Beloved junk: Why we can't let go of it

Roberta Quinn?s grown children wouldn?t mind if their Roberta Quinn’s grown children wouldn’t mind if their parents dumped the swing set that reminds her of their childhoods and put a pool in their yard. It’s not happening. (Feb. 1, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

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Roberta Quinn looks out her kitchen window at the children's swing set she and her husband bought in 1993. Her son and daughter are grown now, one in college and the other living out of state, and the swing set is old and weatherworn -- but, in her eyes, it's a thing of beauty. "It just makes me smile and feel happy, remembering when they were little," Quinn, 52, said, beaming. "I even remember when we got it, it was a huge thing, a big deal," she recalled, "One of the neighbor's kids climbed over the fence to play on it."

For sentimental reasons, Quinn's husband, Glenn, also wants to keep it, but their kids would much rather see a pool in their parents' yard in Seaford.

The only way Quinn would part with the outdated play set is if Mother Nature intervened -- "if a storm took it down," she said. Other than that, the swing set isn't going anywhere, not even for home improvement projects on the horizon. "We'd landscape around it," Quinn said firmly.

 

Everybody has some

Beloved junk. We all have a piece or two, or more, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. It isn't necessarily an antique or worthy of a Craigslist sale or valuable enough for eBay. These keepsakes won't impact your bank account, but they do tug at your heartstrings. It's the stuff we can't part with because it reminds us of something we aren't willing to forget, though we rarely use it or wear it; sentimental items from a cherished relative or oddball items we've picked up over the years; the belongings that don't belong anywhere; objects that aren't suitable to donate -- if we were inclined to give them away, which we are not.

A logical solution would be the trash. But it's not about logic, is it? Why do we keep them? What does it say about us? It says we're human, with feelings and emotions. Maxine Marcus, president of the Nassau County Psychological Association, said that these items are cherished because they have personal meaning, representing people or places of importance to us emotionally. "Keepsakes help us capture and hold special moments in our personal histories," explained Marcus, who has a practice in Great Neck. "They need not have any intrinsic value, though perhaps we feel more justified when we hold on to some memento that those around us see as having some monetary worth. Its real value lies in the memories it conjures up for us: a small gift from an old friend or first love; a Playbill from a school play; a piece of beach glass from a special trip."

Memories abound in the Girl Scout hat and sash adorned with hard-earned merit badges that Linda Kay of Kings Park has saved for more than half a century (pictured on the cover). "I first began Brownie Scouts in the mid 1950s and have kept the mementos ever since," said Kay, 65. "Brownies and Girl Scouts were such wonderful experiences for me, especially Girl Scouts. My friend's mom, Mrs. Katz, was our troop leader in Freeport," said Kay, recalling weekend trips to Tekakwitha, the former Girl Scouts camp in Hampton Bays. As the oldest of five children, she appreciated the freedom of being with her peers, away from home. "I had never been to camp, so I was thrilled to cook out and sing songs such as 'Kumbaya.' "

Ask Long Islanders if they've held onto some whatnot from childhood, and many probably will have at least one thing they can name. Paula Uruburu of Lindenhurst has her skateboard, circa 1965, and an unopened packet of Loud Mouth Lime drink mix. "Found it about 30 years ago when cleaning out a junk drawer in my mom's house and subsequently found the cups that go with these -- Loud Mouth Lime and Goofy Grape," said Uruburu, 55. "Like the skateboard, they remind me of the goofiness and fun of childhood." She also has a decades-old Gertz hatbox, inscribed with "where Long Island shops" that she found in the back of her mother's closet. Uruburu recalls yearly trips to Santaland at the now-defunct Gertz department store in Jamaica.

 

Showing off mementos

Throughout her home, Uruburu showcases her keepsakes, which prompt memories of "that period in my life of getting bad haircuts and wearing red velvet dresses." The hatbox is in her guest bedroom along with antique hats, and the skateboard with its rusted wheels stays propped on her porch or under her Christmas tree "when I do the retro thing," said Uruburu, who considers herself a cultural anthropologist when it comes to beloved junk.

Jennifer Ryan, a professional organizer for Create New Order Inc. in Kings Park, acknowledges the necessity of keepsakes. "Sentimental items are important, even if they hold little value. They remind us of something special," said Ryan, who generally helps clutterers and hoarders discard, declutter and get organized.

Mementos need to be seen to be appreciated, Ryan said, but size and space often dictate where and how to keep the goods. She suggests incorporating keepsakes into your home or office decor, where they'll impart a sense of whimsy and personality; or use the items in a practical way. For example, Ryan has a fondness for marbles and keeps her collection in a jar that serves as a bookend. "It's interesting to me and my space," she said.

John Schreiber of Freeport has his share of beloved junk, including his grandmother's Electrolux vacuum cleaner from the 1940s in his garage. "Every time I see it, I think of my grandmother who had it and my father who had it in his garage for many, many years. It's been used mostly for cleaning cars. I actually got an attachment for it at a garage sale years ago." Schreiber, 66, has other sentimental items that aren't as useful, but are certainly as dear, like his daughter's catcher's mitt. "Lee was a catcher on an all-boys team, I will never discard it," Schreiber declared.

Sometimes an item's true sentimental worth isn't realized until it's gone. During superstorm Sandy, Schreiber's home was flooded. The loss was great, including two cars, a houseful of furniture, and massive damage to walls and floors. But as he began the heartbreaking task of rebuilding and replacing, he realized there were some things that couldn't be replaced.

"I think what I lost from Sandy that hurts the most is my collection of children's books and parent resource books I collected," explained Schreiber, a retired teacher. "There must have been 200 to 300 children's books, classics, my personal favorites -- 95 percent soaked from the saltwater."

But not everything from his teaching career was lost. Sitting on the kitchen counter is a tile with a menorah painted on it, held together with tape and glue. "It was made by the first-grade class in Westbury where I student-taught 37 years ago," said Schreiber. "It means a lot to me."

 

Keepsake or clutter?

Ask yourself these questions:

--Does it bring you joy?

--Is it displayed? Does it have a place in your home?

-- Does it prompt good memories and make you smile?

-- Does it prompt interesting conversations?

If you're hoping to whittle away your scrambled collection of things, consider photographing your keepsakes, especially large pieces, which allows you to remove the items, but keep the memory. However, Great Neck psychologist Maxine Marcus noted, "Keeping nothing is not necessarily healthy, either, and can be a way of rejecting the disappointing people or events of our past."

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