“Lightening the Neverending Load,” column for March 5, 2013

Some people like to collect stuff. Stamps. Bobblehead dolls. Teacups. Husbands.

My stepfather’s mother, rest her soul, devoted an entire wall of her living room to a vast array of salt and pepper shakers.

She possessed matching sets of most every description; some she bought for herself, others she received as gifts. All were treated like treasures, never to be used, only to be admired.

And dusted.

It was a job she assigned to me on occasion, whenever I visited. And I don’t mind telling you that the more I dusted them, the less I admired them.

It occurred to me, even then as a child, that the less stuff you kept, the less you had to dust, leaving you more time for other, more worthwhile pursuits, such as running through the woods trying not to get snakebitten.

Clearly, collecting shakers brought her a measure of pleasure, and I did not begrudge her that. I just didn’t want to dust them for her.

Besides, at her age, snakes or no snakes, she wasn’t going to be much for running through the woods. Or anywhere.

We do different things, enjoy different pursuits at different stages of life. I knew that. But I was sure, no matter how old I got, that I would never want to dust salt and pepper shakers.

I wasn’t right on everything I predicted for myself. I thought, for example, I’d grow up to be governor of South Carolina and wear a whole lot of lipstick. One out of two isn’t bad.

But I was right about never wanting to do much dusting.

As a child, I made a vow to always travel light. And I kept it. Except for about 30 years.

It’s hard to travel light with a packrat husband and three packrat children and a three-story packrat house stuffed to the attic with their packrat stuff.

I tried. But the more I got rid of, the more they dragged home.

I often thought of my step-grandmother and her shaker collection. Especially when I dusted. Which, granted, wasn’t often. Would there be salt and pepper shakers in heaven? If so, would they need dusting?

Then my children grew up and we lost their dad to cancer. And one day, I woke up and found myself alone in that big house with five sets of dishes, a lifetime of stuff — and a longing, once again, to travel light.

So like the pioneer women who left their family heirlooms along the Oregon Trail, I began to lighten the load.

I didn’t make much progress, however, until I decided to remarry and move out of state.

Deadlines and weddings do wonders for motivation. Those pioneer women had nothing on me. I rented a large trash bin. Hired help with the hauling. Packed boxes for each of my kids. And gave enough stuff to Goodwill to open a whole new store.

I kept just the right amount, a painstakingly honed balance of keepsakes and necessities, and was amply rewarded by moving into our new home with a clean, uncluttered, well-ordered life.

Give or take, it lasted maybe 15 minutes. And then, bit by bit, it all came back — a different set of stuff, yes, but just as heavy, just as cumbersome, just as difficult to part with.

Especially the books. Books are like old friends that never ask to borrow money or sleep on your couch or notice that you’ve gained weight. And the photos of your grandchildren? Like you’re really going to get rid of them. Last year’s Christmas gifts and this year’s birthday cards and your husband’s collection of 50 bazillion CDs and the shoes you just had to have but never go anywhere to wear them.

We don’t collect stuff.

It collects us.

And then it collects dust.

Tomorrow, I swear, I’m going to lighten the load. Again.

But first, I need to dust it.


  1. I never considered myself to be a pack rat, but having lived in the same apartment for 20 years, I’m shocked by how much I’ve accumulated just by living. I’ve made a rule that I can’t bring in anything new unless I get rid of something first, but it’s not easy. And yes, books are the hardest things to part with.

  2. I swear whatever I get rid of just hides around the corner, multiplies 2-3 times and comes right back in!! You reminded me of my Grandmas collection of salt & pepper shakers, always wondered what happened to them. I liked to rearrange them when I visited, but I never had to dust them, so my memories are happier!

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