Thanksgiving approaches, so I have pulled my mother’s little glass gravy “boat” and relish dishes off a high kitchen shelf, where they have sat unused since Thanksgiving 2019.
The sugar bowl and creamer have small, almost imperceptible chips. I can picture them, and the small bowls that my mother filled with olives, pickles and radishes, set carefully on a spotless white tablecloth, accenting the platters of carved turkey or pheasant. With the fragrance of Norwegian cookies baking, the late November sun filtering through lacy curtains and causing the glassware to sparkle – after all the decades that have passed since she and my father died, the image of that place, on that day, remains clear and precious.
The gravy boat stands out a little because it is shapely and features an intricate floral design and a slight golden tint overall, but it has no more monetary value, I’m sure, than the plain, heavy glass of the sugar bowl, creamer and other pieces. What once was a full formal dinner set may have been a wedding gift in the 1930s, cared for and reserved for holidays and other special occasions, but this is not fine Waterford crystal. You might even dismiss it as cheap.
It speaks to me, though, of family. It conjures faces, and they are smiling.
But as I held the surviving pieces this week, gifts from a sister living in a nursing home, weighing each in turn and remembering, I found myself wrestling with an increasingly pressing, nagging thought: What do I do with these things when it’s my time to really lessen my footprint?
I had brought the gravy boat down early this year because a friend has been telling me about the first-world challenge of dealing with the accumulated “stuff” of a life.
“I started cleaning, got distracted and started emptying the built-in buffet in the dining room,” she wrote. “It is filled with glassware, china and knick-knacks, most of it inherited. I hate some of the figurines. Then I turn them over and see [my initials] written on the bottom in my Mom’s hand, and sometimes a little history about who gave the gift and the year. What to do?”
My friend is a strong woman given to honest, direct speech. “Things are not people,” she wrote. “I set some of the stuff I really despise aside for donation, but the Royal Doulton lady my mother loved will have to stay.”
Her words led me to recall that heart-rending scene early in “The Grapes of Wrath,” Ma Joad sitting at a fire and sorting through her spare possessions just before the family hits the road to escape Dust Bowl Oklahoma. A pair of gaudy earrings, a newspaper clipping about son Tommy's conviction and sentence to prison, and a cheap little souvenir from the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.
I think of Ma sorting whenever I contemplate sifting through stuff to spare someone else the task. I have no earrings, no World’s Fair trinkets, but I do have newspaper clippings, more than 50 years’ worth, all with my byline or column mugshot. I have books, “too many,” a mover once complained as he carried a box downstairs. And I have pictures, including portraits of my parents when they were young. A Norwegian cousin gave me the picture of my dad. He had sent it home to his folks after arriving in America in 1924. I treasure that photograph, and I’m confident it will be preserved and valued for another generation or two, but I’ve done stories – I have the clippings – about boxes of old family photos sent without ceremony to landfills.
After several half-hearted attempts to declutter, I don’t have much of the stuff one accumulates over time and keeps as reminders. I have my byline, a thin piece of lead bearing the raised letters of my name, cast 50 years ago by sweet old Jimmy Schley, one of the last Linotype operators in Grand Forks. And I have the medal that commemorated the 1939 visit of then Norwegian Crown Prince Olav to North Dakota; I showed it to his grandson, Haakon, the current crown prince, when he visited my newspaper in Minneapolis years ago.
I have the Eugene McCarthy for President button I wore in 1968 and a Coya Knutson congressional campaign button that she gave me when I interviewed her shortly before she died, long after the shameful “Coya Come Home” campaign that used her hapless husband to end her political career. I have a button bearing Dru Sjodin’s smiling face, and another with cherubic Ali Borgen’s exhortation to “Smile Wide,” even in the face of cancer. I’ve promised to remember them both.
I have my mother’s gravy boat, and I have a pewter mug from my year in Norway, a fraternity pin, a dozen or so owl figurines. Stuff.
Many of you have gone through this, or you’ve been thinking about it: downsizing – tossing or donating or willing possessions. It can be satisfying, knowing that what meant something to you will continue to matter to a friend, a relative.
It can be hard, too. “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure,” they say, but the reverse also can be true. Just look into Ma Joad’s eyes as she slips that yellowed newspaper clipping and other pieces of her life into the stove fire because she can’t take everything to the promised land of California.
Chuck Haga had a long career at the Grand Forks Herald and the Minneapolis Star Tribune before retiring in 2013. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.