At the Kitchen Table

I was in the office supply store talking to Barbara, whom I’ve known since high school, and she asked what I was working on. Writing a book, I told her, about the family furniture. “Like family baggage,” I said.

“Yeah, I know,” said Barbara. “Only bigger.”

We know, because this is who we are. We’re Americans in the 21st century. We have more stuff in storage bins and basements and attics and back rooms than we can ever use in a lifetime. Or three.

And of all the things we probably should sort through and do something about, the family furniture is in a class by itself. Anytime I tell someone about my own family’s voyage through the storage bins and on to the auction house and beyond, the story evinces winces of sympathy – and dread. If they haven’t already wrestled with it, they know the time is coming.

Tea setThe problem is compounded by the fact that we’re living in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, and even as we know we should be winnowing, we are wallowing. It’s hard to let go of objects because they are full of stories: our stories, our families’ stories, or if we’ve been haunting the flea market or the antiques mall, other people’s stories. They speak to us, as Yeats once said, of what is past and passing and to come. They speak to us of the life we had, and lives we never knew.

I am sitting on a winter morning in the kitchen of a house my grandparents built. I’m eating breakfast with my great-nephew, and behind us on the counter is a plastic toy milk bottle that moos when you turn it upside down. His toy, from six or seven years ago. He’s nine as I write. On this particular morning, I’m moved to suggest that we might get rid of it. Pass it on to someone else, someone younger, perhaps? Yes, he says unthinkingly, then immediately reneges.

The milk bottle, he tells me, reminds him of when he and his dad were living in the country. One night, his dad was making popcorn in a skillet, and when he took it off the stove and opened the lid, the fluffed kernels exploded all over the place. “And when the popcorn blew up, I was looking at the milk bottle, and it put the remembering right in my head,” he explains. The memory still makes him laugh uproariously. And this is why, I see, we won’t be getting rid of this milk bottle any time soon.

We can, in fact, never be free of our stuff until we have dealt with the stories it carries. In the end, it does indeed tell us something about who we are. It’s just stuff, our possessions. Family furniture. And it’s what we make of it.

Copyright © 2010 Lisa Tracy. All Rights Reserved.
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