The material sum of one’s life

Sharon May 6th, 2005

I’ve done this job now twice, in my own grandmother’s house, and for Eric’s grandparents. Sorting through the material objects that lend fixity to one’s place on earth is both depressing and oddly engaging. I find, in their home, a reflection of little neuroses that had passed unnoticed, like Grandma’s habit of secreting tissues in odd places not intended for them, and also tremendous skill at the art of thrift and creative homemaking. Those latter are definitely underrated arts - I tend to underrate them myself. But my appreciation is growing.

My paternal grandmother and great aunt, shaped by the depression and by being a little nuts, were packrats. They saved every margarine tub, every scrap of cloth, every rubber band and bit of usable scrap paper. Grandma did the same, but she had less space, and a better penchant for organization. I have learned thrift from them, but perhaps not organization as well as I might have. I try to imagine (too horrible to think about) what it would be like for someone sorting through the objects of my life, and it isn’t a pretty image. Instead of neatly organized shoeboxes full of used bows and old wrapping paper, you’d find piles and puddles and messes of miscellaneous things unsorted.

I can hear Grandma’s exhortations to usefulness (it was only a few months ago we did this together, sorting through Grandpa’s clothes and personal items) - “Could you use this?” “Would you wear it?” “Maybe you should save it.” “Well, then give it to the synagogue yard sale.” I try and do what she would want, although most of the clothing is off to the yard sale - some would fit me, but my taste does not run to polyester and the sort of things women of her age mostly wore. In the case of my great aunt Helen, many of her clothes were so outdated and so hideous that I was able to save them for dress-up play - there’s a box in my attic full of fur hats and silver lame shoes that occasionally gets taken out for amusement. Grandma’s clothes were more ordinary, and will warm and cover someone else, hopefully someone, who like Grandma, will be pleased with “Good Quality” and “Wash and wear.”

The day is most likely coming when cheap goods of plastic stop being cheap, and when we all have less cash to play with. What we have will be treasured, what we need will be made, or cobbled together, done without, or bought at tremendous cost and made to last forever. The Grandmothers in our lives mostly have those skills, and we have lost them. It is a loss, no question, and it will take us more than a few minutes to gain them back. And along with the skills of thrift and making do, the capacity to track, organize, preserve and plan that make up the basis of that unloved profession, homemaking. I can think of no better tribute to either grandmother than to learn them now, learn them well, and pass to my own grandchildren the things they so lovingly preserved.


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