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Opinion >  Column

Front Porch: Finding balance between hoarding, heaving

Uranium-bearing glass vase, glowing in the dark, is a Chan family treasure.
Uranium-bearing glass vase, glowing in the dark, is a Chan family treasure.

Some people get the breaks.

For a fictional example, let’s say eccentric Great Aunt Matilda dies leaving a full attic. Armed with trash bags, the family wades through the detritus of generations, sneezing as they dig through moth-eaten clothing, chipped lamps, worn rugs and knickknacks. Good grief, did Auntie never toss out anything?

Then someone discovers Auntie’s beloved antique Chinese vase. No one wants the hideous thing, yet they feel guilty dumping it. Thankfully, a great-niece takes it because she thinks it’s kind of funky cool. One weekend, “The Antiques Roadshow” people come to town and the great niece takes Auntie’s vase to learn more about it. Maybe it’s even worth a few bucks.

Oh yeah. The vase goes to auction and nets several million dollars.

Has this kind of thing ever happened to you?

Hah! Not to us, either. But reading about actual incidents similar to this can make us wonder about “finds” in our own attics.

Two years ago, Richard’s mom passed away. She wasn’t a hoarder, but she was a keeper, and the family had to go through a lot of stuff – bags and bags of it. She would have wept to see how much went to strangers, a thrift store and the dump, because we couldn’t take much and it had value only to her.

Freshly appreciating that our own precious possessions were, in the end, just stuff with meaning only for us, Richard and I considered the unfortunate who would someday play archeologist at our place. Feeling it an act of mercy to pare down, we embarked on the Sticking Charm Project as our 2011 New Year’s resolution, borrowing the name from the “Harry Potter” books in which Sticking Charms are the wizarding world’s superglue. We had too much stuff we didn’t use, didn’t need and didn’t see for decades.

We made good progress removing Sticking Charms until my breast cancer treatment last year, but recently we returned to fulfilling our resolution, culling vinyl records, household items, books and fashion jewelry; Goodwill, the library and the Valley Center are always happy to see us. All our vases are inexpensive glass and crystal, and I’ve given several to a local florist.

Bit by bit, we’re reducing our “stuff footprint.”

Frankly, we’re more likely to win the lottery (and we don’t even play) than come across a possession that qualifies as a “Roadshow” bonanza. Richard’s dad, who emigrated from China as a child, failed to stick a Ming dynasty vase in his suitcase, and my family lacked any Norman Rockwell originals. Everyone advertises tomorrow’s collectibles, but potential value is unpredictable and can disappoint (see Beanie Babies and my mom’s commemorative plates and coins). The remote possibility that some item might someday increase in value doesn’t justify our keeping neglected things other people could use and enjoy right now.

However, Richard and I do have some funky things we regard as treasures – a hilarious agate slice with a crystal-encrusted smiley face in the middle; a heavy gray World War II military-issue tin can of “Emergency Drinking Water” (bet some of you veterans remember these); a lost-wax solid bronze made from a pine cone I liked by a friend who worked at a foundry, and an Orient & Flume art glass gorilla with blue tabby stripes, whose nostrils glow green under the halogen in our china cabinet.

The most fun curiosity we have is a small, early 20th century Vaseline glass vase in the shape of a top hat. It’s made of uranium-bearing glass, which apparently gives a positive reading on a Geiger counter. This piece glows bright green under UV light. My Blu-ray set of “Lost” came with a tiny black light penlight, so we could finally see this incandescent glow for ourselves. It’s a kick.

Collectors won’t be offering us fancy retirement for any of this, though, no matter how unique, interesting, or treasured. I suspect this is probably true of your possessions, too. There simply aren’t enough gazillion dollar treasures in the world for everyone to have them squirreled away. Most of us just have everyday stuff plastered with Sticking Charms.

We’re continuing to remove ours one by one and it’s not that hard. Because sad to say, Great Aunt Matilda doesn’t live here.

You can reach Deborah Chan at

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