Gimme a Smile: Do I have the right stuff?

By Peggy McKee Barnhill

I’ve been spending my evenings shredding documents. No, I don’t work for the government or for some former official who has something to hide. I’m just trying to take control of the cascade of stuff in my house. Twenty-three years in one house is ample time to amass a wealth of papers in need of proper disposal. Isn’t it amazing how much paper expands when it’s shredded? An inch-thick folder of paycheck stubs can produce a garbage bag full of confetti to add to the existing volume of stuff in my house.

Despite the national trend toward decluttering, there are various legitimate reasons to keep stuff:

— It might become valuable someday. You never know. I just read a story about a man who saved his unused ticket to a basketball legend’s first professional game. He rousted it out of a memory box in the basement, and the current bid at auction is over a quarter million dollars. Not bad for a piece of paper that takes up virtually no space to save. The problem is, how do you know the right stuff to keep? You might have a letter from a childhood friend who grew up to become famous. One of those beanie babies might turn out to hit the jackpot. There might be a rare penny in that penny jar. Might as well save them all!

—It’s a family heirloom. There’s not much you can do about that. How can you get rid of Cousin Clem’s Civil War sword, or the scrapbook of clippings from your dad’s high school track meets? It takes a hardy soul to pack up Grandma’s wedding china for the donation bin. If you come from a long line of savers, your task is nigh insurmountable. Stuff it all back where it came from and focus on letting go of other stuff.

—It might come in handy someday. This is the main reason people hold on to everyday, non-valuable stuff for so long. They know that the minute they get rid of something, they will discover the perfect use for it. It’s true. Take the bridesmaid dress incident in my own life.

It happened back when my daughter was in preschool…

The preschool was holding a community garage sale fundraiser, so I went through my closets for forgotten clothes to donate. Way in the back I found three bridesmaid dresses, in pastel shades of pink, blue and yellow. After birthing two children, I knew I would never again fit into these bridesmaid dresses. I felt a momentary pang of regret. Wait, who am I kidding? When would I ever want to re-wear a pastel 1980s ankle-length gown? The bridesmaid dresses went off to the fundraiser.

This epic garage sale took place in the fall, close to Halloween. My daughter wanted to dress up as Cinderella that year. I love making Halloween costumes, but I didn’t feel the need to start from scratch with a length of blue fabric and a proper pattern. What I needed was a long, pastel blue dress to adapt into a Cinderella costume. I knew just the thing — my bridesmaid dress from my sister’s wedding. Wait a minute — I had just bundled that dress off to the fundraiser!

I raced back to the preschool in time to grab the dress off the rack and pay three dollars to make it my own, again. The pink and yellow dresses were already gone. I’ll bet the yellow one made the perfect Belle dress for a young beauty.

This story has a happy ending. My daughter was the loveliest Cinderella for Halloween, and she used the blue dress for dress-up for years afterwards. But the lesson I learned that day was to not part with seemingly useless stuff, because it really could come in handy someday.

Therein lies the problem. I don’t know what the future might hold. Best to be prepared. Maybe I should save those bags of confetti from shredding documents. I’d hate to let it all go to waste. Who knows when I might want to throw the biggest ticker-tape parade ever?

You know what would come in handy in my house? Some more closets, to stuff all my extra stuff into.

• Peggy McKee Barnhill is a wife, mother, and author who writes cozy mysteries under the pen name “Greta McKennan.” She likes to look at the bright side of life.

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