One afternoon I write Catalog our things on my list of Big Goals, sandwiching it between Grow an etrog tree from seed. and Put our pictures in an album. My idea is to draft an entry a day until I’ve listed all the objects of interest in our house, along with the backstory on how each came into our possession.
I’m the self-appointed family curator, the keeper of cast-offs and bequests from relatives I knew and loved as well as those I never met. Vintage cufflinks and class rings, old tefillin, silver butter dishes, costume brooches missing their rhinestones. Then there’s everything else – the stash of items my husband and I have hung onto from our childhoods, along with the pictures, ephemera, and souvenirs from our marriage and adventures in parenting.
To be sure, a catalog is no small undertaking. Yet on the day I add it to my list, I find myself gripped with worry. My eyes sweep across the living room and a vision comes to me: of the day, God willing, far off in the future, when our sons will need to disperse this multitude of belongings. I’ve helped others with the messy triage of determining what gets passed down to whom, what gets thrown out, what makes it onto the moving truck. I know it can get complicated. Fraught. Painful, even.
It’s not that I expect our sort of bric-a-brac to appear on the Antiques Roadshow. But value is in the eye of the beholder, and I weigh the possibility that our sons may want to keep some of it, out of love or for posterity, and that they’ll put thought into redistributing the rest. And what happens if they don’t? Or can’t? What if they throw up their hands in exasperation and call for a dumpster instead?
I snuff out the thought. I believe – no, I know – that whatever other worth they may or may not have, these objects have souls. They are alive with the stories of their provenance and the human traces their owners have left behind, like the fingerprint smudges on the white leather head of my grandfather’s banjo. We shouldn’t let them go, but if one day we have to, it can’t be without some kind of eulogy.
Hence the catalog. I’m hoping it will convince my sons.
Tell your children, the Torah commands us. It compels us to speak of both our enslavement in Egypt and our redemption, though more broadly, the verse obliges us to pass Jewish tradition down from one generation to the next. It’s about ensuring that our offspring know from whence they’ve come, about the travails and blessings that are their birthright. Mostly, though, it’s about legacy and the future.
I extrapolate, applying the concept to the objects that dot the surfaces of our home. It inspires me to write Catalog our stuff on my list, though I really mean Tell the stories of our things.
There are tales of every genre – young adult, history, biography, memoir, romance – entwined with our belongings. They rest on shelves and in cabinets, on walls and side tables, together with my regrets for what I did not or could not keep for one reason or another when the time came to dismantle the households of departed family.
Still, I let Catalog our stuff collect dust on my list for years. It leaves a hole in my heart to think everything here, all lovingly joined in this collage, may end up on a table at an estate sale, or meet a worse fate at the curb. It also dawns on me that my boys see the assemblage as nothing more than a gathering of invisible pixels that create the picture of their childhood home. I question whether the catalog is worth the effort. I’m weary, and I doubt it will rescue anything.
Then my eldest returns home from his studies in Israel and I reconsider. He looks around as if he’s gained a new pair of eyes, jarring me out of my lassitude.
“Mom, you save too much,” he says. Not unkindly, only stating a fact.
He knows this house – part archive, part library, part cabinet of curiosities. He’s also seen me culling, donating, giving away, handing down to keep the place neat, organized, and uncluttered, however full. Yet I remind him anyway, in case he’s forgotten. And because I’m sure he worries my sentimentality will entomb me.
I ante up.
“Okay. What should we get rid of?”
He gestures with his chin before relegating a number of items from the living and dining rooms to new outposts across the territory of our split-level, where they now reside out of sight. He stacks the museum catalogs, shifts around the pottery and the vintage Ottoman shoe that functions as a paperweight, giving the coffee table more air to breathe. Meanwhile, I take baby steps. I concede I needn’t cling to every single thing we’ve brought home from a vacation or a relative once touched, that it’s enough to have just a few pieces to remember them by.
But the decisions to let go or hold on don’t come easily to me, and in the end, I’m not ready to cast any of our history from the nest. The stories come fast and furious, though. My son is attentive, willing to listen until he grows weary from so many things and so many tales in one afternoon. Though the love is there, it’s just too soon.
There’s a breeze when he opens the front door to leave for ma’ariv. It stirs in me the will to leap through hoops of time, to scoop up the fragile past in an embrace and carry it forward, resting it gently in the future. I survey the bounty of objects around me, the ones whose stories will depreciate in the blink of an eye if I don’t tell them to my children, the ones whose souls will depart for wherever the souls of things go when they’re no longer wanted.
And yet, if I’m careful, if I set them down in ink, there’s a chance. They might still be around after our belongings change hands. They might still be ours after we’re gone.
Merri Ukraincik is a writer, blogger, artist, wife, and mother who talks to G-d all the time. Her essays have appeared in Tablet, Hevria, Kveller, and elsewhere. She is the author of I Live. Send Help., a history of the Joint Distribution Committee. Find her on her personal website.