While making my way through muddy paths and blustery winds at the flea market with family last weekend, I spotted this antique toy on a table. I'm not one for knickknacks but fell for this simple old black and white cat, and after handing my eight dollar bills across the table to the elderly woman who was racing to cover the rest of her wares before the next rain, it was mine. The older I get, the more I love the quote from William Morris that advises us to "have nothing in [our] houses that [we] do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful." This cat fits the bill for me. I also love the advice to get rid of a few things for every one thing you bring into your home, so sometime this week, I'll be putting together another bag to donate to Goodwill. A memoir of my mid-thirties would surely have a chapter titled "Clutter Be Gone." Too much "stuff" makes me antsy. Unless it's of books, I despise piles.
At 24, I wasn't like this. While discussing one of the "Hoarders" TV shows a couple weeks ago, I told Mike about the time I was shopping at a Salvation Army store in my hometown a few weeks after my family and I had finished cleaning out my grandparents' house and came across some of their belongings on the store's shelves: My parents had donated to the store the items from Papa and Grandma's house that no one in the family had claimed. I hadn't wanted these things before, but I suddenly felt sick at the thought of strangers owning the contents of Papa and Grandma's home. I bought back all their books that I could find on the shelves, along with a porcelain swan that had always sat on top of their piano and that was now marked with a neon green price sticker. My grandparents had just died in the two months before, and I wasn't ready to let go even this little bit. Not ready at all. I made peace with it eventually, and at some point, the books and swan made their way to the Salvation Army a second time, but I spent the spring and early summer of 2001 surrounding myself with boxes and piles of Papa and Grandma's belongings and berating myself for not having "saved" more of it from their house in the first place. And what little money I was earning that miserable year and the next, I spent too much of on more "stuff" that further cocooned and comforted me. One afternoon, the mailman delivered an embarrassingly tall stack of packages onto my doorstep only to return to his truck for a second stack--and in front of my younger brother, whose respect is chief amongst those I'd never want to lose. It was easy for awhile to tell myself and others that I was just buying what I needed for my new apartment or "treating" myself after a hard year of too many disappointments and losses. Although I was far from a hoarder, I was, in those heartbroken days of 2001 and 2002, surrounding myself with Any Little Thing That Would Make Me Feel Better, even if only by association--This "new-old" damask tablecloth is just like one of Grandma's--or because of misplaced hope--Maybe I'll be wearing this new sky-blue sundress the day my ex-boyfriend finally comes back to me. I don't laugh at the people being buried alive by their possessions on TV shows. Sometimes tablecloths and dresses mean so much more than tablecloths and dresses, and sometimes you need to hang on to them awhile. Some peoples' "awhile" never ends, as those hoarding programs show us, and I feel sorry for them and their loved ones.
My own "awhile" lasted about a year and a half. By the end of 2003, I had donated or sold on amazon and eBay most everything that had before seemed so soothing. I had healed some. The vintage tablecloth wasn't necessary. The sundress wouldn't be seen by the ex-boyfriend. I would continue to remember reading on Grandma's lap as a child even if I gave away most of her books. Papa and Grandma's house would still live in my memories after its foyer's porcelain swan found a new home. Eventually, I just realized I'd be okay without it all and that I was, when it came down to it, okay without Papa and Grandma and the ex, as well (if I had to be, and God knows how stubbornly I struggle to accept a loss). But what you need--all that you really need--I learned in those years, you carry within you. Death cannot steal it from you, not really. Goodbyes do not negate it, even when your present seems to have cancelled-out your past. If the wooden flea market cat makes me happy, I enjoy it. (It suits me, for sure, and it does look sweet amid the autumn leaves and little pumpkins.) I enjoy it all the more knowing--finally and truly--that I'd be okay without it too.