We are not defined by our possessions. At least we shouldn’t be, and yet when someone dies we find ourselves remembering moments shared with them when we see the artifacts that belonged to them. A ring, a book, a plate, a tool, a painting, an article of clothing may spark recollections that bring a person back to life in the mind of the beholder.
When my father died I found comfort in seeing his clothes and shoes lying in the closet where he had left them when he went out on a summer evening drive. Somehow as long as they were there I felt as though a part of him was still with us. When my mother finally had one of my aunts remove his things the reality of his death sank into my brain. From then on my memories of him were found in the books that he had so treasured. They spoke to me of his love of reading and told me that he had been a man of many different interests and talents.
Since my mother had lived with me in the last year of her life the duty of disposing of her clothing became my responsibility. My daughters helped me and each of them chose one item to remember her by. One of them decided to take Mama’s warm fuzzy robe. She wears it to this very day and says that it makes her feel as though she is getting a hug from her grandmother. She swears that even with multiple cleanings it still has my mother’s scent locked in the fibers. In a strange way it is like having a tiny bit of her essence still intact,
Last week my husband and I helped the daughter of a very dear friend drive his RV to a consignment lot where it will eventually be sold. He had died quite suddenly last month to the shock of all of us. Driving my truck behind the RV as we rode in a caravan reminded me of the camping trips that we had taken with him. They always took place in the fall and we had great fun talking and hiking and visiting museums. Just as had happened with my father’s things the reality of Bill’s death struck me full force during that drive. He loved the big meals that I cooked and we laughed and told stories while we broke bread at the tiny table that seemed so bountiful on those wonderful occasions. I felt a deep sadness because I knew how much joy that RV had brought him. In fact, he had once told us that it had saved his life after the death of his beloved wife. The trips that he took provided him with a reawakening of his sense of adventure and a reason to arise each day. It appeared from the interior of the RV that he had been in the process of planning another excursion just before he died. I suppose that I feel some comfort in knowing that he was probably happy as he contemplated the fun that he was going to have.
After our friend died his daughter gave me some of the things from his house. I have a stained glass butterfly and a set of wind chimes that had been chosen by his wife, my very good friend as well. The blue glass figurine was so much like her. She loved butterflies and the the indigo and turquoise colors that decorated so many corners of her home. I smile now when I see the lovely items that speak of her whimsy and remind me of her laughter. She enjoyed having what she called rainbow days and as the sun shines through the colored glass I see little rainbows dancing on my ceiling as though she is actually urging me to embrace life and have fun.
When I opened the boxes that hold my Christmas decorations I found a Viking nutcracker. It once belonged to our friend, Egon, a German fellow whose ancestry included a Norwegian mother. He loved Norway and its people and spent most of his summers at a family hut in the mountains. He often told us tales of those halcyon days with his parents and aunts and uncles. He made the place that they called Hovden sound as though it was a slice of heaven. We had always planned to one day go there with him but it was not to be. I can almost hear the strains of Finlandia and see the little red house at the top of a hill where so much of Egon’s spirit had been forged on those vacations with his kin when I look at the stalwart Viking with the funny mouth strong enough to crack nuts. Egon was so much like the delightful little character.
I purchase nuts and apples and tangerines for Christmas every year because my Grandma Ulrich always set out huge enamel bowls of such treats for her holiday celebrations. I have one of the enamelware containers that she used. Each year I fill it with the fruits and the nuts that we all so enjoyed when we were children at her house. I almost feel as though I am back in her crowded living room with my aunts and uncles and cousins when I release the aroma of citrus as I peel one of the juicy tangerines. Recreating the festivities in a bowl that once belonged to her has become one of my most cherished traditions.
Like my father, both of my grandfathers loved to read, and they accumulated books like some people collect stamps or coins. I was able to gather a couple of them and add them to my own collection, and from one of my uncles I have a number of old 45 rpm records with selections from jazz greats like Louie Armstrong. I have to admit that I never realized what great taste in music my uncle had until I was grown. His recordings make me think of the nineteen forties when the world was at war and the future seemed so uncertain. The music provided a ray of hope in a world that seemed overrun by evil. I like to listen to the crackling of the needle on the vinyl and imagine my uncle as a young man.
My house is filled with the items that I use for living and those that I have gathered in travels and from my hobbies and interests. I can’t help wondering what among them might one day remind my friends and relations of me. Will it be my books or my dishes or the art work that I so cherish? What will spark a feeling or a memory? If I knew I would set those things aside for them, but I’m not so sure that anything that I own represents me in any particular way. I have never been attached to things as much as to people, and so there are few items that I would be so important to me that I would feel sad if they were lost or destroyed.
I have a special book that my grandfather gave me when I graduated from junior high. I cherish an antique pitcher that belonged to my great grandmother. I guard the discharge documents that terminated my great grandfather’s enlistment in the Union Army at the end of the Civil War. I have several books of poems and fairytales from which my father read to me when I was a little girl. I would want to save the lamp that my mother used on her dressing table and the china that my brothers bought for me as a wedding gift. Of course there is also my wedding ring that I have worn on my left hand for almost fifty years.
I suppose that I might be able to pack all of that into a small carrying case. I did in fact move those items to the second floor of my home when the waters were rising in my city last August. As it happened they were never in danger, but I would not have wanted to lose them. Still I wonder if they will mean anything to my children and grandchildren. Sometimes I suspect that only my brothers and I understand their importance in my history. One day they may sit forlornly in a box destined for the Salvation Army or some other donation center. I guess that by then it won’t really matter anymore because as I said before, none of the things that we have define us, and yet I wonder if that it really true. Somehow the little trinkets that we bring into our lives tell small stories of who we are. They are clues about what we think is important. They are little biographies that only those who know us will understand. They are the things we carry in our souls.