Who You Are and What You Keep

Whenever I read my friend Melanie McMinn’s blog, Frugal Kiwi, I break out into an inferiority complex. Melanie raises chickens, bees and vegetables, and creates delightful, offbeat crafts. She and her husband, a/k/a Frugal Man, are renovating a 1930s New Zealand bungalow by themselves.

Renovating an older house by themselves! I get the vapors, just thinking about it. In my world view, do it yourself never moves from the second to the first person. As two completely clueless and klutzy people when it comes to home-handiness, my husband and I spend our lives hiring people to do it themselves. In fact, we were recently so desperate to get some repairs on our condo a couple of weeks ago, I was quoted as saying anybody with a hammer and a few nails would be admitted through our front door, no questions asked.

But anyway, I am pretty much reconciled to myself as a person who primes the local economy, which is far more flattering than branding myself a total slob and sloth. I can live with it and, for the most part, avoid a profound shame spiral.

But, all of a sudden, Melanie wrote another blog post that threw me for yet another loop. She quoted the 19th-century English poet and artist, William Morris, who wrote: “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful.”

William Morris? Have I ever heard of this guy before? Oh, hell, yes, don’t be silly, of course I have. Although I could have sworn he was in advertising.

Plus, the whole “useful or beautiful” business hit me where it hurt. Here, we’ve just moved and winnowed down our possessions to a third or fourth of what they used to be. But, let me tell you, it doesn’t take much nosing around our condo to find lots of things that are neither beautiful nor useful (insert wisecracks about the two people who live here at your own peril).

Fortunately, I felt semi-rescued by one of the Frugal Kiwi commenters, Brette Sember, who believes we should also keep objects that are meaningful. Brette writes a wonderful blog, too, No Pot Cooking, and, like Melanie, she’s formidably talented and enterprising. She’s always whipping up something fantastic in the kitchen, a room I have a very limited relationship with. (I am the designated person to bring the wine to any potluck gathering.)

Anyway, I felt validated by Brette’s edict we could all keep meaningful objects. Meaningful is a word I, personally, can stretch into all kinds of contorted shapes.

In fact, I’d just been saving a few meaningful objects a couple of weeks ago. I’d placed the little sailor dress our daughter wore as a baby and our son’s scuffed chartreuse Ninja Turtle sandals into a box to take to our storage unit downstairs. My husband, who gets OCD about our storage unit, said “we” needed to mark the box so we knew what was in it. l knew what he meant by that: he wanted me to mark it.

I folded up the box and, finally, wrote “sentimental stuff” on the outside of it. Which was good enough for me, since sentiment is meaningful in my life.

I stepped back and looked at the box and the writing and envisioned how it would go into our storage unit in the basement. It would stay there for years, probably, till it was excavated someday.

Looking at it, I was hit by the sudden certainty of what would happen. The next time the box was examined and opened, it would be after my death.

Funny how those flash moments of certainty hit you at this age. It wasn’t painful or scary, it was simply a fact of life. Someday, someone would open the box and maybe remember it was packed by a woman who wasn’t a do-it-yourself type, who didn’t cook or renovate houses. She did what she could, though, the way we all do. She wrote and she saved sentimental stuff.

Oh, and when she wrote, she could turn a subject from comic to melodramatic in a matter of seconds. She never did have much self-discipline when it came to things like that.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read about marking time



28 comments… add one
  • Ah Ruth, the economy needs ALL SORTS, no doubt about it. Plus, you’d recognize William Morris textiles and wallpaper if you saw them. You just didn’t know who designed them- his work is everywhere. You’ve seen “The Strawberry Thief” a thousand times, I promise.

    In any case, I wouldn’t trade your wit for a Ruth who fixes her own toilet. The world would be a poorer place, so you’ll just have to keep the plumbers and carpenters in business while keeping the rest of us rolling in the aisles or quietly wiping our tears away.

  • Oh, Ruth … I did not see that sock in the nose coming at the end. With so many terminally ill people around me, this sorting and finding, this remembering and forgetting, this laughter and pain, is all too real.

    But, thanks for the giggle over “We.”

    I tell my husband all the time that clearly he believes WE is a singular pronoun meaning ME.

  • Working toward fabulous myself. Heck may even be there but still in denial. I suspect whether or not I would trade a wordsmith for a plumber would completely depend on whether or not the toilet was flushing.

  • Ruth you are not the only one who thinks about how her possessions will be viewed after her death. After inheriting mountains of things from my grandmother, I decided recently that I am going to go around my house with a sheet of stickers write where each thing came from and why it mattered to and stick it on the back or bottom of all the things I collect on our trips or have inherited from my grandmothers. I got too many things from my grandmother that I know had meaning to her, but I didn’t know the story. So the meaning was lost. I treasure the things that I do know the story behind – for example a little book where she wrote down all the guests at her 1933 wedding and the gifts she received (all much shorter than any bride would write today). I am guilty of having too much stuff, but am working on getting rid of the things I don’t really care about. I’m slowly getting rid of all art in the house that is not from a trip (which gives me the excuse to buy more when I am traveling). I’m sentimental too. Just a fact.

  • Nice blog!

  • When I read your blog today, I started wondering…. why I am so attracted to your writing?
    Then it came to me, they create images in my head. Tells you, I am a visual person. And these images make me laugh out loud.
    Thank you for it, by far better then TV.

  • I agree with Doerte Weber. This post really resonated with me, because I am about the same age, and do have moments like the one you describe. When I got divorced 20 years ago, and moved from France to the USA 12 years ago, I went through a similar winnowing of my belongings. There’s still a box or mine in my ex-brother-in-law’s basement that contains ?????? No clue. But I brought my first child’s 3-month pajama with me and packed it away in the attic. Have not touched it since. What’s wrong with sentimental?

  • Ruth, your humor and wise perspective leap out of every line of your writing. I suspect your friends are so happy to have such a fine person and conversationalist at their potluck, they wouldn’t even miss the wine! Tucked away at the back of my sock drawer are a tiny pair of white mary-jane style shoes, which my older daughter wore when she first started walking, and a tiny rose-covered onesie suit that both daughters wore as newborns. I’ve shown them so they know where to find them someday. I also have a giant box of their artwork, finger paintings and all. They will move with me no matter how far I go in my dream of living in a little house Kerri-style. I agree that meaningful should be added to the useful and beautiful list!

  • We move to Our Little House 4 years ago and while we got rid of some of our stuff, it was my mother’s I could not yet to part with. So, we built a building to house it all! Before I read your blog post today, I was looking at my CD collection and wondered who would be here to throw it out when I’m “gone.”

  • On a sentimental journey here. I’m handy and can usually fix the need fixed,but not a cook. Why are there so many blogs with recipes? Been cleaning out stuff for the past year, some of the things I held on to, hummm!

  • There’s nothing wrong with sentimental. However, there are aspects to consider.

    So, does a crumbling rose from a long past prom really enhance life, now? Or will you value more the photo of the rose, taken when it was fresh and beautiful? More and more, I am choosing the photo over
    the crumbles. You may feel differently. That is your right to choose.
    I have reasons for my own choice.

    My father was a hoarder. Child of the Great Depression, he was afraid to let go even the most useless can of rusty nails. He left my mother a terrible mess to clear away. And bless her, she did. Her view was, toss the stuff that, like the rusty nail can, was too damaged to work any more. And then share the sentimental things with family and friends, while alive. Enjoy the light in their eyes as they receive it. I was glad of this.

    Now, at 57, I am doing my best to take after my mother. It’s time to winnow again. And I am sharing with family and friends, while I can enjoy that.

  • The seemingly worthless things we have, the things that would be considered junk to most people, are often the things we treasure. I have a beat-up old wooden box that my grandfather made and used as a tool box. When my father died last year we put that box on the altar steps with my father’s ashes inside. Now that my father’s ashes have been interred, I’m using it as a toy box for my grandchildren. That simple, beat-up old wooden box is priceless to me.

  • Hey, I’m sentimental about very few things. Really my husband knows better than to bring me anything but office supplies and chocolate as anniversary gifts, but the other day I ran across my one box marked “special clothes” in the basement. All sorts of memories tucked inside including my prom dress. Don’t worry, I didn’t try it on, just looked, laughed, put it back inside and left it in the basement.

  • I am sort of laughing and sort of … sighing reading this post. I know exactly how you feel (I’m a huge Frugal Kiwi fan as well). I think it’s good to have that sentimental side and save stuff. Maybe you’ll have a grandbaby to wear the dress b4 you die and you can open the box sooner?!

  • I feel a truth in Peg’s comment: “… does a crumbling rose from a long past prom really enhance life, now?” I often choose the pictures, too. Except I do also have the Memory Box in the back room, gathering dust, boxes of stuffed animals shoved to the back of a garage, that old Lite Brite… One of my most prized possessions is an E.T. doll I’ve had my whole life, with the skin just plain loved off. It can’t be helped.

    And p.s. I’m in awe of all the DIY-ers myself. In Kindergarten, my teacher wrote on my report card that I was bad with scissors. Things haven’t improved much since then.

  • Going through a post-mid-life-crisis of sorts myself, being of a “certain age” … wondering what in the world will become of all the “stuff” I’ve got, when I move on over to the other side. Would anyone in the family actually want and treasure any of it – or maybe even some of it? Your post resonates with me! And I like the comment-suggestion of taking pictures and then letting go. Hmmm, I just may have to try that with some of this. I seem to accumulated a family archive and am trying desperately to force fit that collection into a very “downsized” home with no storage space.

  • “… avoid a profound shame spiral.” I like that. Could be the advertising tag-line to a psychological thriller movie– Avoid a profound shame spiral– IF YOU DARE!
    I also admire the sentence , “Meaningful is a word I, personally, can stretch into all kinds of contorted shapes.” Kind of works like shrink-wrap. In fact all things meritorious of Sentimentality are shrink-wrap worthy. And that’s what we should do. Leave instructions that when we go to that great basement in the sky, we wish to be bundled together with our sentimental possessions and shrink-wrapped for the Ages.

  • Steve Link

    Lest one think it is only the women commenting above who are sentimental about stuff, know that some men (maybe most, I don’t know) are much the same. My box isn’t labeled “sentimental stuff,” it’s labeled “kids’ stuff.” But then I also have a small trunk, built by my father, packed with the stuff of my youth. My kids will have great fun with it, wondering what some items are and why they meant enough to keep a lifetime, as well as having to decide what to do with it. They’ll also have to decide what to do with some of the stuff from my parents’ youth that I kept after their passing. I don’t know why I kept it; they’re not my mementos. But how does one discard his mother’s scrapbook from her teens?

  • I was advised, “If it enriches your life, keep it.” At the same time, there comes a time where some things no longer do enrich.

    I had a pine needle cushion made by my mother. It had lost its scent decades ago. But I could not bear for it to go to a landfill, because Mom made it.

    Realizing that it was made from all organic materials, I found a solution that works for me. I have flower gardens. I gave it a respectful burial in that flowerbed nearest the pines, so it can go back to the earth peacefully. And I feel OK about that.

  • In the case of paper mementos like scrapbooks, do you have a local history museum in your area? You could ask whether they would want it, as a log book of that era.

  • **** Re: Steve ****
    Nor could I ever discard a novelistic scrapbook that my grandmother compiled when she was in her teens around 1900, titled, “The Possible Life of Miss Fannie Roane.” Richly illustrated with magazine clippings of the era, she profusely described in detail how she fantasized how her life might unfold through adulthood, marriage and beyond.
    You are probably right that most men are more sentimental than they let on. Somehow, it’s often a trait that’s viewed as a weakness, something to be hidden.
    Moving on, there is a segment of the male gender that has gone undervalued and unnoticed. It has been brought to light in the fascinating book, “A Passion to Preserve: Gay Men as Keepers of Culture,” by Will Fellows. A study that reveals the wealth of “bachelor uncles,” past and present, who work to preserve everything from documents to architecture for the interest of all. And gay men are often claimed to be the the “destroyers of civilization.” Indeed!
    About this book, Library Journal writes, “A concept at once original and yet so obvious it is surprising that no one has attempted it before.” I reccommend it as a good read for all.

  • “Sentimental stuff” — who wouldn’t want to open such a box left by a loved one and pore over its contents after he or she is gone?

    Love that you took Melanie’s post (big fan of Frugal Kiwi here too and that post in particular) and ran with it in a direction all your own.

  • Kel Link

    “She did what she could, though, the way we all do.” In my experience this is not true of everyone. Thank you for sharing your considerable talent with us!

  • Steve Link

    I must add, after Kel’s comment, an “Amen.” Please keep writing and posting.

  • Well, I’m right there with you on the inferiority complex re Melanie. I like to read her blog, though, and think of all the possibilities (of cool projects around this house).

    Actually, Melanie and Frugal Man could have a nice business just hopping around the globe re-doing peoples’ homes, installing bees and chickens in the yard, and ridding our lives of un-beautiful un-useful things. Yes, people would pay big bucks for that service.

    William Morris… isn’t he a character on ‘Mad Men’? Or was that a Jim Carrey movie?

  • My husband knows that when I say “we” I really mean “he”. It’s a blessing to know your weaknesses, as well as your strengths. You’ve saved money and time by not trying to be a do-it-your-self-er when you really aren’t. I say call in Melanie and Frugal Man. They’re awesome.

  • My daughter revealed that bit of William Morris interdiction to me more than a dozen years ago when she was barely a teenager. She was quite impressed, but, of course, I felt it as a reproach — the more so as I only lived up the hill and around the corner from his extravagantly decorated house (btw full of peculiar furniture and paintings of redheads in various stages of undress). I’ll be boating that way next week and will think of you.

  • I have often held something in my hand and wondered how it is I put such value on something I’d completely forgotten I had. Lately, I’ve decided the value is misplaced and I’ve done the dump. Freed up some space to see what other valuable things might show up.

    If I could remember what I’ve thrown out, I’m sure I’d regret it. Happily, however, my brain is getting spongier all the time.

Leave a Comment