Decades ago, my husband and I moved to Florida with all our worldly possessions surrounding us in our battered Volkswagen bug. A year later, we moved again, this time commandeering a big U-Haul truck for all our garage-sale furniture and secondhand books. Our era of traveling lightly was already over, even though we were only in our early twenties.
Over the past few months, we’ve sold, given away and discarded small cities of dressers and beds and bookcases, kitchen appliances and clothes, mattresses, old alarm clocks, and other assorted debris. I’m not sure if we collected mountains of stuff or the mountains of stuff collected us — but much of it is gone and I don’t miss it.
“How could you give away so many books?” a man asked me at dinner a few weeks ago. He didn’t seem terribly interested in me, just mildly appalled anyone sitting at the same table with him could be superficial and unintellectual enough to let hundreds of tomes slip through her grubby little fingers. Philistine!
“It wasn’t that hard,” I said. “In fact, it made me more interested in what we kept. And why we kept it.”
He nodded absently and turned to the person on the other side of him. Fine. I don’t like to disappoint people, but the older I get, the more I realize I can live with it.
Besides, I am interested in what my husband and I kept, what we clung to, in the middle of our great purge of material objects and pure junk. It doesn’t always make sense. The assortment of objects that have become meaningful to us over the years borders on the eccentric and semi-insane and wildly sentimental and comic . I’m inclined to think that — aside from useful objects — what we kept are possessions that tell a story.
Like most people in this part of the country, I’m not too far removed from the frontier. I grew up with stories of my forbears’ poverty and migrations and deprivations and struggle. They settled in Nebraska and Oklahoma, where the wind howled and whipped the dust and the earth was hard. They were different people from my generation, my mother always said, sterner and tougher and better than us. (Since we came from a predominantly grim Scots-Irish background, our ancestors’ suffering and fortitude were always widely admired.)
My great-grandmother, Nellie Worrall Clift, was a farmer’s daughter who married an English worker at the family farm in Nebraska. If they were in love, nobody ever mentioned it. Marital love might be one of those luxuries of the modern world. She and my great-grandfather moved to Blackwell, Oklahoma, where they farmed and reared six children. She died in her late forties or early fifties of breast cancer.
In the few photos of my great-grandmother, she looks large and humorless — but, good lord, I’d hate for anybody to judge me and my life by some of the idiot photographic evidence I’ve left in my wake. So, who knows what she was really like? Everyone who knew her has been long dead.
One of the possessions we have kept is her set of fine china. It’s a delicate pink, green and gold against a white backdrop. Its edges are softly rippled and graceful. “It’s Haviland china,” my mother always told me. “It’s from France, where they make the very best china.”
We’ve hauled the china around for 15 years, since my mother’s death, and we don’t use it more than once or twice a year. We’re not formal people and, even at holidays, we never use the full panoply of dishes and saucers and plates. But I won’t sell them or give them up.
When I look at them, I think of this woman I never knew. She grew up, but never grew old, in a hard, sun-baked land with few luxuries. Like so many American pioneers, she looked East for culture and refinement. When her family finally had some money to spare, she sent off for this fragile china from a country she never visited. Knowing this tells me something about her — some kind of yearning she had — that has always touched me.
In the end, none of us leave very much behind. My great-grandmother left a husband, six children who were all educated, most as teachers, and this set of Haviland china. The prairie where she lived and worked has been paved and farmed and cultivated, and the frontier has disappeared. Only the china — and the stories we tell ourselves about it — remains.
(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)
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