There’s been a lot of purging of stuff going on around our house for the last few days. We’ve got a couple of events coming up and we need room for tables and chairs, which meant moving out furniture, which meant moving crap out of the way in the spare room which meant purging stuff.
I have a dual personality thing going in relationship to stuff. On the one hand, I’m a big fan of clean lines, open spaces, zero clutter. I want things airy and sparse and roomy. On the other hand, I’m equally a big fan of items that resonate with story, which have some history or sentimental value. You see the problem. There’s an art to finding a balance between the hanging onto and the letting go.
There are things I can’t part with, no matter how silly they seem. One is the item I’ve had for almost my entire life – a tiny baby doll my mother found hidden in my fist at the end of a day where we’d been to various stores. I was not yet one year old, and had managed to shoplift. When I happen upon it on the shelf, it reminds me to expect the unexpected, and to not assume the innocence on the surface is the truth.
In the kitchen, there’s a green ceramic frog (wearing tennis shoes) I made when I was about eight—my grandmother let me paint it and sign it and we had it fired somewhere near where she lived. It’s just a dumb ceramic frog and I’m sure I drew things or made things before it, but it’s the first clear memory I have of creating something and signing it.
Just a shelf away is the thirty-ought-six (I think) casing which I pierced through the center, shooting it with a twenty-two rifle at thirty yards. It was the day after I’d been terrorized in our home and had managed to elude a (later convicted) murderer/rapist. My husband had brought me to the range to teach me to shoot; he lined up the casings on a board and I hit nine out of ten. I never dreamed I’d be able to shoot a gun, much less hit anything. Whenever I’m afraid, I’ll see that casing and realize that while fear and bad things are always going to be a part of life—I’m capable of more, if I try.
As I look at these shelves and get rid of stuff I no longer want, I wonder how these things I have define me. I wonder, sometimes, what someone else would think if they came in here and saw an odd chunk of silica. Or the cast-iron bull castrating tool. It amuses me that they may wonder why a decidedly non-Catholic has a red-beaded rosary hanging near the computer area. Or where the Mardi Gras mask came from.
The people who know me know the stories. These things are a part of my history, of my oddball reality. My relationship to my world, my family, my friends, my history—is documented by what I choose to keep and what I choose to toss.
It’s a simple thing, really, this relationship to stuff. And telling. It’s why I had my main character, Bobbie Faye, lose almost everything she valued right at the beginning of the book, especially the scrapbook her mom gave her. She became severed from her world, from her history, from what grounded her and thrust into this caper, chasing after the only thing left to her that had personal meaning, the one thing she’d have to surrender to keep her brother alive. As you learn what these things mean to her, I think the relationship grounds the humor.
It makes me interested in a character if there’s some implication as to how he relates to his world. Does he keep everything? Or nothing? I don’t want to see him move around in a vacuum; I want to see him finger the dumb framed sketch he drew on a napkin when he was first dating the woman who would later become his ex. I wonder if he’ll throw it away.
I wonder if he’ll use it as a weapon.
Stuff. Expression of personality, of a person’s space in the world. What have you kept? Or do you toss it all?
Toni, great post and what a terrifying story about the intruder. I’m so glad it ended with you and your babies safe.
One of the most intriguing parts of your book, for me, was the juxtaposition of Bobbie Faye losing everything and yet having the power and the strength to stay one step ahead of danger. I loved that she could shoot well and accurately, and loved that she fought for her family.
Things – I keep them too but after moving cross country several times they have gotten thinned out, and what remained has been thinned still further by a husband and two children who aren’t quite as careful as I am. Interestingly, as I went from being a single, in control young woman to being married with children, my attachment to things lessened. Other “things” became more important.
But all that said, I still have lots of stuff. The books have survived all the moves with me. Looking around right here in my little garret, I think the oldest thing, other than books, is the stone angel sitting on the bookshelf.
I’ve had him for 23 years. He has a chipped wing that somehow makes him more meaningful, and he could tell the story of my adult life. He’s seen it all.
My grandmother’s ancient Singer is technically the oldest item in here, but I didn’t get it until she died 7 years ago. I spent a lot of time with her when I was little, and I remember with great detail watching her sit and sew with pins sticking out of her mouth, which I found amazing at the time. She was feisty and outspoken and it surprised me to learn late in my own life that a number of people in the small town I grew up in, including my own brothers, thought she was mean. She’d always been incredibly sweet to me. My mother says I brought out the best in her.
She let me play with the button drawer and all the little things in the other drawers. There’s a thread cabinet that drops down and I loved the rainbow of colors she kept there.
When I first got the machine, the cabinet drawers still had all the original items inside, but over the past few years my own children played with them until they gradually disappeared. There are still a few things in there, the tiny oil can that goes with the machine, some bobbins and a little can.
I’ve bid on several lots of sewing notions on Ebay, hoping to replenish the supplies, but those lots are popular and so far I haven’t won!
I’ve hung onto a little wooden figurine that my fourth grade teacher gave me. It’s a red daruma (Buddha who stared at the wall so long that he lost both his legs and arms!) with a couple sitting in his belly. I know, bizarre. I’m not Buddhist, but the little daruma is still meaningful because it’s from someone who got me when I was young and encouraged me to write.
Great to see you here, Toni.
Though I love clean lines too, my house is cluttered with things I’ve collected for years — books, paintings, pottery — I’ve got a magpie’s penchant for shiny objects.
All my life, I’ve collected rocks, picked them up at meaningful times in other countries, states, at friends’ homes. The other day, I took my various containers of them and emptied them in the front yard. We’ve bought our home and own it outright — I figured it was time, after eight years, to confirm that reality and let go of hording them inside.
I’ve got my own kid art and writing, and now am colleting it for my own children, this house just isn’t big enough for it all. Oh, well . . . that’s what storage containers are for.
What a remarkable recounting of that home invasion, Toni. It makes my heart break.
I’m a keeper of things, too. And the first that comes to mind are the tiny portraits drawn on paper napkins that I’ve framed an hung in the living room. My brother died of cancer at 29, and in his last days he drew pictures of the doctors and nurses who tended him. Damn, we didn’t even know he could draw.
Billie, thank you (about Bobbie Faye)… I’ve had fun with those juxtapositions. As for the sewing, my grandmother let me play with the button jar as well, though my “sewing” memory is of my mom, who made the majority of my clothes for many years. She was incredibly talented at mimicing whatever was in style, and affordably. I definitely know what you mean about how it changes after family comes along. It’s funny, but both sons have left important artifacts here to be kept on my shelves, because I am the keeper of the stuff, apparently. I’ve offered to send some of this with them, but they flinch, as if I’m somehow rejecting their part in the family history. (And we’re not talking about important stuff… just the sentimental things.)
Naomi, that Buddha sounds so interesting, but I love most how your teacher “got” you at that age. I’ll bet she never had any clue that it would mean enough to you to keep for this many years–amazing how small acts of recognition help us hang onto our real ‘self’ throughout the geologic pressure of the day-to-day.
Pari, I love rocks! I think there’s something about having a piece of the place where you’ve been that acts as a touchstone. (Of course, my husband nixed me flying home from Colorado with a bag of pretty rocks. They were beautiful, but I couldn’t lift the bag.)
Louise, I’m sort of amazed that story’s anniversary was 21 years ago last week. July 25th. It’s one of those things I know shaped me. The napkin drawings… wow, Louise, I had no idea when I used that as an example that someone would have something like that. It’s amazing how there’s often so much we don’t know about the people we love so well. I keep being surprised by that, even with kids that I’ve raised.
I’m wondering if the guys are all hiding or thinking to themselves they have nothing to comment about because, “Who keeps a bunch of crap around?”
I admit I strive to be of the “who-keeps-a-bunch-of-crap-around” school of thought. Then again, I’m looking at the gold belt I earned when I was 12-years-old. I’ve got hundreds of comics packed away, most I’ll never read again, and a few notes from my wife written when we were first dating that I most certainly will.
Oh, and I wasn’t hiding.