In All the Names, the lead character worked as a sub-clerk in a mindless job; during his off hours he collected newspaper clippings about famous people. The author wrote:
There are people like [him] everywhere, who fill their time, or what they believe to be their spare time, by collecting stamps, coins, medals, vases, postcards, matchboxes, books, clocks, sport shirts, autographs, stones, clay figurines, empty beverage cans, little angels, cacti, opera programmes, lighters, pens, owls, music boxes, bottles, bonsai trees, paintings, mugs, pipes, glass obelisks, ceramic ducks, old toys, carnival masks. . . .
Why do they collect these things?
. . . they probably do so out of something that we might call metaphysical angst, perhaps because they cannot bear the idea of chaos being the one ruler of the universe, which is why, using their limited powers and with no divine help, they attempt to impose some order on the world, and for a short while they manage it, but only as long as they are there to defend their collection, because when the day comes when it must be dispersed, and that day always comes, either with their death or when the collector grows weary, everything goes back to its beginnings, everything returns to chaos.
Well into their seventies, my parents began the task of contemplating the statistical possibility that they might not be here forever. Like most members of both sides of the family, they always went to my husband Jim for advice about medical matters and stewardship of finances and earthly possessions.
As to the latter, they asked their three children if there was anything we wanted. (My grandmother had taken a different path, and hid her diamond ring so skillfully in her small apartment that no one ever was able to retrieve it after she passed away; somewhere in California, it does not see the light to sparkle, possibly hibernating in an old freezer or carved into a hollow in a dark chest of drawers.)
Perhaps my parents wanted to know if one of us especially wanted the valuable antiques or Japanese prints.
“That’s easy,” I told my mother. “I’d like the physics books and the poster Uncle Robert made for the festshrift.” The latter, prepared for the occasion of my father’s sixtieth birthday in the world of bose condensates and such (or, in haiku form: nearly coherent/electromagnetic and/classical phenoms), features photographs of my father and his brother as they were growing up in New York.
I have begun to go through my home to try to cull things which I will want to take to our next home when the time comes to move.
An entire category has me especially flummoxed: things which mean a great deal to me and were emotionally significant to me and my husband as a couple, but which would be unlikely to carry meaning for anyone but me now: the champagne glasses friends of my parents gave us, and which we used to celebrate so many occasions during our marriage; the carved bowl my mother’s inimitable friend Pixie brought to us as a very first gift when she heard of our engagement; the wooden ornament our friend Betsey brought to our wedding, with the hand-painted word “Love” swirled in red and buttercup yellow. I am attached to these things, artifacts of the marriage I don’t conceive of as having ended with my husband’s death.
Jim made it so simple for me, in respect to material things, perhaps because he was secure enough of his place and traction in the world that he did not feel moved to collect any impractical things.
I do, in vast quantity. I have in the attic enough fabric to make a continent-sized quilt. (The running joke among quilters is that “She who dies with the most fabric, wins.”) I have, literally, buckets of the clothing I made for my children when they were little. I collect arks. I have books upon books, for all ages.
I can only ask myself what Jim would want me to hold on to.
(c) 2012 Stephanie M. Glennon