How Much Do We Really Need?

Photo by Peter Steele on

My maternal grandmother spent the last decades of her life in a rotation of simple routines. She never left her home save for a couple of times when she needed to go to the hospital. Her eight children made certain that she had whatever she needed, which was never very much. Each Christmas Eve her great big noisy extended family descended on her tiny house bearing all sorts of gifts for her which promptly disappeared into her attic. Her bedroom was sacred ground upon which we never intruded. To this day I wonder what was beyond the door that lead to the place where she slept each night. Some of my cousins snuck furtive peeks into her domain, but I always considered it a kind of sacrilege to invade her privacy. Nonetheless, I wondered what happened to the bountiful presents that she received year after year but never seemed to use. It was as though she was storing things away for some future moment that never came. 

I suppose that many of us have a bit of hoarder in us. All we need is a warning that a big storm is coming or that a pandemic is on its way to bring out our squirrel-like tendencies. I still have toilet paper and paper towels from almost two years ago, although I may finally have to purchase some more quite soon. If you need some hand sanitizer I have a bit of that as well. I love purchasing in bulk but often forget how long it takes only two people to use things up. I still operate as though I am running a household filled with children. 

I always enjoyed the stories from my grandfather about his boyhood preparations for winter in Virginia. He lived with his grandmother in a house that had no glass windows. They were protected from rain and the elements with sheets of oilcloth in the summer and wooden shutters when it was cold. He talked about how his grandmother smoked meat during the warm months and then stored it in a cellar. She canned fruit and vegetables as well. It was a full time job just preparing for the coming frigid temperatures. For him, it meant chopping lots of wood in anticipation of the many fires he and his grandmother would need for cooking and keeping warm. 

Growing up I knew many adults who had suffered greatly as children of the Great Depression. They recalled the intense hunger that emaciated their bodies. They never forgot how horrific that was, and so they always kept enormous stores of food in their pantries and freezers just in case such a thing ever happened again. I was always in awe of the victuals that they kept on hand.

A friend of mine had a lovely Mormon neighbor who told us about the food and supplies that she had stored away. She showed us huge bags of rice and beans and flour and sugar that she kept under the beds in roll out contraptions that her husband had built. She seemed to be ready for some kind of Armageddon that somehow made me wonder what she knew about the future that I did not. I have thought about her quite often and had a certain admiration for her preparations as the world is buffeted by natural disasters and strange illnesses more and more often. 

I suppose that I might be accused of having some of my grandmother’s hoarding instincts. I am always reluctant to throw things away or give them to someone who might better use them. I’ve worn the same size of clothing for decades and I tend to keep every item until it is so hopelessly out of style that it languishes in the back of my closet needlessly taking up room. I have somehow become the official keeper of family heirlooms photos that crowd every corner my cabinets, closets and bookshelves. I would be a much better curator if I were to take the time to label and catalog everything for posterity. Sadly, much like my mother-in-law before me, I have the best intentions but never quite get the job done. I will simply pass on the collection to whomever wants it one day without the stories and memories connected to what had once been treasures.

We humans are accumulators. Few of us get so out of control that we become like the characters on the television series that featured them unable to even walk inside their homes because there was so much stuff packed inside. We don’t have a sick compulsion to save every little thing, but we do have our little trinkets that mean so much to us personally, but not so much to anyone else. I still have medals that I won in high school tucked away with diplomas from my parents and even my husband’s grandfather. I suppose that such things might be of some interest to the younger generation but they are also the sorts who adhere to a more Spartan way of living. They like clean lines devoid of clutter. They fret about dust collectors and talk of consuming less for the good of the environment. I suspect that they would find themselves wondering what to do with all of the historical family artifacts that I have agreed to protect for posterity. 

We have among us survivalists, hoarders, and Boy Scouts who are always prepared. We have collectors and over consumers as well as those who are fearful of being caught without the most basic of human necessities. We each in our own ways keep things until, God forbid, something horrific reduces our treasure trove to little more than the clothes on our backs. Perhaps we might do well to consider a bit more of sharing of what we have long before we have ended our days. How much better it would be to delight someone right now with that extra coat or that treasure from Grandma? We have to ask ourselves, “How much do any of us actually need?” We might find that we can spread joy to those with less and still have just enough for ourselves.  


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