A boomer’s nostalgia about… well… stuff

Of the many ways boomers have changed the world, one is, we have devalued “stuff.” Chicago-area freelance writer Rosanne Ullman gets that, and is a part of the movement herself. But a reluctant part because, she writes, the “stuff” we devalue has value of a different kind. Thus her plea on this Mother’s Day, 2019: Mothers, forgive your daughters.

Like many baby boomers, I’ve come to accept that my kids don’t want my stuff. Everything from family heirlooms to picture postcards will be left for charity or, shudder, the trash collector. Gens X, Y, and Millennial, as umpteen articles tell us, value experiences over commodities. They rent rather than own, Uber rather than drive, travel rather than collect, order out rather than cook. They don’t need our stuff.

Their rejection stings, but it’s the natural result of growing up as boomers. I thought I appreciated the china, crystal, and silver that took up residence at my home in the 1980s when my late mother-in-law Mary downsized from house to condo. But since then I’ve set a formal table exactly twice. I can’t be surprised at the economic reality emerging from the flippant mantra of my time that anything that could not be washed in a dishwasher wasn’t worth having.

I picture my mother-in-law teetering upon a ladder, dusting the top of her breakfront, which is now mine, as a weekly task like so many others. I can still smell that awful odor permeating the kitchen when my own mom performed the silver polishing ritual. But it’s not our children’s generation that rejected the stuff; it’s ours. We were the ones who grew too busy to care for things. We: the women. We went outside the home and got jobs, and the stuff became a casualty of our new life as career people.

Rosanne Ullman with her three daughters.

When our work was homemaking, we glossed and scoured. We caressed teapots and slid our index finger down a knife to appreciate the untarnished smoothness. Under our watch, the Baby Grand’s ivories wouldn’t discolor, the Persian rug fringe never tangled, leather book covers didn’t crack. Possessions earned their value through the very attention to detail that we granted them as we oohed and ahhed over each other’s life’s work: shine and order. It felt important but fragile, as if women mattered only if the things they tended to mattered.

I wouldn’t want to return to those days; I’m happy that my generation of women fought to give our daughters professional options. But I’m caught in the transition. I fret that the lives of the women who came before us seem diminished because nowadays, the material things they cherished and nurtured go for cents on the dollar at Ebay.

I’m hoping for just a touch of what-goes-around-comes-around. For now, the intangible meaning of once-valuable possessions may have slipped away, but I have to believe that someday our kids will regret melting down the silverware, and a rebirth of stuff will validate our mothers’ noble occupation.

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Rosanne has a book for children, “The Case of the Disappearing Kisses.”

1 Comment

  1. I’m a boomer, and I am not attached to possessions ..only memories.
    But isn’t it odd that some kids don’t want “stuff”, but other kids are willing to go to Antique stores and buy it for a big price when they get older.

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