One boomer’s treasure is another millennial’s clutter

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With increasing frequency, some large envelopes have been arriving in my mail lately. My mother has been sending me her treasures — the remnants of my childhood. She’s 93 now and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out why, particularly since she’s been voicing alarm that she’ll die one of these days and nobody will find her. There are things to do, and, for her, one of them is distributing her keepsakes.

Friday’s package, for example, included a letter to my parents while they were on vacation, letting them know the latest test of the newfangled Apollo rocket and asking them what it felt like to fly in a plane.

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There was also a birthday card for my 5th birthday (in 1959) that featured a picture only of a horse’s behind. I have no clue who sent it, but it suggested that people were more prescient in the ’50s than I’d realized.

I don’t know what to do with this stuff that she found so valuable and which, now, I find valuable too. As I near retirement, culling the nice-to-have scraps from the got-to-have treasurers is a task I realize awaits for my own collection of history.

It’s complicated, the Washington Post reveals, by the fact my Millennial children probably aren’t that interested in any of it.

“My parents are always trying to give us stuff,” Kelly Phillips, 29, a real estate marketer, tells the Post. “It’s stuff like bunches of old photos and documents, old bowls or cocktail glasses. We hate clutter. We would rather spend money on experiences.”

Clutter?

“If I can’t store my memories of something in a computer, I’m probably not going to keep them around,” her husband adds.

The problem is, like our parents, we baby boomers are collectors. We save stuff in the belief that it might have value to someone someday. The odds are that we’re wrong.

Millennials live simpler within a smaller footprint, according to the experts in today’s article. That large sets of furniture aren’t appealing to Millennials makes perfect sense.

That there’s no appreciation of the smaller history isn’t surprising either. Until things started showing up in the mail through the winter, I, too, didn’t see the value. I didn’t know it existed. But what happens to it now?

It’s a shame when history ends up in a landfill.

  • Matthew Becker

    Over the weekend my mom pulled out my grandfather’s bronze star citation. If that is the kind of “document” that the person in the article deems as mere “clutter,” well, I guess that makes me pretty happy to be a GenXer.

  • MrE85

    It’s a problem I and my half-sister have yet to tackle, but must soon. What do do with Dad’s stuff?

  • Gary F

    Spent most of last year going through stuff from my dad’s condo. We laughed and cried. Even found some stuff I wish he were still here to explain. I’ve got a basement and garage full of stuff I don’t know what to do with. Somethings I know are valuable and somethings probably aren’t. Sure, even some guilt. I knew we probably threw some things we shouldn’t have.

    Take that stuff out and bring it to a family gathering. We have lots of fun with it. The beer or the coffee gets flowing and you will have hours worth of family fun.

  • Jeff C.

    I’m a Gen-Xer. I love to look though old family photos. I’ve come to realize that all the photos I’ve taken over the life-span of my children are all digital. It’s extremely unlikely that they will be readable in digital-format in 50, 25, maybe even 10 years. (Even if the CDs they are burned to are readable, will anyone have a CD reader in a computer?) My solution – make a Shutterfly book each year with the best photos of the year in the book. Good old paper should last. I’m not going to do the same with emails (i.e. print them) but that is, sadly, how most of my communications are done now. No shoebox with old letters. It is a loss for future generations…

    • Postal Customer

      The technologies you are talking about (JPG and data CDs) have been around for about 30 years. They will be around another 30 without question.

      But I get your concern. I have several boxes of family photos. Assuming my house doesn’t burn down, there is no effort required on my part to preserve them. With digital photos, you have to at least periodically do something to make sure you still have them.

      • johnepeacock

        This made me remember that we haven’t even had a device able to read a CD or DVD in our house for the last 5 years. Apple TV for shows and movies, and laptops without an optical drive for years now. Couldn’t even play a music CD if we wanted to except in the car, but even those players haven’t had a disc put in since we bought the cars. Anything archived on disc has already been tossed years ago.

    • jon

      It’s an interesting conundrum, long term data storage. Cloud storage can keep your data alive for a long time, with some one else managing the physical storage medium… but then the question of who pays for the storage, cause the free solutions will come and go….

      • joetron2030

        Not only who pays for the storage but what happens to that data when the storage service goes or encounters a problem and loses your data. It happens. If the data is important enough, you account for it by having multiple backups in multiple locations.

  • Matt Black

    I must be the exception to the Millennial rule. I have a lot of stuff from growing up and that I’ve been given that I don’t know what to do with. It sits in boxes in our house, taking up room, but it meant something or means something I can’t bring myself to part with it.

    It really is a concept I can’t grasp to throw away all the old notes and letters and cards I have. I even have a tin of stuff from high school of notes we passed in class. There are too many memories, both good and sad, that I’d hate to lose the ability to recall.

  • Keith P.

    Those chances will sadly always disappear to find out who people are in
    old photos. One thing I found liberating (& necessary) is to be a
    bit mercenary about what you keep. From 60-70 pounds of pictures in boxes after my Mom & grandparents died, I culled a 8-10 pound paper shopping bag of “keepers” that were great. It felt really bad to throw things away at first, but instead of having 25 pictures from a certain Christmas (some of which were blurry or repetitive), I ended up with 3 awesome ones. That culling also made it easier to then pick what I was going to digitize and share/archive, too.

  • Suzanne

    Gen x-er here; my dad recently started sending me (and siblings) copies of letters that he and my mother sent back & forth in his early Navy days. He was deployed in the Med & in Vietnam and it is so fun to see them writing about the availability of a telephone or the news of the day (Vietnam & Watergate). After he retired from the Navy, he took all of the boxes of family photos and organized them into albums (per kid and per topic). He kept up with it as we grew up and I am so thankful to have these things now!

  • Jack

    Every time I see my parents, I’m sent home with another box of keepsakes. The last time it was things related to my birth – we went through all the cards they received. Telling was the “I have no clue who this was” comment for several of them but I enjoyed reading all the cards. I can’t bear to part with the box yet so it is now filed deep down in my closet.

    One of the things they did for me was to buy the paper the day I was born. That was the coolest thing to read when I was growing up. We continued the tradition for our son by buying the paper on the days surrounding his birth – including Sunday so he could laugh at the ad circulars years from now.

    Since we have only one child, I am doing my best to protect him from excessive clutter but I think I inherited the hoarding gene from my parents. 🙂

    Not quite a boomer but I lean that way.

  • Karen

    I have shown the most interest in family history, and so have received a lot of family treasure from parents, aunts and uncles and grandparents. Things like framed portraits, furniture, utensils, a cane, an old radio, many old handwritten recipes, a WWI helmet, a WWII uniform, an old apron. . . . . I don’t have children myself and am wanting all these things to go to the right place and be appreciated. I am getting the idea that the next generation is much more mobile and less thing-oriented, as you say. I am starting two blogs, one for each side of the family. Every other month, I’ll have a post featuring an item and the story behind it. Say the WWI helmet, and what my grandfather’s war experience was. Or a wooden shoe from a great-uncle and his experience as a farmer. I’m figuring the blog will help me figure out who is interested in the things. And will help spread the history. And I’m figuring on making the blog posts into a book eventually. So even if noone will take the things, the books will help preserve them and their stories.

    • Meghan

      That is a fantastic idea! The reason why these items are so important in the first place are the stories behind them. People often focus on not wanting to lose the items, when it’s the stories and memories behind them that really matter. This is a great way of preserving them.

  • June

    I see what you did there. Very clever, Bobby. Bobby! Mary Lucia should start calling you Bobby.
    So very sweet of your Mom, and a very Mom kind of thing to do, that is, to send her little Bobby increments of keepsakes and treasures. What a great mother you have, Bobby!

  • John

    I’m not young enough to be a millenial. I think I catch the very tail of Gen X with my birth, but I’m not even sure (born in 79).

    We definitely feel the tension in the generational hand me downs. I am not one for pictures (we’ve lived in our house for almost three years now, and the only things on the wall are in places where the previous owner kindly left me a nail), and we are struggling valiantly to decrease the clutter in our lives (and often feel like we’re failing). I have a box of stuff from my childhood that my mom has passed on to me. It sits in the attic – I can’t bring myself to get rid of it, but I don’t really want it.

    When my grandparents moved out of their farmhouse 5-6 years ago, they gave away a lot of things (Grandpa was in the middle of dying from stomach cancer). In the end, I only wanted their Grandfather clock and the baked bean pot. I ended up with the clock and a 40 year old snowmobile. The snowmobile is sitting in my friend’s barn and the clock is in my dining room, ticking away.

    My point is, I am trying to keep quantity down and focus on quality in the memory bin. The challenge for me is that I don’t know what’s going to be quality in 20/30/40 years, and I’m afraid I err too much on the side of throwing things out rather than preservation.

  • Dave S.

    Wait…your parents went to Disneyland without you?

  • Noelle

    This hits so close to home. We’re working towards buying my husband’s grandpa’s house – we’ve been caretakers there for about 6 months as he’s in assisted living, and so much of his (and his late wife’s) stuff is still there. As his parents were moving out some of the things so we could fit our own belongings in (on the main floor at least), we went through constant questions about whether we wanted this or that. We are more Gen X-ers than Millennials (’84, I think we’re literally between generations, maybe Gen Y??), and coming from two sets of parents who are both huge collectors of things, we are being ultra, ultra cautious about what we accumulate and are careful to try to purge as we gain new stuff. (No storage unit please!!!) Plus, we have 2 cats, so the less little stuff we have sitting around, the better.

    I think things like photographs or old letters have intrinsic value to a point. If you know who’s in the photos, or if the letters are a significant part of your family’s history in some way (we have the notes my husband’s grandma made when they were building the house in the 1950s along with the original blueprints, for example) we feel it’s ok to keep them. I’ve gotten to a point where I keep all but the most sentimental greeting cards for only a couple of weeks before recycling them. As for furniture or dishes or household items, we keep it only if it’s of extreme sentimental value or if we are going to actually *use* it.

    There’s a great Jerry Seinfeld quote related to this: “All things on Earth only exist in different stages of becoming garbage.” Ever since I heard that, it’s started to change my relationship to how I view “things” and what I choose to hold onto.