It’s council rubbish day on Monday, which means that a drive round the streets provides a sociological snapshot of the neighbourhood. The things other people throw away! The folk on the corner can afford to discard a sofa that’s better than the one I’m sitting on now! It doesn’t worry us that a midnight foray to pinch it would cement our status as the street cheapskates – that prize is unassailably ours – but it won’t happen. From now on things are allowed to be seen but not hoard(ed) because it’s crunch time. No longer can we afford to imagine that lovely old chair with the wonky leg will come in handy some time; or that we will rub back that cabinet that was such a bargain in 1985. Unless they discover a pill that will give us eternal life, we do not have enough hours left to spend on stuff.
Those of us who have had the disturbing – and exhausting – experience of clearing a house for an elderly relative will emerge with a different relationship to possessions. My sister took the brunt of that in our family but I saw enough (a) to imagine the kids trawling through our stuff exclaiming in disbelief, what were they thinking? And (b) to realise we’re all just on a conveyer belt that moves things into our custody for a few years before they go to the Salvation Army. This makes all that cleaning, polishing, storing, shifting, restoring and painting seem like a waste of life’s precious gift of time.
But as the only members of our family in Australia we feel an obligation to be the repository (no, Tony, not suppository) of the mementos of our family history, even though the ensuing clutter is threatening to suffocate us. Storing, dusting, moving, displaying it all takes time and energy we don’t have, but how do we arrive at the clean, streamlined life we long for? Maybe we should be systematic, and sort out some criteria for retention:
- Sentimental remembrance/ family history.
- Might come in useful
- Incentive to lose that weight,
- Meant so much to someone else
- Too beautiful to throw away
- Just plain stupid, but I can’t help it.
So if it doesn’t make the cut, it goes. Let’s see:
- My wedding dress (6)
- My Godmother’s missal (4)
- Child’s dresser made by Bob’s grandfather that no one has ever played with (6)
- Collection of tools gathered over 40 years (2)
- All the diaries/letters/scribbles/ kids’ stories and pictures (1,2)
- Photos – no brainer.
- Tax returns since 1980 (2,6)
- All that blue china (5)
- Miner’s lamp from the time of the Jarrow march (1, 4)
- Four leafed clover found on the banks of the Charente (have to invent a new category!)
As you can see, we’re not making much progress, but at least that gets rid of all those fitted shirts, flared jeans, plastic takeaway containers and that cork water container we lugged all the way back from Africa that I never liked anyway. But my attempt to systemise these things of the heart shows it’s not that simple. We only have to look into the eyes of the heartbroken victims of the horrendous fires sweeping through New South Wales at the moment to realise there is a bit more to this possessions thing.
Standing in front of the rubble that used to be his home one man tried the gender explanation: it’s just bricks and mortar to me, but my wife will take it hard, but the tears in his eyes told us he was putting a brave face on what is a terrible grief. It’s about the things we choose to gather and enclose with us to give our fleeting lives stability. And our transient experiences are held captive in the stuff amid which they took place – not forever, but for long enough to see us out, or into the nursing home.
And some of these things choose us. Our kitchen table was given to us by our next-door neighbour Lenny who, after a failed marriage, had come back to live with his mother in the house where he was born. It was under his house and covered with linoleum, as was the fashion in the 1950’s, and, when stripped and oiled, enjoyed an 80’s fashion renaissance.
Also entrusted to us is the portrait of my grandmother, and the story that goes with it…that her fine hair (just like mine) kept falling out of its Edwardian Gibson girl arrangement, and the photographer told her just to leave it. It has been left for more than a hundred years, and shipped back and forth across the world. I don’t see it ending on the footpath any time soon, but it will outlive us and will need to find another home with someone for whom it still means something.
Bob’s egg collection is emblematic of the process…it starts innocently enough with a friend bringing a perfectly rounded stone all the way from the Khali Gandaki Valley in Nepal. After that it seemed like a nice thing to do…collect eggs from our travels. Then it became the perfect solution to the age-old problem of what to buy dad for Xmas/ birthday, and friends, family and students enthusiastically found eggs from places as diverse as the White House and Wimbledon, and of materials from obsidian to ostrich offspring.
Then we need somewhere to put it all so we buy a nice teak cabinet. But what now? Where will it go in our new sleek streamlined life? And are we just laying up exhausting jobs for the kids who will presumably be sad already if they are clearing out our stuff? If this sounds morbid, it’s not meant to be…just practical. It’s high time we examined our relationship with this stuff, and at least we have a choice, unlike those desperate families in the Blue Mountains.
But as usual we seem to be erring on the side of the sentimental, because we all want life somehow to be held captive and the way that happens is to trigger the memory, recall the feeling. Our kitchen table is more than just a slab of old timber (albeit with nice turned legs). Our gentle and generous neighbour Lenny – who was found by Bob, having died in that front bedroom where he was born – is remembered there. As well, its grooves and scratches and indentations say a family sat here and ate and laughed and argued and sweated over quadratic equations, or essays on Napoleon.
On a Saturday night it would put on its best lace tablecloth, while kindly candlelight lent a flattering glow to many lovely loud libation-laden dinners. And the only tangible thing left of all that is the table. So yes, it’s coming with us to our super smooth slick new life. If we get around to building a house, we’ll have to modify the imagined clean shiny house designs around our stuff, because that’s what will make it feel like home.
Pictures courtesy of Channel 7 and the ABC
Anyone who wants to assist those so badly affected by the New South Wales fires can do so through the Salvation Army at http://www.salvos.org.au or 13 72 58