My brother texted one day to ask about a set of Native American/Plains Indian artifacts we had found in a cedar chest at the end of his visit. No one had wanted to decide quickly what to do with them at that time, so we had left them where they were, a decision deferred. Now my brother had decided he wanted some of them. His way of expressing this was to ask to have them framed and sent to my father. Then, when my father passes away eventually, they would already be half way across the country, ready to go to him.
“Since he spent money to buy them, presumably he would like to have them,” he wrote.
“Actually,: I wrote back, “he said they came with his family from Montana in the 1930s. In my opinion, with historical artifacts that have a value to society, I think we should offer them to a museum first. What do you all think?” I sent this to all the siblings.
A stinging email flew back: A lot of things could be of interest to museums, he wrote — including the dolls I gave away, the couch that sat in my grandmother’s house (that I asked for), two identical hall tables that my brother wanted both of and I said I would like one, a grandfather clock, a Chippendale chair, a fur stole that was my grandmother’s (that I gave away to a 1940s pin-up model), paintings by a famous artist that my Dad has taken with him, and some of my mother’s (unidentified) jewelry. If one of us wants something, he said, we should be able to take it. Everything should be decided on jointly, he wrote. And things need to be fair. It’s not fair right now. He and I have already gotten more things than the others. While I did a “good job” (pat on the head) selling the piano because no one in the family could take it, we needed to keep as much in the family as possible.
Instantly I am irritated. I write several snitty emails. I erase most, but send a few back with snippy replies. I think, “Really? A museum might want a ratty mink coat, available for $150 on eBay and $25 at Amvets? The museum might want a well-used, unremarkable 1930s couch?” And equity? Having not taken anything home yet except a box of books and pots and pans and linens, I bristle.
I think my upset is about ethics. I even write about that on the blog:
“So, here’s this question, this first-world question, this rich people problem:
Who should own the artifacts of history? One blog reader suggested that all of our family letters should be donated to an archive. To me, those feel too personal to donate. I suggested we should offer precious objects to museums when we can. Usually they’ll say no, and we can then pass them to family members who want them, or to others who would value them. So far, only two museums have accepted what I have offered — the MIngei Museum of folk art asked for 15 small paper Dickens dolls, and the Veterans Memorial Museum asked for my grandfather’s medic bag. Generally Museums say No, they don’t have room for something. But if an object is extremely rare, or belongs to a culture that would value a return of artifacts, shouldn’t we ask if they would like them back?”
But really, my upset has nothing to do with the ethics of the matter. It is more about independence. If I’m asked to do a job, I’d like the respect to do my best with that job. I’ve done my best to be sensitive to individual needs. But it’s not good enough. More than a disagreement about what to do with things, I think I am feeling the hurt of being expected to deal with all of these objects and the disposal of them, but not having any authority to use my own judgement. It’s the humiliation of having my decisions criticized and second guessed, and — I imagine in my angry brain — gossiped about behind my back. I can imagine the discussions in the kitchen: “She did what? She gave it away? I can’t believe she did that! She has no right to do that! It’s not hers to give away!”
No, I think that the issue here is not actually what we do with the stuff, but what I am asked to do for this job. Because right now it is a job. And it’s actually a job I don’t want to do. A job I did not apply for. A job I am not being paid for any more, and that was low paid to begin with. It’s a job on top of my other jobs and family responsibilities that need my attention much more.
I bristle at being treated like an employee of a company I would never choose to work for. When you are used to having people work for you — maids, gardeners, academic assistants — you tend to treat others like hired hands. You are polite, but you don’t really see people as equals. I don’t want to work as a hired hand for people who treat you like a hired hand, even if they are family. So, with that, in my mind, I formally resign from my job as professional downsizer. I QUIT! So THERE! I hit PUBLISH on the blog, wait 15 minutes to cool down, and then go back in and unpublish.
Really, I just need a break. Months of break. A year of break. A lifetime to do my regular job, my regular life without this stupid house hanging over my head like Dorothy Gale’s farmhouse, ready to fall and kill me. I know someone needs to do this job. But, again, I ask, “Why me?” If you want it done your way, fly out here and do it yourself! Otherwise, just let me get it done!