actual experience.  (She was an avid site camper, but not a long-distance camper, if that makes sense).  Her backpack was as much for "identity" purposes as it was for practical use.

Even more, because of my mom's long illness, the backpack itself probably hasn't seen use in the last dozen or two dozen years.  It's been sitting in the basement of my dad's home, just taking up space.  He has a lot of space, but still.  The backpack wasn't doing anybody any good for a heck of a long time.

Getting rid of things we don't want is hard.  My dad has been cleaning out this home for more than a year now [and my sisters and I are so so so glad that he's doing it, so we won't have to!].  He has the luxury of space, and he has the luxury of time.  The student who chucked her boots and purses into the Garage Sale Pile had only one or two days to clean out her dorm room.   And probably she had to leave behind everything that wouldn't fit in the car.  Would she have seemed less spoiled to us if she'd hung onto these bags without using them?

I'm not going to feel sorry for her or anything, but it does remind me how our belongings don't just serve us, but they also create obligations that weigh us down, that create moral quandaries, that take our time and our energy.

None of my sisters or me want the Kelty backpack.  It'll go to a charity garage sale, too.

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