By Linda Fotzler
Students do not travel lightly these days. Seeing the U-Haul trailer pull up outside the dormitory on the University of Illinois campus reminds me of the stories of the wagon trains heading West, loaded down with all the comforts of home back East, only to have to discard the excess weight along the trail. Students are notorious for overestimating the size of a standard double room and underestimating what their roommates are bringing to campus. Later that same afternoon I see a weary Dad and his son carrying down the stairs much of what they had lugged up only a few hours before.
This moving day ritual is repeated yearly as students proceed through their college years, graduate, and then move into their own place as young 20-something adults ready to start their careers. Today's generation will then often choose a "minimalist" look for their living environment — a popular decorating trend characterized by sleek polished surfaces with a Shaker-like simplicity.
Parents might receive a call like one my friends recently received. "Can you bring the Suburban up on Saturday and help us finish the move?" their daughter asked.
"Sure thing," her folks replied, only to discover later that weekend that the plan to achieve the decorating style that their daughter desired would require them to truck back home all the "extra stuff" she wanted to keep, just not in her current abode. As their daughter explained, "I can't function with all that clutter around."
And so the cycle goes. Boxes of books and mementos from college days, furniture that doesn't quite fit with the new decorating sensibilities but may come in handy at a later date are all dutifully, although not always cheerfully, stored in parents' homes ... and garages ... and storage sheds.
Depending upon the number of children one has been blessed with and the proximity of their ages, this can be a formidable life phase to endure. The adage seems to be — children leave the nest but their stuff returns.
To be fair to this generation, they were raised during the materialistic '80s when excessive consumerism was seen as everyone's patriotic duty. Parents who rose at 4 a.m. to stand in line for the latest Cabbage Patch doll or one more Beanie Baby to add to their child's bulging collection, need not wonder why it required a U-Haul trailer to move their freshman son or daughter into their college dorm. The accumulation of things was taught by example and children are innately good learners.
It is interesting, therefore, that as they establish their first "adult" home these same children opt to simplify their personal living environment. Is the minimalist style a backlash fueled by their parents' overabundance? Are they forging a new enlightened manner of living?
I might be inclined to think so until I recall the early days of my own marriage in 1972. Living briefly with my husband's parents, I was shocked to discover a room upstairs full to overflowing with assorted "stuff." The downstairs dining room table had become a repository of papers that had to be moved before we could set the table for a company meal. Aghast at my mother-in-law's housekeeping, I vowed as a new bride to keep an orderly home. And I did, for a number of years. Then our children were born, our family business expanded, volunteer opportunities beckoned, and we weathered one or two family crises. Like the steady grinding of seismic plates deep below the surface, things began to slowly shift.
I now have a beautiful dining room with a table that at times bears striking resemblance to that of my mother-in-law's. Most telling, however, is the upstairs hall and spare bedroom that could rival her attic bedroom storage. That, coupled with kitchen counters that attract papers like magnets, and I can bear witness to the fact that one must proceed with caution when making pronouncements about those of the previous generation. As surely as you believe that you will never succumb to their weaknesses, you may live to discover that you do.
To those members of the 20-something generation who adhere to a minimalist style of decoration, I sincerely applaud your vision but ask that you remember how that look has been achieved. If able to independently sustain it through the decades, then my heartfelt congratulations. If, however, you find reality settling in sooner than you wished, take heart — garage sales were made for times like this. And I think your parents are scheduling a big one for next weekend.
Linda Fotzler is a freelance writer. She and her husband, Neil, have owned and managed Armory House, a private certified dorm on the University of Illinois campus, for the past 40 years.