“—Say it, no ideas but in things—
nothing but the blank faces of the houses
and cylindrical trees
bent, forked by preconception and accident—
split, furrowed, creased, mottled, stained—
secret—into the body of the light!”
From Book 1, Paterson by William Carlos Williams
My mother is a piece of music, composed of flowing melody and grace notes that repeat sweetly and often. My father is a book of comedy, laden with jokes and the wondering afterthoughts of deeper mysteries that humor cannot expose. What I have learned, intuitively at a very young age, and now consciously accept is that my family is a family of things. Some people see this as a bad thing. In our materialistic society, the yearning for unnecessary things is something we are taught as we learn about and accept capitalism: those that have money have things and will prosper. Many people will remember Show & Tell days at school, and the stresses they suffered while trying to come up with the biggest bang for their two minutes of time in the proverbial second grade sun. Someone who had the greatest toy (or the unbeatables—the parents who would bring a dog or interesting pet), could entertain an entire day of glory. While this idea in itself has ethical and moral issues, I think that despite the feelings of guilt or aversion, there is joy in knowing what physical things are needed, but are not necessary, in a human life.
A few months ago I helped my parents go through my grandmother’s house. Her dementia and Alzheimer’s taking a turn for the worse, she and my step-grandfather moved into a nursing home, leaving behind years of furniture, dishware, and clothes. And even though my grandma unfortunately doesn’t remember everything about herself and wouldn’t if she saw what we packed into boxes and took to divide amongst ourselves or left for auction, through her things, we received insight into what makes up a life. Grandma had knickknacks of all kinds, colors, and sizes—Avon figurines emptied of their cologne, gold metal horses, and angels playing violins or singing, or standing elegantly in their heavenly regalia. She collected dolls: babies, grown women, men, porcelain faced and delicate cheeks painted in rosy hues, and one creepy clown that appeared to have imbibed in spirits, its visage plastered to be plastered forever.
While these objects were all interesting, these were the things I already knew about her. They were bits and pieces that made up my childhood vision of who my grandmother was. When added up, they are just a fraction of her and her life, but they were a fraction nonetheless.
In the basement, we found the boxes. Grandma had saved mementos from her home in Kentucky, autograph books from her school years up to eighth grade in Chicago, letters from men in the military during World War II including every single letter from my grandfather. They divorced after nearly three decades of marriage, and despite resentment (for complicated and various reasons) from each side remaining until his death, she kept those letters in a box, neatly collected together with string, each top crease of each envelope carefully torn with a letter opener held in waiting fingers over sixty years ago. The meaning behind her keeping these last mentioned letters is twofold: she cared enough to keep them, but it is doubtful if she went through them once she tossed all of them all in the box together, each former suitor associated with her past life. These were things my father didn’t care to read, let alone examine. Some things we keep aren’t what others want to remember.
On my mother’s side, things also have value. My grandfather had a hobby of antiquing, a hobby that turned into two garages he built by hand to contain all his metal signs, seed bags, and hog oilers. I loved to go to his shed where he often worked, and look at all the “old.” I could write a book about all of his antiques and the emotional and monetary value in his things. Unlike my father’s mother, my grandfather was able to watch his things be divvied up at several auctions. Phonographs, tin, iron, and brass toys and penny banks, magazines over sixty years old, tools, farm equipment, everything my teenage mind could think of—it all seemed to grow out of the woodwork of Grandpa’s life as more and more was sold. Part of what Grandpa found valuable was not only the thing itself, but the value that other people saw in it. He sold his items, and he knew the right price. But he could part with them.
I don’t know if it was his age or maybe his logical brain didn’t attach to each thing once he acquired so much, but watching him relinquish all he had collected throughout his life was a story in itself. Hundreds of stories, really, about where these things came from and what they meant not only to him, but the dozens of people before him who had implemented that tool or hung that mirror on a wall. Grandpa could live the remaining years contentedly, knowing his antiques, his things, had found new life.
Things are important. I think we hang on to the objects and mementos that remind us of a happy, not necessarily happier, time. My mother has saved all the significant toys from my older brother’s, twin sister’s, and my childhood. Even though she is her father’s daughter and probably has undiagnosed symptoms of hoarding, or in the very least, packrat-ness, there are other underlying emotions that make me fully support her decision to this day. While the Rainbow Brite dolls, Precious Places, and Legos are not going to make us millionaires (or even thousand or hundredaires) down the road, these toys probably mean more to my mother than they do to us. She wanted children so desperately (think Jennifer Garner’s character in Juno); she was born to be a mother. And while she’s happy with her adult children, she’s held onto those toys, boxed up and out of sight, knowing that even though someday her grandchildren will find joy in them, the joy they already brought is enough to make them worthy of keeping.
Who knows if I’ll be willing to give away my precious toys to any future children? A selfish endeavor, but I could probably complete that task quite handedly. Maybe I’ll never be able to part with my first jewelry box or the first dining room table my husband and I purchased. I’m okay with that, aside from my jealousy of my future offspring playing with Molly, the American Girl Doll, and her very similar knockoff acquired earlier at a Target store named Hannah. Some things I will part with, and I will become more objects in the future. For now, I know I am composed of the people who also lived in things, and I am content to admit that I too am made up of things, some I’ve known for a long time, and others that I realized over time. I am a quilt stitched in pieces of pink, white, and navy. I am a baby blanket, the white cotton wearing and the edges torn off and dangling precariously by threads. A collection of decoupaged Robert Frost poems over a teal coffee table. A red pleated skirt. A tin whistle. But my heart rests in pen and paper, blank and ready for the ideas that will fill it, ideas formed from things.