Little Details

De-accumulation phase

July 7, 2011

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

I entered marriage two decades ago accompanied by three pieces of furniture: a powder blue bureau made of cardboard, a particle-board bookcase crammed with history books, and a twin mattress that rested on the floor.

Our matrimonial pad, an apartment in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill section, was sparsely decorated. The neighborhood was a culturally interesting place hosting bookstores, bagel shops and several kosher eateries. We walked to the Giant Eagle grocery story, which we dubbed “Giant Crud” for its less than pristine aisles, for food provisions.

The local bakery — where older Russian émigré women flirted with my husband — sold yeasty Kaiser rolls. Our local Chinese restaurant proudly displayed a placard in its front window certifying its kosher cuisine approved by not one, but two, area rabbis.

When my husband needed his one and only suit cleaned and pressed for a conference presentation, I made the rounds on a Saturday (my day off). A local proprietor pointed out: “You won’t get a suit cleaned on Saturday in Squirrel Hill; it’s the Sabbath.” I hopped a bus to Bloomfield, the Italian neighborhood.

Squirrel Hill hosted several synagogues ranging from the more conservative Lubavitch sect to reform congregations. I remember large families, men dressed in black hats and coats and their wives, heads covered, pushing baby carriages as they walked to Sabbath services. I enjoyed observing my neighbors’ cultural ways although, I must admit, we lived like ships passing. We didn’t borrow cups of sugar from each other.

Lack of a substantial dowry didn’t dissuade my husband from marrying me. He was a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, living on a stipend. My salary at the University of Pittsburgh paid the bills, but offered few frills.

My husband’s contributions to our apartment furnishings were heftier. He fished a coffee table out of a dumpster at school. His parents passed away years before and he inherited some of their furniture. The Italian dining room set, which we still use, is sturdy and functional (even if it’s not my “ideal” style). Lamps from my husband’s childhood illuminate our home. I never met my in-laws, but I have intimate knowledge of their taste in interior décor.

After two decades of marriage, we’ve pieced together the beds, tables and books of everyday life. Our house embodies a slightly mismatched, mosaic look with sprinklings of art. Items purchased at country auctions — oak bureaus with beveled glass and a curvy neo-classical couch — assume otherwise open spaces.

I really appreciate well-appointed interior design. Visiting period rooms and decorative arts displays in museums are a personal favorite. I seem to lack the mental disk space to invest time pursuing a personal design scheme. I can admire beautifully appointed homes and still decide it’s not for me.

As we look towards the future, plans are laid to eventually downsize. The stuff of life — having too much of it — can easily compromise the quality of our existence. We’ve begun making the conscious effort to get rid of an item before bringing something new into our home.

If I buy clothes, I try to tease out items from the closet that, facing extended dormancy, may realize new life through a donation to the Salvation Army. If my daughter wants to go shopping for clothes, I encourage her to go through her stash, pull out to donate what she no longer wears, and make a list of what she needs. It saves space, money, and time.

As much as I enjoy and appreciate my home today, I look forward to eventually shedding unnecessary material possessions and a few extra pounds. Getting down to the bare bones of what we feel we need will, hopefully, free more time and resources to embrace the experiences waiting just beyond our doorstep.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston.  Reader comments are welcome at or