DOWNSIZING YOUR LIFE, 101

Five years ago, Bob and I went from roughly 3000 square feet of living space, most taken up with bookcases filled with books—part of this from a guest house Bob had converted into a library/office. Before we moved to the Antelope Valley, I gave away hundreds of books to the Burbank main branch library, filling my daughter in law’s SUV with boxes of books—not once but twice—and another time filling my sister’s SUV to overflowing. I gave away more than I can even remember—enough to donate a lot to my nephew’s Boy Scout rummage sale. We had acquired a lot in 19 years of living in the Arleta house.

After we moved and I began unpacking books, I donated another dozen boxes full to the Lancaster library for their biannual sales. I also gave bowls, dishes, cutlery and a collection of extra pots and pans to nieces and nephews as they branched out on their own with their first apartments.

I am telling this to you because I find myself again needing to downsize. When we moved five years ago, I made no attempt to give away or donate any of our Christmas trees, ornaments or other holiday decorations. In Arleta, we had Christmas trees up in every room of the house (except maybe the bathrooms) – we had two big trees on either side of the fireplace in the living room, a big tree on the front porch; smaller trees with a kitchen-y theme in the kitchen. It took about 3 weeks to get it all up and about a week to take it all down. And that was when Bob was alive and I had someone to put up and take down the trees and lights.

The first Christmas without him was 2011 and I really didn’t feel like doing any decorating. Did I make cookies? I don’t remember. But Kelly persisted and put one of the trees up in the living room, near the front door, and Ethan, on his own decided to get the Snow Village up and running in his grandpa’s memory. I think I was inspired enough to put up the small lighthouse tree that gets decorated with all lighthouse ornaments.

This year I began to feel the need to cut corners, do more downsizing. Now, I can’t imagine just throwing out or giving away many of the Christmas ornaments and decorations that fill – I kid you not – 24 large plastic bins from Walmart. But last year, after a penpal in Florida lost her home to a fire that took everything she owned including a collection of angels – I began searching through the ornaments and decorations for angels to send to her. I filled 3 boxes with angels and mailed them to my friend, who was thrilled to have new angels to replace what she lost. And then I began searching for bear ornaments to give to my penpal in Michigan – and sent a box or two of bears to her. It really hasn’t made much of a dent in the entire collection.

We put up just a 3 foot tree this year; Kelly strung some lights on it. Ethan put up the snow village. I brought in one of the plastic bins from Walmart and from it selected a couple dozen ornaments to go on that tree. I will be able to take down everything in less than an hour. It used to take us days. The downsizing is making me sad, in another way, opening the boxes and finding the ornaments that I have collected for fifty years. It was often like a treasure hunt, finding old but treasured ornaments that bring back memories….ornaments Becky and I found at a Christmas store in Carmel, California, for instance. I was paying for a felt boy kangaroo at that shop when the owner said “Oh, this one is nice but the girl kangaroo is much cuter—but it’s sold out”. I asked if she was getting more in and she said yes. I said can I order one in advance? Oh yes she said, and took my address. No, I didn’t need to pay for it until I got it. Sometime later, the girl kangaroo arrived in the mail with a note that I owed her $9.00.

Once when I asked a Christmas-themed store owner (possibly the one in San Francisco) if they accepted checks, she said “oh,sure”. I said some places won’t, when it’s out of town or out of state. She replied (and this has always stayed with me) “Not a problem. Christmas people don’t cheat.”

I have an ornament from Hawaii, a little glass ornament with water and sand from Hawaii inside. It reminds me of Faye, Bob and I going to Hawaii together and the fun we had. I have some ornaments from the Atlanta Georgia underground where there are shops – including a Christmas one – as well as ornaments from downtown Cincinnati which had a Christmas store at one time. I don’t know if its still there or not. Here’s the problem – who else on earth would evoke the same memories I have of when and where and how these small objects came into my possession?

Downsizing can be difficult. I have been trying to restore Bob’s secret garden which is filled with leaves and had to be propped up with two by fours by Kelly, to keep it from listing too much to one side. I finally put all the garden statuary of Bob’s into boxes until I can get the secret garden back in shape. And the more I think about it, much of the Christmas collection was more Bob’s doing than mine. He accepted whatever I loved and cared about and ran with it. (my ex never did). So, I find myself missing Bob more as I attempt to downsize.

Every so often I look through all the pots and pans and bowls and dishes and potato mashers and spatulas, wooden spoons and turkey basters, and ask myself How on earth did I ever end up with so much stuff?—and then the answer comes to me – when my girlfriend Mandy’s father passed away, no one wanted his “stuff” – I took as much as I could handle, loathe to let those things end up in a thrift shop. Then when Mandy died – it was the same thing—I took back all the cookbooks we bought together so that now I have two of a bunch of books—as well as some other things she treasured but her brother didn’t want. So, whenever I pick up a kitchen utensil that came from a friend’s kitchen, some trace of memory accompanies the object. They are not gone, not forgotten. Recently, I was able to buy Chef Szathmary’s two quart mixing bowl. I have to think about the Chef and his long illustrious career, any time I handle something that was his.

In October of 2000, my sister Barbara, four years older than I, was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 2002, she began sending some of her collections of milk glass, blue and red glass and other things to various friends and family; I think she wanted to make sure that the things she treasured would be given good care in the hands of sons, grandchildren, sisters and friends.

No one said it would be easy, this business of downsizing. Some of my friends who are close in age to me are experiencing many of the same things; some have had serious health issues to contend with. (me, too, but I don’t want to think about that now) – in a poignant letter my Canadian penpal, Doreen, sent to me, she wrote in part, “I think the real issue about growing older is wanting to turn back the clock to when things ran smoother. No health issues and no family issues. Well, that is not likely, is it!”

She continues, “Living is all about moving forward, not putting moments of happiness under glass. I read the other day that life demands nothing from us except we give up everything we have ever loved. I think of my two beloved houses, my young children (who grew up) and the wonderful jobs I worked and the people I knew. Moving into a condo downsized 2/3 of my possessions; some more loved than others, and forced our lifestyle into a new way of living. Not a bad way. Just not what we once loved, a yard and flower garden and a tree house in the backyard for the grandchildren…”

She also wrote “All my entire world is changing and I am changing to live in the new world. I wish I could say the changes are for the better but I am not certain that they are…”

And I have to agree; I wish I could believe that the changes are for the better but I have a jaundiced opinion of the changes being forced upon me, upon all of us…so what does that have to do with downsizing? Is less better?

And even though I have wonderful memories of my four sons when they were little boys, I also know I am remembering those times through rose colored glasses—we often had little or no money and I had adopted the Mormon creed of keeping a year’s supply of food staples and bottled water on hand. My youngest son says now that the reason he hates spaghetti now is because we had it so often when he was a child. It was not until I returned to work full time in 1977 that we could afford better meals and the ability to do more as a family.

In about a week my oldest grandchild will be going off to college in Sacramento. She has been such an intricate part of my life ever since I moved to the Antelope Valley.

I am going to try to adopt Doreen’s last sentence in her letter, “Let’s stay strong and positive for whatever we meet day by day in 2014 and if we can’t adjust the situation we can always change our attitudes…” Less can be better. I’m working on it.

–Sandra Lee Smith, December 26, 2013

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