Shmoozing With the Word Mavens


We Have No Loyalty to the “Loyal Shoppers Club” 

As we waited in the airport for a plane back to Philadelphia recently, we glanced at our boarding passes and were pleasantly surprised to see Group 1 printed at the bottom. Group 1? We are usually in Group 4, along with the woman who forgot she has a 24-ounce bottle of shampoo in her purse.

When the agent announced that the plane was ready for priority boarding, we got up from the plastic seats, ready to go. Then he welcomed those seated in first class. Then families with small children were “welcome to board.” Then, “any uniformed members of the Armed Forces.” That seemed fair. They served our country.

We moved toward the front: Group 1 had to be next. Then he called for “all members of the Admirals Club, the Advantage Club and those with elite status: the diamond, ruby and emerald credit card holders.” What credit card did we use to buy these plane tickets with again? As our fellow passengers streamed by, it seemed like everyone but us had E-ZPass. By the time he preboarded all the “special people,” we were standing alone. Turns out, Group 1 wasn’t very special at all.

We know that when we don’t pay $18 for extra legroom, we’ll be squished in our seats. That’s what we bargained for. But we didn’t bargain for this, and we don’t recall ever even being invited to join the “elite diamond club.”

Many other clubs do want us as members, and not a day goes by without them emailing us with offers of bonus points, free food, rewards, and advantages. Sometimes the advantages are dubious, but if you ask us, we’ll likely sign up — just in case. We once stood in line to try a cronut and found ourselves signing up for the delicious cronut loyalty club — just in case we have the urge to spend $5 on a trendy iced pastry, in a city we once visited, again.

When the clerk in the frozen yogurt store looked at our cups overflowing with Oreo cookie crumbs and wet walnuts, she asked, “Do you want to join our frequent eater Yummy Yogurt club?” We couldn’t resist.  We were hoping that the next time we flipped the handle to start the flow of mint chocolate chip, she’d announce: “All members of the super secret Yummy Yogurt club get free jimmies today.”

Between us, we now belong to about two dozen loyalty programs. That’s a lot of loyalty. keys

We can remember a time when we guarded our privacy, reluctant to divulge our email addresses and phone numbers to strangers. But now that we — and everyone else in the world — can see the front of our houses on Google Maps, we know that keeping our details private is a lost cause. Privacy is a pipe dream.

At the chain drug store, the employee at the register prods us to enter our Plenti rewards number before she’ll even think about ringing up our greeting cards and Q-tips. “You get points and some money off,” she chirps happily every time. We do as we’re told, but invariably, we get Plenti of nothin’. At the competing chain, our reward is a coupon for $4 off — next week. Since we just bought $45 worth of cold medicine, it’s unlikely we’ll need to come back in time to use that coupon. It’ll expire on the floor of our car.

We do like our supermarket loyalty program, which provides instant gratification. After we rack up hundreds of dollars in groceries, we scan our super shopper card and watch the discounts come off with a “ding.” Blueberries: — $2.50. English muffins: — 50 cents. At the end of the receipt is the proof: We saved $23.76. Woohoo! That $20 will cover our impulse purchases of caramel sea salt gelato and organic cucumber face wash.

Even though the club cards clutter up our wallets, we prefer them to clipping coupons and then searching for each item in the store. We never mastered the art of extreme couponing. And those computer-savvy companies who use reward apps? We’ve downloaded some that promise to keep track of what we eat and what we earn, but it’s hard to remember our user name and password, and when we do, we have to swipe through five screens to choose our salad ingredients online so we can get credit for our purchase.

So what do these loyalty clubs get us? When a friend wanted to get a speedy appointment with a world-famous gastroenterologist, her membership in the Rita’s Water Ice cool customer club didn’t impress the receptionist enough to get her in to see the doctor. Maybe it would have worked if she were a member of the “elite diamond club.”

 

This article originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 25, 2016 



Some Pre-Passover Pondering

Passover is almost here and we have lots to ponder –

After all these years of spreading peanut butter on matzah and pretending we are Sephardic, it’s now official! We can now legally eat kitniyot during Passover. This past  December 2015, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly voted 19-1 to end certain food restrictions that they said are no longer necessary.

Kitniyot is the term for foods that are traditionally eaten by Sephardic Jews – rice, corn, soy beans, string beans, peas, lentils and peanuts – but not by Ashkenazic Jews during Passover. These foods were staples of the Sephardic Mediterranean diet – so they didn’t cut them out. The prohibition against kitniyot began in 13th century France to avoid confusion about what was and was not hametz (food forbidden on Passover). Back then, who knew what  else was mixed in the burlap sack along with your two rubles of rice?

In their recent ruling, the RA recognized that in modern times, most food stuff comes in a sealed package, the contents are inspected and regulated and consumers can reliably distinguish what might be hametz. They also stated that allowing people to eat rice and beans “would bring down the cost of making Pesah and support a healthier diet.”

So it took us only 700 years to be able to serve Spanish rice with roast chicken during the holiday.

There are still things to debate:  Now that kitniyot is okay, what do we do with the Rice Chex? We usually banish it to the basement for the week of Passover, but maybe it’s technically OK this year. Rice is kitniyot, although we’ll feel funny having cold-cereal for breakfast during Passover. Once you’ve done fried matzah, bad breakfasts are one of the things to kvetch about on Pesach!

This whole new category of food made Passover shopping even more of an adventure this year. The ShopRite in the Promised Land of Cherry Hill, NJ, never disappoints with its variety and quantity of Passover items.

pesach3

This year the Shop-Rite had a shelf of these newly approved products with a printed disclaimer that said, “Kitniyot for those who want it.”

The kosher butcher at the Shop-Rite also gives out “free” shankbones –we got ours when we bought $80 of brisket.0403121312

We read that the official tally is 300 new food items that earned kosher for Passover certification this year. Some were expected, like Manischewitz’s new hazelnut chocolate macaroons and Gefen’s chunk light tuna. Others caught us by surprise, such as the “hamburger buns” from Chantilly Bakery in Flatbush, NY. Passover buns? How do they do that? They use grains that are gluten-free. Their buns look delicious, as did their frosted Passover Black Forest cake. With all the new gluten-free foods on the market, those who avoid gluten because of dietary concerns have many more choices; they are free to eat pesachdik granola bars. We’ve tried those once, and once was enough. You can have our share of the pesachdik granola bars.

Some other items we saw:

On the way to buying a gallon of sweet Manischewitz wine, which we use for haroset and for the teens and Bubbes who prefer a “sweeter” wine, we came across MANNAge a’trois beer from Shmaltz Brewing Company. They call it a “3-way IPA” just in time for Passover. We’re not sure if it’s kosher for Passover (beer usually isn’t), but they certainly produce some cleverly named  beverages, including Cir Cum Session and Genesis ales. pesach 2016.4

We like it that the ShopRite sells a lot of Israeli products for Passover.

 

Along with the usual jams, jellies and spices and the chocolate Nutella-like spread we love, we found Israeli shampoo. There was a choice of pink and white liquid in the bottles. Which is the conditioner? Is the pink one for curly hair? We’ll never know because the labels are all in Hebrew. pesach2016.6

When our kids were young, they loved to play Candyland. So when we saw the Kosherland board game, we bought it for them. But spinning the dice and trying “not to mix milk with meat” was not nearly as much fun at going to King Kandy’s ice cream cone castle. This year we came across “Cholent: The Game.” Oy! The manufacturer describes it as a “slow-cooking, fast-moving strategy card game.” Players have to collect cards with ingredients for their cholent recipe. We like that they included a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words you might need when you’re cooking up your hearty stew. One word was shnorrer, the guest who will show up – uninvited – to eat your cholent. pesach6

Well, we won’t be making cholent for Pesach. We’ll be sticking with brisket and chicken and a lot of homemade haroset. One of us is hosting a seder for 20 where the highlight hopefully will be the 2016 edition of “Jewpardy,” in which the guests are asked to play a Pesach edition of the popular quiz show. The other one will pull out her bag of “vintage” Pesach masks. We wonder who will want to be the King of Kings this year.

Whether your seder is short or long, enjoy! The Word Mavens wish you a zissen (sweet) Pesach!

gefillite fish

the gefillite fish swimming in his jelly ocean

 

Preview Jewpardy question: 

I’ll take “Jewish Before & After” for $400, Alex:

Q: In The Ten Commandments movie, he played Dathan the Jewish Overseer who was stranded on a desert island.

A: Who is Edward G. Robinson Crusoe?



A Pithy Purim Post-Mortem

As holidays go, Purim is underrated. It got a little more attention this year than usual because Passover is so darn late, but Purim usually doesn’t get the holiday cred it deserves.

With Purim there’s no need to cook and host a big family dinner (not that that’s always a bad thing). There’s no need to build a hut in the backyard or look for gifts for the cousins who say, “I don’t need a thing.” To us, Purim means a synagogue service where it’s not only okay to make noise – it’s encouraged. And a carnival with games, crafts and a moon bounce.

But most of all Purim means we get our fill of hamantaschen, those yummy, triangular-shaped, filled cookies that come around just once a year.

Hamantashen can be bought, baked, or shnorred. You can buy them at the supermarket and try to be satisfied with the preservative-laden pastries in a  plastic shell that was probably packed back in February. You can pay a lot for them at a fancy bakery. You can also bake them yourself. Ellen did just that and then sent shalach manot (the traditional Purim gift packages given to family, friends and the needy) to children living on their own, children away at school and a mother-in-law who likes to get surprise packages. The flavors? Apricot, cherry, chocolate chip, lekvar and mun (poppy seed). Her husband loves the mun ones, and after years of being told “no one likes mun but you,” he was happy to discover that his nieces also like mun hummies.

hummies

The leftover levkar? You can spread it – instead of jam ­– on toast. Some people are as disgusted by this as we are by mun. We’re more upset that the supermarket has moved the leftover containers of hamantashen to the shelves with all the Pesach stuff.

Then there are those of us who shnorr hamantashen. We picked out the cherry ones at the oneg after services. Some came in the shalach manot basket from Sisterhood, and we ate some more when we went to a friend’s house for lunch.

When our children were young, we went with them to Purim carnivals, where they would ask us to buy more game tickets, watch them throw the bean bag at Haman, and help carry home all the chazerai they won. In their teenage years, as members of the synagogue youth group, they were charged with supervising the Purim carnival. They dressed up as Haman and volunteered to get hit in the face with shaving cream pies. They doled out the prizes, and we had a chance to join in the fun. Now that our kids are grown, we have not gone to a Purim carnival for several years. It’s one of those activities that require you to bring a kid.

Not going to the Purim carnival can be good news: We don’t have to take care of the goldfish the kids won.

The bad news: We don’t have a grandchild to take care of either.

Biblical names have always been popular. Jewish mothers ask, “Why name your daughter Brittney when you can go with something classic?” That’s why we have aunts named Ruth and Esther and friends named Rachel. We did not send a birthday gift to Gwyneth Paltrow’s son – Moses, but we did to a newborn named Noah. But we were surprised to read about a girl named Vashti. She is the daughter of former Eagles’ quarterback Randall Cunningham.

Queen Vashti Deposed by Ernest Normand

Queen Vashti Deposed by Ernest Normand

We know Queen Vashti, King Ahasuerus’s first wife, who was deposed by Esther, the heroine of the Purim story. But Vashti Cunningham? Maybe the Cunningham parents were familiar with Queen Vashti’s status as the original feminist. This brave woman risked her life by refusing her husband (the king) when he summoned her to “entertain” his drunken guests at a banquet.

And speaking of drunken guests …. on Purim there’s an open bar. Passover has the four cups of wine, but on Purim liquor is often offered in the back of the synagogue so congregants can indulge while listening to the megillah. You’re supposed to drink enough until you can no longer tell the difference between Mordechai (the good guy) and Haman (the bad guy). This is one tradition that we don’t have to nag our adult kids to observe; they are more than happy to embrace this aspect of their heritage.

Another Purim tradition is to make noise during the reading of the megillah to drown out Haman’s name. His name is mentioned quite a bit, which leads to a lot of shouting, clapping and turning the grager, the traditional Purim noisemaker.

graggers

Making noise, shouting and interrupting . . . It sounds a bit like some of the recent presidential debates. In fact we’d like to bring this tradition to the next Republican debate: We will shout and wave our gragers whenever Trump’s name is mentioned. Hmm: Who else has five letters in his name? Haman. Coincidence? We don’t think so.



Day of winter a blip on the weather calendar
February 1, 2016, 3:50 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , ,

Twenty-three inches of snow ago, we were feeling pretty smug. We were proud that we didn’t waste money on a January vacation to the Riviera Maya like some of our friends did. We were glad we didn’t prepay for discount lift tickets at Jack Frost, whose ski trails were bare. We wondered whether anyone was buying the marked-down mittens and scarves at the post-Christmas sale when it was 70 degrees outside. We felt bad for the kids who wouldn’t have a snow day and the TV weather anchors who had to fake enthusiasm for a seven-day forecast of nothing but mid-40s temperatures and gray skies.

We thought winter would never come, that it would be like a magical fairy tale: We would wake up one day, after a few months of mild weather, and it would be April. All the cherry trees that prematurely flowered, the daffodils that poked up tenuous shoots, and the fat birds that just gave up trying to fly south because it wasn’t that cold anyway would be proven right. We had just skipped over winter.

Whenever we selfishly felt happy for the unseasonable warmth, we also had a pang of guilt about the polar bears and the shrinking ice caps. We would worry about the ecologically damaged world we are leaving for our children, but we enjoyed running errands in just a sweater.

We read the Jan. 19 Inquirer article reporting that 2015 “was by far the hottest year in 136 years of record keeping. For the most part, scientists blamed manmade global warming, with a boost from El Niño.”

This was all before our big snow.

IMG_5384Like most people on the East Coast, we were ready. We moved the shovels from the garage to the back door. Even though we have food stockpiled in our pantries that could take us through any emergency, we joined the throngs of neighbors at the supermarket to buy bagels, potato chips, and a hunk of brie. Then it started to snow and blow, and it kept up for a day.

We monitored the snowfall on the backyard patio table. We had never put it away because we knew that winter wasn’t coming this year. Until last weekend, it stood dry and lonely. As the snow fell, the table’s unobstructed, flat surface became a reliable measuring spot for the blizzard. The more than two feet of snow turned it into a vast white banquet tablecloth. Its chairs became large, marshmallow lumps.

As the snow fell, we hunkered down inside, making pots of soup and chili and using up the leftover bananas to make banana bread. We read books, we watched TV, and we knitted three more balls of yarn on the huge fuzzy afghan. We uploaded the photos from last year’s vacation, deleted 1,003 emails, and cleaned out the kitchen junk drawer. We drank three bottles of wine and binge-watched the first season of Fargo.

As the snow piled up on Saturday, we scrolled through Facebook photos of kids who were excited to play in the snow and of tiny dogs that had to go out even though the snow was over their heads. This was the rare time when we were glad to have neither kids nor dogs begging us to go out.

By Sunday, the snow had stopped. We ventured outside to offer moral support to our husbands’ efforts to shovel the driveway. We unburied the cars and started the engines. We admired our neighbor’s new snow blower, bought when the blizzard was first forecast. We had cabin fever, and by 1 p.m., we ventured to the supermarket, just to have somewhere to go, but it was cleaned out of all the good snacks.

TV weather people were happy to report that last weekend’s storm dropped a season’s worth of snow in two days. We weren’t happy, but we did enjoy staying in our pjs and having a good excuse not to leave the house.

Maybe we’re just optimists, but we believe that last weekend’s snow was just a blip on the weather calendar, that it is not the start of a long, cold winter. The robin perched on the huge snow bank and the budding pussy willow bush are telling us that spring is right around the corner. We’re certain that in a few days, Punxsutawney Phil will agree with us, too.

This article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer on Friday, January 29, 2016.



Svelte, Shmo or Spatula: Will the Real Yiddish Word Please Stand Up?

 

After 15 years of writing and speaking about Jewish words, we think we have a decent Yiddish vocabulary. But our audiences often surprise us with Yiddish words that are new to us, like feinshmeker. Huh? That’s how one woman described us. It means we don’t “put on airs.”  That’s good because we pride ourselves on being haimish (unpretentious).

But it’s even more confusing when the word in question isn’t Yiddish at all, like spatula.

shmuck6

At one of our book talks, we met a woman who grew up thinking that the word spatula was a Yiddish word. It was what her Yiddish-speaking Bubby called for when she was baking rugelach. It was an unfamiliar word to a child who only knew from spoon and fork, so she assumed that spatula was another one of Bubby’s foreign words. We imagine that if an Italian grandmother asked for a colander to drain the spaghetti, her grandchild might make the same mistake –and think colander is Italian.

Another woman grew up thinking that the word traipse was Yiddish. Traipse means to drag, plod, or trudge along, to wander all over the place. It is not Yiddish; its origin is unknown, although our online dictionary lists shlep, a certified Yiddish word, as a synonym. To us, traipse sounds like treif, the Yiddish word for food that isn’t kosher. These two words can only intersect in a sentence like this: “We traipsed all the way to Chinatown for an order of pork lo mein.”

shmuck4

Some people think the word svelte is Yiddish, but we wouldn’t make that mistake. Svelte sounds tall, thin, blonde and Swedish to us. We learned that it’s from the French (svelte) and the Italian (svelto), both of which mean slim or slender. We are way more familiar with the Yiddish word zaftig, which literally means juicy. It describes a full-bodied, voluptuous, rounded woman.

Everyone’s using Yiddish these days. A Walmart ad describes a shopper laden with packages as shlepping through the store. Martha Stewart refers to herself as the maven of home décor, and everyone from congressmen to CEOs use the word shmooze to describe chatting with their co-workers.

We get upset when people misuse Yiddish words, like what happened with shpilkes. It literally means “pins,” and it describes impatience and nervous energy. A child with shpilkes has ants in his pants. So imagine our surprise when a non-Jewish newspaper writer described the late Sen. Arlen Specter as a “politician with real shpilkes.” We suspect the writer was looking for the word chutzpah, because Specter was known for being a fierce fighter for the causes he believed in.

The worst offender in recent memory is Donald Trump, who said that Hillary Clinton “got shlonged” by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential race. Besides the fact that his comment was totally rude and inappropriate, he turned a vulgar Yiddish noun for male genitalia — shlong means snake — into a verb. One doesn’t get penised by someone. It would have been more correct and a lot more polite to say, “She got klopped in the last election.” (Klop is a Yiddish word that means to smack or hit.)

Like English, Yiddish has a lot of nicknames for male private parts. Putz not only means penis but can also refer to someone who is not worthy of respect – worse than a jerk.  Putz can be a verb, it means wasting time or fooling around, as in “Stop putzing around with that stupid video game.” Shmuck is another one of those dirty Yiddish words. It means penis, but it also refers to someone who allows himself to be taken advantage of, as in: “I was a shmuck to wait an hour for her, and she never showed up.”  A shmuck is worse than a shmo, shnook or shlemiel.

When we presented our book talk (about writing our Dictionary of Jewish Words) in Harrisburg, a woman in the audience told us this story: She was waiting in line to renew her driver’s license in the PA capital building – not far from Amish country – when the woman ahead of her in line put her baby seat up on the counter. The clerk leaned over, clucked at the baby and said, “What a cute little shmuck.” The mother smiled and looked pleased. Our Jewish friend was stunned. What kind of a compliment was that?

We wondered that too, so we did a little research and found out that in German – and in Pennsylvania Dutch, which is a dialect of German – shmuck means jewel or ornament. It’s a term of endearment. Maybe that’s what the clerk meant.

In fact, we know it’s true, because we saw “mock schmuck” on a sign outside a costume jewelry store in Berlin. And if you know anyone with the last name of Shmuckler, it’s probably because their ancestors were jewelers.shmuck

When shmuck migrated to Yiddish, it came to mean “the family jewels” and took the leap from jewelry counter to slang for a body part.  In The Joys of Yiddish, Leo Rosten (the father of all word mavens) wrote, “I never heard any elders, certainly not my father or mother, use shmuck, which was regarded as so vulgar as to be taboo.” We know that if Leo Roston had heard Donald Trump’s rant – and abuse of Yiddish – he would have plotzed.

 

 

A note about spelling Yiddish words: why we write shlong rather than schlong 

Indeed schlong seems to have more oomph than shlong. It is longer with that extra “c.” But when we wrote the Dictionary of Jewish Words, we took a cue from Gene Bluestein’s book Anglish/Yinglish: Yiddish in American Life and Literature, in which he points out that the “sch” sound is a basically German approach. In Yiddish, the “sch” sound is made by the letter shin, which means that the “sh” spelling is technically more correct than the “sch” version. We did list them both ways in the book, so you could be sure to find your schmendrick –even if we spell it shmendrick.



Swimming in the Shallow End of the Technology Pool
January 4, 2016, 1:33 pm
Filed under: technology | Tags: , , , , , ,

Every now and then we find ourselves asking questions that prove we’re not as hip or as with it as we think we are. And undoubtedly, when our kids read this, they’ll tell us that nobody says hip or with it anymore.

We love new apps, gadgets, and conveniences, and we marvel at the things they can do, but we don’t fully trust them. We spent decades dialing the phone, putting family photos in albums, and getting up from our chair to change the channel. No wonder swiping, clicking, and streaming can sometimes confuse us.

If we still don’t understand how Adele’s big new song can travel from England and come out of our tiny clock radio, how can we possibly comprehend how money can fly wirelessly through the air from our bank account into yours?

We’re most familiar with the old-fashioned ways of getting stuff done, so even though we use modern technology, we sometimes talk about it in outdated terms. Here are some questions that don’t need to be asked anymore, but we just can’t help ourselves:

Do you need directions to my house? That’s what we asked the painter when he called to set up a time to meet. We forgot that he’s probably been using Google Maps on his phone for years. He can even navigate around a traffic jam, change his route to the one that’s “2 minutes faster,” or look at a street view of our house before he arrives. We use the Google Maps app, but we still keep that torn, awkwardly folded map of Pennsylvania in the glove compartment. Just in case. technology6

Did you get the message we left on your answering machine? What we actually did was leave a voicemail on our friend’s cellphone. She doesn’t even have an answering machine. With her cellphone, our friend can retrieve our message while standing in line at the pet store; she doesn’t have to wait until she gets home to her kitchen. One of us still has an answering machine hooked up to her landline phone, and if the light is blinking once a month, it’s cause for excitement.

Do you have a deposit slip for that check? We transfer money between our accounts electronically, and we’ve used ATMs all over the world, but we still write and deposit the occasional paper check.technology3

 

Handing it to the teller is the only way we can be certain that it will go into our account. When one of our children asked how to best deposit a paycheck, we handed her a deposit slip. She ignored us and googled “how to put money in the bank,” downloaded the bank app, and took a photo of her check.

Our 20-something daughter paid her share of lunch by using Venmo to send $8.50 to her girlfriend. When we go out to lunch, we each put a $20 bill on the table and ask the waiter to bring us change in singles so we can leave a tip.

Do you have your train ticket? We can’t help but ask our kids this question before they head off on a journey. Inevitably their answer is, “I have it in my email on my phone.”technology

We trust electronic confirmations but only so far. When it comes to our own travel, we print out the confirmation and also scrawl AF383C on a scrap of paper just to be sure. We also print out our concert tickets and hotel reservations — just in case someone asks to see them.

Did you write down your password? Our son was alarmed that we keep a small address book filled with screen names and passwords on the desk right next to the computer. There’s an app for that, he told us. But what if our phone is dead? How will we get to the app? We keep a spare copy of our passwords in a Word document on the computer, but what if the power is out? That’s why we have to write it in the little book.

Sometimes it’s not our words but our hand gestures that give us away. Scribbling in the air is the universal sign to tell the waitress to bring the check. But when one of our husbands swirled his index finger in a circle as he said “I’ll call you,” he dated himself. To him, making a call involved putting his index finger in the corresponding hole on the phone and rotating clockwise — seven times. His childhood phone number started with letters GR7-3892 (for Greenwood), but he can’t call it anymore.technology 2

Our adult children are totally immersed in technology. They grew up with it so they have no other frame of reference. We had to explain to them how television used to have only three channels, how when you made a typo it was on the page forever, and that a quarter to 10 is 9:45. We like to think of modern technology like a swimming pool. We’re all having a great time, but while they’re frolicking in the deep end, we’re wearing swimmies and hanging on the rope — just in case.

 

 

This article appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, January 3, 2016



Lots of Valuable Stuff
November 2, 2015, 11:29 am
Filed under: family | Tags: , , , , , , ,

Cleaning out our parents’ and in-laws’ apartments and houses — when they’ve downsized, moved, or died — has made us vow not to put our kids through the same task. It is so difficult to sort through a lifetime of possessions. Why did our parents save all this stuff?

Some of it is “valuable” — the breakfront filled with Waterford crystal dessert bowls and sets of bone china. The shelves lined with Lladro figurines, candlesticks, and souvenir plates from their travels. Then there are the books: stacks and stacks of paperback mysteries. Glossy coffee table books on baseball and spies. A book of golf jokes. A set of encyclopedias from 1964, in case you want look up the Soviet Union, typewriters, and cassette tapes. clutter3

 

We already have more than enough. We each have three sets of dishes. We don’t have an empty wall on which to hang their art. When we get flowers, we have 10 vases to choose from. We do want to keep the photo albums, the vegetable dish we always used on Thanksgiving, and the candlesticks from Israel, but we don’t need another dining room table.

When we called in a cleanout service, they gave us depressing news: Only a few items had resale value. Would we take a few hundred dollars for the entire lot? They would be willing to haul everything away if we “donated” it.

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After these sad chores, we were determined to reevaluate our “treasures.” We, too, have too much stuff, and we set about to sort it. We started by offering some of the items to our adult children. We were overjoyed when one child found space in his tiny apartment for the teak wood kitchen table that had been waiting for him in the attic for 23 years.

We were sure none of the kids would want the old set of encyclopedias and we could safely throw it out. But then one son thought he might like to cut out and keep some pages, like the one with flags of countries that no longer exist.

But not enough of our stuff has found a home with our children. What can our daughter do with a crystal vase and Lenox china for 12 in her rental apartment?clutter

Our kids aren’t sure what they’ll want in the future. “Hang on to that bookcase,” they tell us. It’s our decision to keep that old bureau, because down the road it will be perfect for a grandchild. That’s why we put it in the attic.

We’ve pared down the children’s books we’re saving to one plastic tub of much-loved favorites. The kids forced us to hold onto their Beanie Babies — waiting for the collectibles market to rebound.

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When we came across the electronic chess set in the basement, which still sported a $99 price tag, we wondered — throw or keep? We found it on eBay for $2.50, so we’re proud to say we put it in that week’s trash.

We look forward to the day our children have established homes of their own. We imagine we’ll pack up their stuff and ship it to them — “Honey, a package arrived for you. Did you order Boy Scout badges, meteorites, old baseball cards, souvenir Playbills, and some old textbooks?”

It’s easy to understand why our parents kept all their stuff. It’s hard to pare down a lifetime of memories. Although not valuable, each item has value because of the memories attached. When one of us decided to clean out the attic, she was sure the clutter belonged to her husband and kids. It turned out that the charity run T-shirts, suitcases, and newspaper clippings were hers — mementos of her travel, work, and accomplishments.

We’ve made some progress on the clean-out front, but there’s definitely more to go. We’ll admit that we’re never going to move into a Tiny House or get joy from living simply with only 100 possessions. After all, the children’s photos on the mantle and their grade-school ceramic projects number at least 47. This doesn’t include the file we keep of their hand-drawn Mother’s Day cards. This is valuable stuff, and there’s still room in the attic.

This essay originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday, November 1




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