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The Things We Carry

A meditation on the stuff we live with, and the stuff we can live without



Years ago I bought a charm bracelet in a Seattle flea market that recounted, in dangling figures, the life and times of its former owner.

She was married, and they were German — or at least spent time in Germany — perhaps during World War II. They played cards, gambled and hoped for good luck. They owned cats, a big Oldsmobile and possibly were farmers. The groovy mushroom charm suggests that they were still around for the 1970s. I never figured out the two charms of cat burglars outfitted with masks, ladders and bulging sacks, but I bet there's a great story there.

How did such a personal object end up in a flea market? What kind of person gives away mom's life story?

Well, 25 years into my own housekeeping, my house is filled up with my stuff and other people's stuff. That bracelet in the flea market is beginning to make at least some sense.

When my family and I were setting up house, I wanted new things — IKEA! Pier 1! But other people's things were already colonizing my place, and still they end up on my doorstep regularly. The house is in constant flux as we move things around to make room for other things.

I call my housekeeping routine the "shit shuffle" — moving items back to their right place and finding room for new arrivals. Everything is maddeningly everywhere all the time.

Where did this stuff come from? Half of it isn't even mine; it came from someone in the extended family. Why am I the one who has to store it, clean it, repair it? Do I look like The Smithsonian?

Sure, there are good reasons to keep Great-Great-Great-Grandmother Reed's handmade sugar bucket. But what about Mom's eighth-grade report card? Great-Grandmother's rhinestone pin? Husband's military school uniform? A step-grandparent's glamorous evening coat? Nana's china, used exactly twice? Letters from my aunt to my husband's grandmother?

I feel ambivalent about the anchor of it. Sometimes I resent the curator duties, and other times the stuff feels like a bond to past generations' lives, which partly define my life, or at least have helped shape it.

Despite the house's Smithsonian moniker, not much of the stuff is important historically. The big items especially — a sleigh bed, a four-poster bed, a sideboard — don't preserve anyone's memory. It's the small things — a handmade knife, a property title — that hold some important memory. Not traditional history, but "herstory," the artifacts of daily life.

Because they weren't "important" — that is, they weren't historically noteworthy figures — many of these relatives will be forgotten in another generation, whether I hold onto their things or not. If all you touch and all you see is all your life will ever be, as Pink Floyd says, then when you're gone, all that's left of you is the things you held. Warehousing this stuff feels like a weak effort to preserve these family members' lives for the future to learn from. As if the future ever listened, or ever will.

Our daughter wants to go West for college to pursue a life of more experiences and less things. She wants to leave behind the baggage. She values things only for their utility: Velvet curtains become a canvas if she feels like painting, and fine jewelry is treated as casually as Claire's turn-green cheapies, lost in the wash or down the drain. We learned the hard way that she has no interest in caretaking obscure family objects.

I hope she keeps that unstuffed sensibility. It's just stuff. Things own you, not the other way around.

When the time comes, I resolve to be fearless about letting go of the furniture, china, books, flight jacket, Dior coat. All those things have lost their personal stories, which are the ones that matter, but only to a handful of people who already know. To everyone else, it's just stuff. Someone shopping a local thrift store in 2045 can choose to take that Dior coat home because it's useful or beautiful or interesting.

The real story will be forgotten, along with the lessons it taught. It's just an object, and people make what story they will.

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