The Keeper of the THINGS

I suffer reoccurring bouts of organization at times. It’s not only a seasonal disorder, and I do get over it eventually. Retail therapy is one cure; deciding to get involved in a long-term art or quilt project can also ward off the bug. However, on occasion, I declare ‘enough is enough!’ (Definitely not in italics. Usually murmured quietly to myself; I wouldn’t want to be held to it or anything!)

I have vivid recollections of the kitchen of a great aunt, with the towering piles of rinsed-out cottage cheese containers circling the sink. Hey, they could be re-used! (I think people who survived the depression were the original ‘greenies’.) Of course, from the same household came the Skippy jar of broken crayons that my mother, her siblings, and their children (yep, me too) all used when coloring in the multi-generational coloring book stashed on the bottom shelf of the cabinet in the living room.

I don’t want the chaos that comes with that kind of random and indiscriminate hoarding. I want limits. (I have a limit. Quilting stays in the studio. I am very good with that, with the exception of the tub of batting in the attic. I can control myself!) From time to time I find myself drawn to simplify. I typically (read always) give up too soon.

Did you know I still have in my possession body lotions from before I was married? I need to declare unilaterally that anything with a Pathmark or Shoprite label be trashed on principle. I haven’t lived in New York in 6.5 years! This round of de-cluttering I am attempting the 27-Thing Fling. Every day, find 27 items to set free (be it Trash or Goodwill). Goodbye nail polish purchased in 1996. You finally made the grade this go round; into the trash you go.

But if I ever reach that elusive place, that minimalist Zen zone, will I still have a secret stash? Drawers and boxes of the past? What about the THINGS? I have the family things, and the things that bring me joy. The antiques. The ephemera. They explain who I am on some level. At what point do they become worthless? When are they declared only so much rubbish? I remember only some of the people in the pictures, or who wrote the letters; my daughter knows fewer and my nephews rarely would recognize their names, let alone have any emotional connections to the people, the places or the things.

Now, a bit where we will be obtuse, to protect the innocent and play with the heads of the paranoid. Not that they visit my Blog or anything….

When Grandmother Two died, her life was ultimately reduced to a ‘List of 67’ exhibits of her remaining possessions, after her last household was cleared out/picked over. By what reasoning were the souls who claimed the other hundreds of bits and pieces provided access to the majority of her life? What privilege did they invoke when pronouncing these last 67 items extraneous? Who acquired the many ‘good’ paintings, and who got to determine the pile of art that was ‘unimportant’? Who decided these 67 things were too important to add to the trash pile but not important enough to own themselves?

I was provided the opportunity to look through her virtual trash bag before it was kicked to the curb. And you know what? While I obtained very little in the way of ‘things’ from Nana, I received something infinitely more precious. Memories. History. I got letters. Photographs. Who Grandmother and Grandfather Two were to other people; what made them tick. I got to see a child’s painful cursive grow into a man’s confident scrawl; I saw the mother chastise her son, but continue to write; to sign ‘love, Mom’ at the end of every diatribe.

I was awash in the acknowledgement of how many people they touched in their lives. Mostly these letters were from my grandfather’s children to him; and I will be passing on the letters to his children, because despite their not asking for them, I think they should have them. They belong to me now, but it feels wrong to keep from them their past. I think they may find Memory Lane a tear-inducing, bumpy, and yet humorous path.

If my mother and her siblings wrote letters to Grandmother Two, if Grandmother Two saved letters written by her grandparents and many aunts and uncles, I’ll never know. If they existed, they were stored elsewhere and claimed, or not deemed worthy enough to even make it onto the ‘List of 67’ and pitched. I was disappointed that there were only three letters written by Great-Grandmother Two, because she was a wonderful letter writer. There would have been so much information on the family on the pages of her lovely script.

The boxes of photos that found their way onto the list were not the old photos Grandmother Two let me dig through the last time I visited, but rather more current snapshots. It hurts my heart to think these precious family images have found a new home in a landfill somewhere when I so wished to honor them. I have a color photocopy of one in particular, a small girl, (Grandmother Two around age three) sitting alone on a set of stairs. Oh, to have found that, so I could scan it, protect it, display it?

Things make people do odd things. Make poor decisions. Not think of the larger repercussions, the final rending of tenuous emotional attachments that may never be fully repaired. Pitting one against another. Resale value, bragging rights, prestige. Do those thoughts enter the mind at the time of acquisition, or do fond memories trump all? Should I feel slighted, less loved, or less important because someone else convinced an old lady that things should have to be done so? Did it make me less important in her eyes; do I think she loved me less? Do I think they were loved more because they managed to get the majority of the things? Of course not. Do I regret that this will do nothing toward ever mending the huge chasms in the family? Who wouldn’t?

Did I need more things? Of course not. I am an adult, have my own home that is full to overflowing already. With things. A lot of which have stories. Grandmother One’s Revere Ware cooking pots. Books that belonged to Great-Grandfather Three. Tchotckes of all kinds that once belonged to people on every side of the family octagon are sprinkled throughout my house. The story of my life, the history of my family, is laid out in every room of my home.

Can the sacred duty to keep become a weight after a time? At what point do the things need another resting place? How does one decide where they go? With the old letters from Grandmother One’s family, if there is no one who wants the responsibility for them, they will eventually be donated to the Historical Society, for they are historic documents. Those are the easy things. But what about the snap shots? Side One of the family was famous for the letters, sides Two and Three are more about the photos, side Four straddles the fence, with very rare bits of both. Sides five through eight are, well, there in spirit more than in tangibles.

A friend once told me that my apartment was like a museum. I laughed, considering the dusty corners of piled-up things, the layer upon layer of frames creeping toward the 9-foot ceilings. She hadn’t meant it in a ‘sterile, I’m afraid to breathe in here for risk of damaging something’ fashion. Far from it. While I own a lot of the past, there is nothing that has any real monetary value. It’s all emotional. Everything has a story behind it. I joked that I should have placards made, so one could take the self-guided tour of my family history.

My cousin lived with me (us) for a time. He once remarked that what he liked best about living with us was that if he asked for it, I would find it. The original Field of Dreams closet, where if you could think it, I could pull out the materials to create it.

So, stuff, whether it’s family heirloom or potential creative outlet, I have. Furthermore, I have to make peace with it all, and decide what stays this round and what goes. De-cluttering this month is not going to make it done, any more than I believed it would any other time. I will acquire still. Ultimately the goal should be, if its still here, it has some value. Then comes the question that’s begging to be asked. To whom does it have value?

Grandmother One, the story goes, when confronted with her portion of the contents of her mother’s estate, promptly donated it all to Bishop Sheen for the Propagation of the Faith. The silver was to be melted down for money for the missions. Probably not my particular choice, for I am shallow enough to admit I wouldn’t have minded having a piece of the silver settings that she grew up using. Did the fact it was there and easy and expected make it have less value? Does the disdain for things come from a sure knowledge of who you are, where you fit?

I will not discard things now simply so others won’t be bothered by them when I am gone–I’m not going any time soon. What’s more, when I go I want there to be things for those left behind. And to each person that pokes about, the things that mean something, the things they want to remember me by, won’t necessarily be the big things, the ‘great-so-and-so’s menorah’ types of things. Someone may want the silly stuffed platypus that sits on the shelf in the craft room. More power to them.

In the meantime, will I get rid of the couch? Heck no! I have its provenance. I have the sales receipt and the story and photos of it in its old upholstery, waiting to be hung in a frame by its side for the Nickel Tour. Besides, it’s a great napping location!

Copyright, Trish Casey-Green, 2008.

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