Why do we save things? To remind us of momentous occasions, memorable moments, times we had fun? I suppose for all these reasons and more. We say things have sentimental value, but it’s sometimes hard to articulate exactly why. And though I’ve never been sorry I held onto an object, I’ve often regretted getting rid of something, usually within a week or two.
When I get frustrated about my inability to throw things away (usually because a stack of papers or pile of pictures has just collapsed), I think of my grandmother and tell myself it’s genetic. She had a Depression-era mentality of saving everything. When we cleaned out her house, we found bank statements from the 1950s! But we also found many treasures. One was an illustration from a 1930s calendar of a little girl reading a Watkins Cook Book. The caption reads: “What! No recipe for mud pie?” As soon as I saw it, I thought of my mother-in-law. She loved to bake and made delicious whoopie pies. I knew she had to have this picture.
I took it to a shop to have it matted and framed, and gave it to my mother-in-law for Christmas that year. She loved it, and it hung by her stove for the rest of her life. After she died, I told my sister-in-law that this picture was the only possession of my mother-in-law’s I really wanted. She said she’d put it aside for me and that I could get it the next time I was in Pennsylvania.
Except I couldn’t. My sister-in-law had put it aside so well she couldn’t find it. I’ve done this myself, so I figured it would turn up eventually. Except it didn’t. Then the house was sold and emptied. Still no picture. I tried not to be too disappointed. After all, I had plenty of memories of cooking with my mother-in-law in that kitchen, and all the happy meals our family had shared there.
This past weekend my sister-in-law visited, and when she arrived at our house, she handed me a box. “It was in a corner of my attic,” she explained. I opened the lid, and there it was, right on top. A piece of ephemera my grandmother had saved almost 80 years ago, that hung in another kitchen for ten years, will now be at home in my kitchen, linking it to other kitchens, other times.
This whole episode reminded me of Susan Vreeland’s lovely book, Girl in Hyacinth Blue. Through a series of stories, Vreeland links the owners of a (fictional) painting by Vermeer across the centuries. She creates a vivid depiction of each time period and owner, charting their motivations and desires. These remain remarkably similar over the centuries. At one point, a character realizes that “love builds itself unconsciously… out of the momentous ordinary.”
I think this is why we save things. To have reminders of those unconscious, ordinary moments that add up to a life filled with love.