Stuff and nonsense
What is it with stuff, anyway? Not the things we use, but the knickknacks and doodads and tchotchkes and keepsakes — objects that have no purpose in this world other than to gather dust (or be knocked off a ledge in a cat video). And how did holding onto and letting go of said possessions become the focus of my life’s work?
Well, the second question is easy to answer. Since the death of my mom five years ago, I have been trying to divest myself of the Peavey family artifacts I have crammed into closets, stuffed in drawers and stowed in the basement of John’s and my little bungalow. (Oh, for a walk-up attic that I could fill to overflowing…) During that time, I started writing a memoir about my mother’s life, her decline, and my inability to deal with her things. That memoir morphed into a one-woman show, My Mother’s Clothes Are Not My Mother, that basically took over my life for two years.
In 2013, I put the show up on blocks and tried to return to the still-unfinished memoir. I poked and jabbed at it for several months, but it wasn’t until my friends Marguerite and Walter loaned me their camp in the western Maine mountains that the book finally started to take form. Beginning in August of 2013, I spent sometimes a week, 10 days, or two weeks at a stretch at my electricity- and running-water-free retreat in the woods, doing what I called “wrestling the bear.” For someone who has written almost every day of her life and has hundreds of magazine features and newspaper columns, as well as three books, under her belt, I could not get over how hard real writing was. (Honestly, I do not understand how so many people who are not writers put out books. This one almost killed me.) Last month, I finished. Those pages are now off my desk and safely in the hands of my closest readers, while I prepare to shop the book around. In the process of all this, I became something of a stuff expert.
Each time I perform my show, people line up afterward to tell me about the useless clutter they cleave to — hatpins and seedpods and tatty clothing — and the stories that go along with them. I get e-mails and messages with headings like, “My Mother’s Keys Are Not My Mother,” “My Mother’s Dishes Are Not My Mother,” and even “My Mother’s Player Piano Is Not My Mother.” My September is jammed with events concerning this issue. I am going to be a panelist on the MPBN program Maine Calling discussing the topic: “Why do we keep stuff?” Also this month, I have two performances of my show scheduled at St. Lawrence Arts, and I will follow my Sunday matinee with a curtain talk on the same topic; I am a contestant at the Literary Death Match at SPACE Gallery and will read from the new memoir; I am giving a talk on memoir writing at Graves Library in Kennebunkport; and I am teaching a memoir-writing workshop through Maine Writers & Publishers Alliance. All these engagements revolve, in one way or another, around the things we can’t part with. It would seem I know what I am talking about.
Why then, this chaos?
I am surrounded by stuff. Not just Mom’s and my family’s things, but my stuff, too. And John’s. And let’s not forget the cat. That cat came with her own bag and baggage. There’s even some stuff over there I’m not sure who it belongs to. Is it yours? If not, would you like it?
Of course, the brilliant George Carlin killed this topic back in the 1980s with his album A Place For My Stuff. According to him, your house? A pile of stuff with a cover on it. The stuff a thief goes after? Not the 4th-grade arithmetic papers (I thought I was the only one who saved those), but the good stuff. The problem with staying at other people’s homes? There’s no place for your stuff. The dresser always has someone else’s stuff on it, usually someone who died there 11 years earlier. Other people’s stuff? Shit. Your shit? Stuff.
See, that’s the thing. Aside from the few objects in my office that serve a function — laptop, printer, lamp, table, binoculars (for bird watching, if you must know) — everything else could be perceived as crap to the outside observer. For example, on one windowsill sits a flowered vase with gold trim that belonged to a relative. (I’m not sure which one.) In it is a porcupine quill from Tuscany, a weird pinecone that looks like a palm tree, and a seed husk that looks like a snake made of rattan. The latter two things were picked up during exotic travels to remind me of those special trips, but for the life of me I can’t remember where.
At the other end of the sill is a wire-birdcage Christmas ornament I gave my mother when I lived in San Francisco. It is not the only ornament there. There is also a sparkly blue starburst hanging above it, a green-plaid thermos with red top, and a fuzzy mouse wearing a rucksack. My question is this: I have two large Tupperware crates of Christmas ornaments in the basement. How did these four migrate up here? Why did they make the cut and the others didn’t? There’s no decorating scheme, if that’s what you’re thinking. The birdcage sits next to 12 pieces of blue beach glass arranged in a grid. Hanging with the starburst are two Victorian mechanical pencils on a chain. There is a wooden martini stamp, a small wedding picture of John and me, and a Victorian match safe: a black metal box with attached woodpecker. You bop his head and he thrusts his pointy beak into the box and retrieves a wooden match. (Why, I now wonder, is this not on the fireplace mantle?) There is also a raffia lasso. I’m not sure what it’s doing there, unless that fuzzy mouse is having dark thoughts. I suppose if he goes, that rucksack will be mine, too.
All this begs the question I started out with: What is it with stuff? Why do we want things, and why can’t we get rid of them once we have them? I posed this conundrum to a friend who has amassed more useless crap than anyone I know. (I am a reliable source on this. Our two households engage in competitive gift-giving, and the weirdest thing wins. Right now, it’s a tie between the ceramic squirrel-boy statue and a stuffed iguana ashtray/cigarette-holder combo.) The master’s collection dwarfs ours. There is barely a flat surface or inch of wall space in his home that is not ocupado. We refer to his house as the Grande Hall of Curiosities. We think he should charge admission.
His response to my query was simple: His stuff pleases him. Of course, his stepson and daughter-in-law have probably got the match already lit for the dynamite when the contents eventually become theirs.
I also believe there’s magic involved. When we regard an object that has belonged to or been given to us by a loved one, it conjures that person. It’s as though they left some of their imprint behind. The year after Mom died, I wore her teeny tiny wristwatch everywhere, even to the gym, because I feared taking it off would break one of the last tethers I had to her. I wore her fancy clothes — a brocade coat with fur collar, a crushed velvet gown, a leather jacket purchased in Italy — despite the fact I wouldn’t (pardon the pun) be caught dead in them when she was alive. I used her hair-care products and moisturizer and nail polish. I ate crackers from her cupboard, used her Saran wrap and kept a bag of her frozen green beans in my freezer past their use-by date. It was like I was building a Mom fort around me. If I surrounded myself with her things, a part of her would still be with me. And, honestly, it helped.
Five years hence, the beauty products and cling wrap are gone. The clothes are trotted out only as props for my show. The battery in the watch died, and I never bothered replacing it. The four boxes of bone china are still unopened in the back of my office closet, and her pictures surround me, but a lot of the stuff has lost its mojo. I remember the day I threw the toggle top to her pressure cooker into the recycling. I will not go into why I kept it, but I will tell you why I let it go. It was just a thing, and a thing that had no use. Objects have meaning because we give it to them. We bestow it, and we can take it away.
Ladies and gentlemen, I challenge you to open your closets and get out those garbage bags.
Maybe I’m an expert after all.
Visit elizabethpeavey.com for a full rundown of her September performances and appearances.