Taking Inventory

The day before our fire, I was saying to Joan that I couldn’t stand living with all of our clutter and all of our stuff. I felt inundated with paper and belongings. We never had time to use most of our stuff, to clean it, to tend to it, to even appreciate it. How did all this stuff come into our lives? Where did all of these things come from? We don’t buy much (or so it seems to me), but with birthdays and holidays, grandparents and aunties, Chanukah and special occasions, things accumulate. Many of our belongings-particularly the high-quality toys our children have, are wonderful when looked at in and of themselves, but when looked at in totality, our “stuff” represents a staggering use of the world’s resources.

Two days after our fire, we were still stinky and smelling of smoke, feeling lost and disjointed and shocked. I was waking bolt upright at 4:15 every morning-the time of our fire-with no hope of going back to sleep again. After one of these sleepless early mornings, our good friends Denny and Yosi came down for the day to help us. They did laundry, fed us, watched us fight and cry and struggle with manipulative insurance adjusters, and played with the kids. They gardened, took our dog Tyson to the beach, photographed the fire damage, brought clothing and art supplies, took away what we didn’t want, and helped us start the dreaded inventory we had to finish in the next two days. Joan and Daniel inventoried all of the food in our pantry and kitchen, all of which has to be thrown away after being exposed to the tremendous heat of the fire. Yosi and I worked in the dining room, the worst room, where the fire began and raged.

As Yosi and I did our inventory of all the charred ruined things in our dining room, it was surrealistic. There, where my father’s altar had been (and where the fire began), was the box of my father’s ashes, fresh from the crematorium. The hard plastic box melted, but was still intact. So were the ashes, now burned twice. Somehow, finding them on the floor in the wreckage made me laugh.

All over the room were objects melted into all kinds of amazing shapes. We took pictures not only to have a record of things for our insurance company, but to document the fire for our family archives and to capture some amazing fire art. We started counting CDs, books, cassette tapes, all melted in the heat of the fire. We looked through drawers of melted art supplies, piled through drawers and cupboards of half-ruined things. As the list grew to seven pages, I was staggered at the breadth and range of our possessions. Aside from the precious photographs of my father and the artwork burned in the fire, there’s hardly anything in this room I would miss. And yet our tally includes (just to name a few items): a rolling cart full of wooden blocks, a melted computer, 117 paperback books, 45 hardback books, 215 melted CDs (dripping off the shelves like some weird Salvador Dali painting), 120 cassette tapes, an anatomically correct doll, five drawers full of art supplies, 9 tablecloths, fifteen cloth napkins, a dozen napkin holders, 2 Buddha statues, 14 rolls of scotch tape, 2 staplers, two stamp dispensers, a dozen fancy picture frames, one large box of straws, 2 pairs of children’s sunglasses, a melted sewing machine, a set of Haggadahs for Passover, two ruined cameras, 2 dripping bottles of glitter glue, a ceramic corn dish, a shot glass, three pairs of sunglasses, a full set of ruined Jim Weiss tapes, 2 calculators, a glue gun, three puppets, two ruined paintings, a big basket of charred laundry (waiting to be folded), and numerous other objects including: 30 games including chinese checkers, scrabble, yatzee, parcheesi, pictionary, uno, clue, ids on stage, hens and chick, mah jong, cribbage and scategories. All of this in just one room of our house.

Tallying the items and tossing them in the “ruined” pile, I am overwhelmed with sheer quantity and redundancy of all this “stuff.” We have more things in one room of our house than most families in the world ever accumulate-and much of it we don’t even use. The waste of resources staggers me. What did we spend to acquire all of this stuff? Why is it gathering dust in our house? Are these things we will miss now that they are charred in a heap? For the most part the answer is no. This is one of the spiritual lessons of passing through fire.

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Laura Davis is a nationally syndicated columnist and the co-author, with Janis Keyser, of Becoming the Parent You Want to Be: A Sourcebook of Strategies for the First Five Years (Broadway Books, 1997). Laura and Janis are currently writing a book for the parents of elementary school children. Laura is the mother of seven-year-old Justin, four-year-old Emily and stepmom to twenty-two year-old Daniel. Out of respect for the privacy of her family members, they are being identified by pseudonyms in this story. 

© Laura Davis 2000 All Rights Reserved.