the writing and photography of Neil Kramer


The hardest part of packing up my in-law’s apartment is “the stuff.”  We always hear that “stuff” — material objects — is meaningless.  Yesterday, on Oprah, there was discussion about women who give up the trappings of the real world to become nuns.  They were happy to trade in their “stuff” for a meaningful relationship with Jesus.

I wish I could tell you that my “stuff” means nothing, but I’m not a nun, or a Buddhist. My “stuff” speaks to me.  They are the props to the stories of my life.  I have saved baseball cards, stamps, matchboxes from my honeymoon, sentimental objects that would have no meaning to you at all, but are more important to me than my $30,000 car.  I realize that the energy of this stuff is really in my head, my memories, and that these objects are inherently meaningless on their own, but life would be a lesser place if we didn’t create myths about our “stuff,” from national flags to Bibles to the old toys in Toy Story.

I made three piles of Vartan and Fanya’s stuff — to throw out, to give to Goodwill, and to take home.  But no one left behind a directory, or a glossary, telling me which object was important.  How is anyone supposed to know the stories behind the “stuff?”  I know  enough from watching Antique Roadshow on PBS to take the crystal vase home, but what about the cheapo Made-in-Japan glass bird sitting on the nightstand?  Was it a gift?  A shared moment between husband and wife?  A impulse buy during a vacation?  Did it have any specific meaning?  Why was it sitting so close to the bed?  Was it the object itself that was special or the image of the bird flying?  Was it an expression of Fanya’s need to escape something or somewhere?  To recapture youth?  Was in Vartan’s love for birds?  A childhood memory of the birds of Russia?

I just don’t know.   I put the bird in the pile for Goodwill.  Perhaps someone new, a young woman perhaps, shopping in Goodwill with her friends, will find meaning in it, buy it, and place it on her nightstand.  It will then be her “stuff.”

I found a lot of photos.    Here’s one of Sophia from when she was in school.  For some reason, it made me chuckle.

I found some of Vartan’s old medical equipment.

By the second day, I was becoming more ruthless in what I was giving away.   I decided that it was better that someone uses the items rather than it sitting in our garage.

I donated most of Vartan’s books.   I kept his copy of War and Peace.  It was a gift from one of his patients.  Sophia told me that doctors in the Soviet Union didn’t make any more money than day laborers, so many took bribes.  Vartan refused to take bribes, but he did accept books as gifts.

Inside the book was this inscription.

Sophia translated it for me.

Dear Doctor Vartan Ambartzumovich,

Thank you for so expertly performing surgery on our beloved mother. We hope that thanks to your light hand, our mom’s life shall be extended. We’re wishing you solid health and much success in your noble daily work.

Igor Matyushin, Sergey Matyushin, Tatyana Matyushina.
City of Odessa. 06.02.1976

Now, this was good “stuff” to take home.


  1. Tuck

    Very timely….thanks. But, Cheapo Made-in Japan? 🙂

    • Neil

      Tuck, please tell Satomi that I apologize for that comment on Japanese products from 1975. Now I only buy Japanese.

  2. Erika

    This post makes me dread cleaning out my grandma’s apartment someday. She lives and breathes her stuff and God help us if we try to come between her and her stuff while she’s still living.

    I’m sorry for your losses.

  3. Megan

    Maybe it is less about the stuff and more about the stories – the loss of the stories represented by the stuff. I helped clean out my grandparent’s house and I mourned the loss of their stories – so many I never got a chance to hear and now those stories were gone, vanished. I think this is why I write. To save my stories.

  4. Geekytaitai

    We’ve tried to share with our sons about where our favorite stuff came from and why we treasure it, but I’m sure they will forget. You’ve done the right thing by donating. There are too many people who have fallen on hard times that would love to be able to give a “pretty” as a gift to someone they love, and the recipient will love it.

    I know that you and Sophia will treasure Vartan’s “War and Peace” — especially because of the inscription.

  5. Ariel

    One of my most treasured things is a little stuffed dinosaur. It’s white with black polka-dots. It was in the car with my brother when he had the accident that took him away from us. He won them from the vending machines. He was so good at it they banned him from using that machine at our local movie theater.
    He was 19, and he didn’t leave behind much “stuff” so I hang onto it especially tight.
    I also can’t get rid of my grandma’s glasses, or the comb she used on her hair for as long as I can remember…And I kept all of her cookbooks.
    Some stuff is just too important to let go. 🙂

  6. thordora

    Sometimes I wish you could “read” things, read where they’ve been, who they touched, how they mattered. Cause even the ridiculous has a story-the picture frame I’m staring at, ugly as sin, but gifted to me during my first baby shower, the heady newness of that year, my mother’s teacups, her hands in water, mine so tender and careful, my new dining table, bought with my money, the dings and tears in it meaning we’ve lived on it, not just eaten with it.

    All we can do is hold things in our hands, and hope we picked the right ones.

  7. lettergirl

    Beautiful. The sorting forces you, and Sophia especially, to decide — what of these things that were somehow important to Vartan and Fanya are important to you. It’s the physical question of what to keep and what to throw away, and a precursor to making the same decisions about memories. Godspeed in the sifting through.

  8. Becky

    Books are always good “stuff.” I love the new look on your blog, Neil.

  9. Deer Baby

    It sounds really overwhelming. I absolutely dread the day I’ll have to do it. Last year my husband and I inherited a house and all its contents from his aunt who we didn’t know and although I didn’t have any sentimental attachment to any of the stuff, I still wondered who all the people were in the albums and their stories.

    Sophia looks like Sophia Loren or someone in that photo – beautiful.

    I think you’re doing a pretty good job at recognising what’s important like the book with its wonderful inscription. You don’t need Antiques Roadshow.

    • Neil

      One of the hardest things is finding photos of people we don’t know. Friends in Russia? Long lost relatives? Do we keep these photos even though they have no meaning to us at all?

  10. Cheryl

    Cleaning out my parents house and garage after they passed was SO hard. What stuff should I bless and pass forward to someone else? What stuff would my brother want (he was NOT involved in the cleanup)? What stuff would our kids want (they’re all really little now so it’s hard to guess FOR them)? What stuff didn’t seem to matter now, but might matter later? What stuff seemed to matter now, but wouldn’t matter later (like the furniture and china I brought with me to Seattle that I ended up giving away or selling)?


    I used a Professional Organizer both in CA (where my parents home was) and in Seattle (where I ended up after they’d passed) to help me sort, stay on task, and decide.

    It still wasn’t easy. But it sure kept me focused. And now that I’ve been in my new house for just over a year, it’s really only the photos and a few pieces of art that really still sing to me… as if my mom and dad had just entered the room.

    • Neil

      I really know very little about professional organizers? How did you even find one? What did he/she actually do? Did you have to do this all by yourself?

  11. Allie

    Such a beautiful post, Neil! I love the book and the inscription! It’s amazing to think of all the things that surrounded someone being so thankful and moved that they would write a note like that and give the book to him.

  12. sarah

    Such a beautiful post–that copy of War & Peace and its inscription are truly special; my favorite thing about used book stores is looking for books w/ inscriptions in them–treasures. I’m so glad you didn’t give that away.

    Sorting all that stuff is a daunting task, I’m sure. It says a lot about you that you treat the process with such reverence & thoughtfulness.

    that picture of Sophia is beautiful–those are movie star eyes.

  13. GoingLikeSixty

    If you can take the time… pack it all up and rent a storage unit. Some of that cheap-o Japanese stuff may be highly collectible.

    I found this with my parent’s stuff. A vase that looked like it came from a carnival was actually a “lady-head” vase and I sold them on eBay for about $50 each. Milk-glass, carnival glass, etc. etc. also sold well. My best sale was a silver turkey platter for a few hundred dollars! Picture frames sold well, the heavier and more ornate the better. (Shipping cost them a fortune.)

    Before you trash, it check eBay! It’s nice that you are donating to Goodwill. I hope your Goodwill participates in the eBay-like

  14. Molly

    I almost cried when I saw the inscription from Odessa. Aaron, the little boy I fell in love with and advocated my ass off for, he’s in Odessa right now. His adoptive family is going back for him very soon. That’s the one place I want to go. That’s where my heart is.

  15. followthatdog

    What a moving post. I felt the same way when I was clearing out my great aunt’s house years ago. I kept more things that I should have and probably let many of the things I should have kept get away. But I got the photos, all of them.

  16. thepsychobabble

    On the flip side, this makes me wonder what stories my “stuff” could tell my descendants someday.

  17. kenju

    The saddest part about someone’s stuff after they are gone is that it is too late to learn the stories of why that stuff is important to them. Perhaps we should take a lesson here, and ask our parents before they die what meaning certain objects hold.

    Those medical implements could bring big money on ebay from collectors.

  18. V-Grrrrl @ Compost Studios

    It has been almost 20 years since my parents died. I remember how emotionally wrenching it was to clear out my childhood home. But I will say this, as someone who is long removed from the rawness of those emotions and the tension of the process. I don’t wish I had kept anything I let go of at that time. Over the years, I found the objects I did save had less meaning for me simply because after many years of being detached from my parents, they lost their pull. The memories and feelings I had became independent of anything I owned, and so it was easier for me to keep the memories and let go of the objects. As time has passed, I’ve not only become less attached to childhood objects but to ones from my own life and marriage. It’s been a good thing, and it’s liberating.

    BTW, my niece is a professional organizer. Unfortunately she’s in Texas, but she could probably talk you through the process…

  19. Amy @ Ess Eppis

    As someone who scours thrift shops for well loved kitchen items, I strongly believe the old French proverb, old pots make the best soup. The items that have brought joy to them thru the years will find their way to a new home and share the joy that their marriage obviously was to them.

  20. Mrs. G.

    That book (and it’s beautiful inscription) is definitely “good stuff”. Stuff speaks to me too. I have this huge, horrid collection of beer steins that were my beloved grandfather’s and I just can’t get rid of them.

  21. JanePoet ~ JP/deb

    the inscription is so touching … i wonder what he thought when he pulled that off the shelf decades later and saw those grateful words. thanks for sharing.

  22. sizzle

    I think about this too- the story behind the stuff. When I am an antique or thrift store especially. Who is to say what is to keep and to go? Except now it is on you. The thing that makes me most sad is when I see old photos. I am like, was there no one left who wanted these?

  23. gorillabuns

    the inscription is so beautifully scribbed. a piece of a lost written world as well as a lost life.

    coming from a family who saves everything to many of a lost key, there is a part of lost treasures as well as well, junk.

    how beautiful for Sofia that you have the discerning eye to choose the beautiful parts of one’s life as opposed to their hoarding tendencies.

    again, i am so very sorry for the BOTH of your losses.

  24. Shelli

    What will my kids think of my, er, toys when they clean out my nightstand?

    That book? Really cool stuff!

  25. Gwen

    My husband’s grandmother refused to leave her house until it was too late. She was so attached to her stuff. And she had so much of it, you could barely walk from room to room. We went to visit her once, before she fell and spent 72 hours alone on her bathroom floor calling feebly for help, and she admonished us not to let her son throw all her treasures away. While she was talking about how many wonderful and valuable things she had, she was waving a broken Magic 8 ball at us for emphasis.

  26. Nat

    This must be so hard on you both. My sympathies. All those things, all those treasures…

    Old books are the best. I have an old copy of War and Peace (it’s in English), The Man picked it up for me as a birthday present the first few months we were dating. He had little money for a present that year (we were both students), so he went to a gift shop and picked out his favourite books. That’s good stuff.

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