Glad I Kept That

imageMy daughter will not like this post. My niece will not like this post but my brother will understand. I keep too much stuff. I always have, but it’s not a habit I developed independently. My father kept way too much stuff and his mother, who had a strong influence on my life kept way too much stuff. They had an excuse, living through the Great Depression made people aware of the value of stuff. People learned to reuse and repurpose stuff and how to render stuff into other stuff. I wasn’t alive during the Depression, but I grew up performing tasks like removing and straightening nails from the thing we had just torn down so we could use them again as we rebuilt that thing. I sifted through coffee cans of nuts and bolts and screws to find the gem that would let us avoid a trip to the hardware store. I spent hours watching my dad do things like make a lightweight extension from the power cord of a broken vacuum cleaner. I watched and helped him repair radios, toasters and other appliances that would get tossed into the trash today.

One of my favorite memories is associated with one of my worst days and a pile of stuff my father shouldn’t have kept. I had just started riding my brother’s old 24” bike, a fine green two-wheeled ticket to freedom, when I crashed it into a telephone pole. The impact split the fork wide open and ball bearings poured out like salt. I was devastated. My parents weren’t about to buy me a new bike, I was only 9, but I was a tall kid, almost but not quite big enough for a 26” bike, a.k.a. the largest size, a.k.a. the last one they would have to buy. There was no way they were buying me a new 24” bike – that’s what hand-me-downs are for. But it was July, there were months of bike riding left. Not to worry. When my dad came home from work the next day, he said “I stopped by Uncle Al’s and picked up a bike for you today” – that was bad news, Al’s kids were both girls. Sure enough it was a 24” girl’s bike and it was pink. Not just pink, the sickly kind of pink with white accents that screamed “Barbie rides a bike just like this!”

Daaaaaaaaaaaad, I can’t ride that!” (Not unless you want to see me get beat up every day for the rest of the summer).

The next thing I knew, we were heading down to the basement and into the corner where odd bits of pipe were leaning. My father picked out a piece of steel pipe, laid it out on the floor with a 2×4 under one end. He stomped on the pipe and bent it ever-so-slightly. Then we marked it, cut it, ground the ends kinda-sorta concave and he welded it in between the seat post and the fork. Then we took that pink Frankenstein bike outside were we painted it flat black. I think of that bike every time I watch Animal House when D-Day creates the Deathmobile. I went from a normal looking kid on a green bike to looking somewhat dangerous without having to stop at sissy thanks to a pile of stuff that should have been thrown away. I never questioned my father’s habits again.

Back in 2010, we started renovating a small family room. Weimage gutted the room, which included removing two cat shelves from the front windows. I knew those were going to be temporary when I installed them in 2008, so I made them from vinyl molding stock. I should have tossed them in the dumpster with all the other debris but I kept them; they’ve been kicking around my garage for 3 years. Fast forward to a few weeks ago when I was finishing the railing system on our front porch. The step is a non-standard configuration (both wider run and shorter rise than normal) so the stair kits for the rails didn’t fit so well. What I needed was a series of 1″ wedges – vinyl wedges to be specific. You know where this is headed. I was able to cut those wedges from the cat shelves.

That is precisely the experience that fosters hanging onto stuff you really should throw away. This is what my brother and I understand that our children rail against. I can hear them now:

you know, you could have just gone back to Lowes and bought a small piece of molding stock. You didn’t have to save construction debris for three years just in case!

Sorry girls. On the plus side, I no longer keep bent nails (but I do have a jar of miscellaneous nuts and bolts).


  1. Picture reference – Those are the wedges in action and up close. They worked so well, and I was so glad I had them. Of course I could have bought new stock, but it comes in 8’ lengths so I would have had some left-over anyway.


  2. From one stuff collector to another. More than once in a while that stuff comes in handy. The trick is to balance too much stuff with being able to find the stuff when you need it. But that is a slightly different story.


  3. Can certainly relate to pulling the old nails, pounding them straight and reusing them! Also had rows of Maxwell House coffee cans filled with “stuff” to reuse. Best memory of my Dad teaching me a life lesson was when we got our very first car. We could never afford a new car, and for most of my childhood we couldn’t afford a used car either! Then one day Dad came home with a 1949 Plymouth Coupe that he purchased from the taxi company he worked at. It had over 200,000 miles on it, but it was certainly “new” to our family. I think he paid $50 for the car. We couldn’t afford to have it painted, so Dad and I took a trip to Eastern Auto Parts on Western Avenue in Somerville, bought several cans of maroon paint, found some old brushes waiting to be “reused” in the basement and spent an entire Saturday painting the car by hand. When we were done, we rinsed the paint brushes in turpentine and put them back on the shelf to used again another day. Oh yeah, with the left over paint I even painted my bike to match the car! A good life lesson to be sure.


    1. Wow Bob, we have one more thing in common. My dad drove cab for a while too. I am trying to keep a cleaner shop/house/office but it’s hard throwing out stuff that I know can be used. That’s a great story, and I can absolutely visualize cleaning those brushes – that was my job.


  4. And to Z’s point, I still have my father’s Maxwell House cans full of the same nails/bolts/screws he kept kicking around for years.


  5. You have made an effort to get rid of things recently – I recognize progress :-) I also struggle with the things I hold onto that I know I shouldn’t, but think someday “I could make something with that.” I blame my genes, art school and the DIY movement for that.


  6. All of this sounds very familiar . I even had my sister’s bike , handed down to me , for a couple of years , It was my favorite bike ever , although I did put up with a little teasing . At least it wasn’t pink , though . It was always black .
    By coincidence , I finally tossed out an old barbeque yesterday that I’ve had stored out behind the garage . It’s been there about six years since I bought another one . I needed to make some more room for some other stuff , but I still hate to throw out something that could have been fixed up .
    I guess you’re right , most of this attitude comes from growing up with Depression-era parents and grandparents .
    But I also hate tossing a well-made something out only to buy a cheap new junky something .


    1. I love that. I switched back to a charcoal grill but I kept the propane one because it was still good. Fortunately, I had a friend who needed one so it went to a good home.


  7. You know the old saying: “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure.”

    My Mother came from a long line of frugal – nay, cheap – Scotsmen, and she saved everything that ever crossed our doorsill, I think. She still sends me things on my birthdays that I made or had as a kid.



      1. The Law of Conservation of matter says that the amount of matter in the universe is a constant. If you ship your stuff to Faith, the balance will be maintained within your family microcosm.



  8. So funny! I have a different experience with my mom. She wants to give everything away (and when I say everything–I mean EVERYTHING). “You probably don’t need your wedding dress anymore-right?” she says to me as she helps clear out my closets. But, I am a complete pack-rat. For example, I have probably saved every book that I ever bought in my whole life. Luckily I’ve got a lot of bookshelves, friends who enjoy borrowing books, a Little Free Library, and two bookworm children, so I anticipate they will come in handy, just like your vinyl wedges :)


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