Monday, June 06, 2011

Happiness and Possessions

This is today's column in Small Town Newspaper:

The Greek philosopher Democritus said, “Happiness resides not in possessions, and not in gold. Happiness dwells in the soul.” Hogwash. At this moment, I believe happiness resides in my grandmother’s china cabinet.

Just six months ago, my family sifted through my mother’s belongings as she moved out of her house and moved in with one of my sisters, and we planned for a yard sale. It was quite an undertaking, and when we finished the sorting, I was determined never to hold onto possessions again. I came straight home from that experience and began cleaning out closets and drawers and throwing out old stuff without sentimentality. Stuff is stuff, I said, and it holds no meaning. Then, I informed my children I was doing this work so they wouldn’t have to in years to come.

Well, my family recently gathered again to re-sort my mother’s stash and to host a two-day yard-sale-slash-estate-sale-slash-family-reunion. In the morning when we first opened up the doors and set out the signs, my mother remarked that this would not be her favorite day, and in attempting to offer consolation, I suggested she just look at it all as stuff, just stuff. Boy, was I naïve.

My mother stood by as strangers poured over stacks of her kitchenware and piles of her linens. She watched them flip through her old record albums and books and picture frames, all things she had enjoyed but could no longer keep, and she saw them walk away with her ironing board and sewing machine and pink wing-back chairs she bought because she loves pink so much. As each item left her possession in exchange for a few dollars, she handled the transactions with dignified grace, but for all of my initial nonchalance, I found I was clinging.

A gentleman offered to buy two framed prints, and I asked if he’d like to know the family history behind them. A woman asked about the wedding dress patterns, and I told her how my mother used one of them to make my prom dress because it was just matronly enough for her purposes. And when someone checked out the ornate buffet that had been in my mother’s dining room for as long as I can remember, I told him how I used to play under it when I was a little girl. It doubled as a castle for my paper dolls, and the matching dining table next to it made the perfect cave. I would hide under it as my parents were about to come home from work, and when they opened the door, I’d jump out and shout, “Surprise!”

Before the sale, my mother had suggested that we each choose something we wanted to take home, and my husband and I chose a china cabinet. It had belonged to my grandmother, and I remember gazing into it as a child and admiring the delicate glass treasures she kept on its shelves. My mother inherited the cabinet, and she kept her set of china and her crystal glasses on those same shelves.

Just the other day, we carefully placed the cabinet in our own dining room, and I am now the third generation to display my best china in it. As I stand in the room and gaze at it, just as I did forty years ago when it belonged to my grandmother, I feel fiercely attached to the thing. I won’t take it to my grave, but there may come a time when someone will have to pry it from my defiant and gnarled grasp because there will be no room for it in my new down-sized residence.

This piece of furniture isn’t just stuff. It’s a constant. I have always known it. I have always admired it. I have always been transfixed by the way it filters light whether it’s standing in a room in Alabama, Indiana, Georgia or in my house here in Ohio.

When my mother walked away from her things at the end of sale day, she must have been bereft, but I’ve got her china cabinet in safe keeping. This one possession has become a symbol of continuity for us both, and that brings me happiness.

1 comment:

dive said...

Never throw anything away, Robyn. Stuff is not just stuff. Accumulate until you are buried under a mountain of your own life's gathered harvest.

Or is that just my excuse for not cleaning house?