To have and to hoard

This last weekend, I visited my grandmother and helped her go through old clothes she’d culled out of her wardrobe long ago, but was still keeping in a spare closet.  She had already donated a fair amount of the clothes that she could reach on a previous occasion, but was so surprised when I kept pulling out garments from the back of the closet, easily 60 pieces – and all of these items were from the 1980s.  A few items still had price tags on them, never worn. My grandma had been holding on to that stuff for about thirty years, not even letting them go when she moved from a much bigger house to her two-bedroom apartment.

If I wasn’t already interested in cutting out stuff in my life that I don’t need, fortunately I would still be far from becoming a hoarder, because deciding to rent an apartment in New York City is like joining the Tiny House movement, (though with none of the financial gain of owning your own home outright).

Jorge, toiling away in our living room/dining room/potting shed.

I’m lucky. There simply isn’t room for everything you might hold onto if you lived in a place like suburban North Carolina, where I grew up. Jorge and I have a one-bedroom apartment in Queens, which is one of the more reasonably priced areas around this town, and even still, our apartment clocks in at under 500 square feet, with a monthly rent that someone back in NC could call a mortgage for a 3 or 4 bedroom house with a garage and yard. I actually really like small space living, though, having rented small apartments for the majority of my adult life, to the point where, when I visit a friend or relative who dwells in a regular-sized suburban house, I have come to find myself as amazed as if it were a museum. So much storage space, and so many rooms!

It’s the same way I felt when I used to watch home improvement TV shows — you know the formula, where the people tour and select one of three houses to renovate into the shiny new home of their dreams. I would think to myself, “Why does one couple need a four- or five-bedroom residence?” I’d puzzle at the vastness of their new kitchens, multiple living rooms and dining zones. A formal dining room + a kitchen table + a “breakfast bar?” How many spaces do people need in their home for simply sitting and eating? Is it like musical chairs at mealtime? I envision the scene from Disney’s Alice in Wonderland where the Mad Hatter’s tea party guests suddenly pick up and move to a different chair, “Clean cup! Clean cup! Move DOWWWN!!” Except the people on these TV shows would be scooting over to a completely different table and location in the house.

Contrary to HGTV’s opinion, here are a few other things that I do not think are actually crucially important to your happiness in life:

  • A custom-tiled kitchen backsplash.
  • French doors.
  • A giant ceramic kitchen sink.
  • Brand new matching dish sets.
  • A table runner.
  • A double-sink vanity in the bathroom.
  • A gallery wall.

Right, so then, there’s the matter of what fills up the house and sometimes the garage, if you have one. When Jorge and I moved in together, we did wind up with a lot more stuff. Cookware, dishes, glasses, utensils GALORE, and that’s just in our kitchen. This is why we humbly insisted on a no-gift policy for our wedding. Between my stuff and Jorge’s, we just didn’t need or want anything else, and what meant more to us was the kind wishes of our friends and family rather than acquiring more things, only to have no space to display them.

Getting rid of stuff I don’t need or even like helps me appreciate more about the things I do want to keep, whether I use them everyday or not. When I look at or pick something up that I enjoy, it feels a lot better than resting an eye or a hand on an item that is unwanted. Some of our stuff might be considered extraneous and patently unnecessary by hard-core minimalists — that’s okay.  A few things I own and love using, regardless of how often I do, are:

  • My comal, a flat round griddle we use for toasting tortillas or charring tomatillos and hot chile peppers for salsa.
  • My grandmother’s cocktail glassware collection.
  • An adorable (broken and glued back together) tea pot from a trip to the Czech Republic I took with my friend, Heather, back in 2000.
  • A molinillo, a hand-carved wooden tool for mixing and blending Mexican hot chocolate over the stove.
  • An array of fabric napkins, absorbent and washable. We use two napkins all week, each week, replacing them on laundry day. Maybe a few more if we have dinner guests.
  • Orange salt and pepper shakers in the shape of squirrels.
  • Our dining table that Jorge found on the street in Hell’s Kitchen, several years ago. It’s an old, round, filigree-leg, small wooden table, that comfortably seats four adults at the most. He managed to drag it home on his own via the subway – how, I’ll never know. Two years ago we sanded the table down and re-lacquered it a Hershey chocolate tone. (Note: do not sand wood furniture on windy days right after you have applied chapstick.)
  • A couple of cheap backless folding chairs we haul up to the roof to sit on while admiring the sunset, or that we install on our “porch” (though some may call it a fire escape) when we want to sit out there on a sunny weekend day.
Magnolia, geranium and other plant buddies hanging out on our porch… ahem, fire escape.

I remember moving boxes and boxes of unnecessary stuff that I owned for years, cramming them into closets and under beds. I just thought I needed to keep everything forever, for some reason. As the apartments I rented dwindled in size in indirect proportion to the succession of bigger cities I moved to, I began rethinking my attachment to all these things. If I’d continued living in more spacious quarters, I might never have started paring things down, and realizing that I just don’t need most of it. So truly, the NYC space-challenged living arrangements I’ve endured have been a blessing in disguise.

Now if I could just slightly extend our porch…