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Frugality puts children in sticky place

People raised during the Great Depression were admirably thrifty and creative. Anything, even if too worn for its intended purpose, might be useful, so it got tucked away. Decades-old drinking glasses still worked; why waste money on new ones? Sew material over a rug’s crumbled backing; the top’s still good. Don’t discard linens or clothes. Cut that old water heater in half and grow hydroponic tomatoes in it.

Last December, I wrote how going through Richard’s mom’s house after her death made me think of the Sticking Charm, the wizarding world’s equivalent of super glue in the Harry Potter books. Mom had Sticking Charms on stuff we’re not sure she even knew she still had. Richard and I, considering the job of cleaning out our own home, resolved to remove our own Sticking Charms on things kept out of guilt, procrastination, sentiment, identity and a closed-door storage room.

Thrift and procrastination can go really bad. My column hit a nerve with quite a few people, many traumatized and resentful after having to excavate their parents’ and grandparents’ overflowing homes. One had to comb through large stacks of old magazines in which were tucked important papers and cash. Another’s mother constantly bought flea-market junk, telling her dismayed daughter that she was the intended recipient. Some wouldn’t go through their stuff, so their children had the anguish of disposing of it. Richard and his brothers, after keeping just a few pieces of the many pottery objects Mom had made, had to take the remainder to Goodwill and other things to the dump. Others relived their loss upon finally forcing themselves to empty basements clogged with their inheritance.

So many people had a Sticking Charm story.

But we’re supposed to love these things, aren’t we, and keep them forever as precious reminders? Ah, the guilt. Stick, stick, stick.

Because of our parents’ deprivation, they wanted us to have more, and we did. We grew up during postwar prosperity when status and new models, not necessity, reigned. However, despite our disposable times, we absorbed our parents’ thrift teachings. So baby boomers, even as they expressed frustration over their parents’ homes, despaired over their own. One painfully sorted through decades of career memorabilia upon retiring; another wryly said that a basement flood had spurred his own purge. Some were inspired by my column to do their own unsticking; others confessed that they’re ready but their spouses aren’t.

Richard and I are determined, though, and have embarked on what we call the Sticking Charm Project. Here’s what we’ve accomplished so far.

We donated several boxes of books, junked cassette and videotapes, and gave away two large boxes of artificial flowers. My childhood jewelry and my mother’s hankies went to a vintage shop, although I kept my two Beatles pins and a cat pin for my coat (we’ll be vintage together) and, out of amusement, the steel ball bearing I’d once choked on and nearly swallowed as a child.

Wow, this felt great. Next we tackled our offices.

I organized my closet and went through my stuffed two-drawer file cabinet, filling up more than three boxes with papers unnecessary in the Internet age. It certainly was a walk down memory lane. As was perusing my high school diary, scrawled with the names of my crushes. But what to do with this personal teen refuge no one should read?

My friend Liz Cox told me a cautionary tale about her friend in California who saw a bundle of letters from a Vietnam soldier to his mother at an estate sale. “There ought to be a spell that can be cast on such things,” she said, “so that once people have passed away, the letters can go POOF!” Amen. Lest this mortifying record of my youth end up on a sale table, I’ll shred it after typing up parts of it. I have yet to tackle letters.

As I’ve worked on our project, I’ve mulled over the material path we all take through life. We set up as young adults on a tight budget, grateful for used household goods. Over time we prosper, acquire, receive gifts, collect, inherit, save our memories and attach Sticking Charms, and there’s nothing wrong with this. But it becomes too easy to keep sticking and sticking until one day we realize our home has become an oversized reliquary of our life.

Richard and I are going to keep unsticking until our own reliquary is a much lighter burden to cart out the door.

You can reach Deborah Chan at Previous columns are available at columnists.