It was about six months ago when I looked around my house and wondered, where in the world did all this STUFF come from?
Everywhere, in every cabinet, drawer, shelf, STUFF. My husband and I live in less than 1600 square feet with four children ages 8 and under, so one must have a low tolerance for stuff, lest one drown in it.
So I got rid of it. A lot of it. Bags and bags of clothes made their way out of our closets. I tossed kitchen appliances I never used, jewelry I never wore, college textbooks I knew I would never look at again.
It’s just stuff, I told myself. It doesn’t mean anything. I wanted to clear out the clutter and make more room for people and relationships and things that matter to me.
The true challenge came when I came upon the shoes I wore on my wedding day 12 years ago. Silver and sparkly, they were perfect . I loved those shoes. I don’t love them anymore, not for the reasons I did then. They’re chunky-heeled and out of style. But still, I danced in those shoes at my wedding. MY WEDDING SHOES.
Aaaaand I tossed them.
I’m telling you, I was ruthless. Don’t use it? Gone. Don’t love it? Gone. But what if I might need it one day even though I forgot I had it in the first place? Gone pecan.
It’s all just stuff. Mostly.
My cousin stopped by last week. Actually, she’s my great-uncle’s daughter, which makes her my cousin once removed, or something like that. She had some things she wanted to give me, she said; they had belonged to my great grandmother (her grandmother). My great grandmother–she was “Sugar” to me and my younger brother, but everyone else called her “Gran”–died almost 20 years ago.
I had no idea what to expect from the visit, what the items might be, but midday last Wednesday saw my cousin perched on a bar stool in my kitchen, the two of us making happy conversation. She opened her purse. “I’ve had these things for a long time, and I’ve enjoyed them. Now it’s your turn to wear them.”
I gasped when I realized what she was handing to me–my great grandmother’s wedding band and engagement ring. The last time I had seen them, Sugar was wearing them. I reached out to touch them, gingerly, as if they might disappear. Tears slipped down my cheeks.
“Don’t cry!” she laughed, wiping her eyes. “Or I’ll cry, too.”
“I remember…” I trailed off.
I remember those rings on my great grandmother’s hands, thin and spotted with age, the only way I ever knew her. Her fingernails were always filed into ovals and polished in mauve. She would fuss at me for biting my nails; the few times I managed to grow them out, i was so proud to show her. She would help me paint them.
Although my great grandfather died nearly 30 years before she did, Sugar always wore her wedding set. I remember the way her hands felt on mine, cool and papery soft. I would examine her rings–she wore several–and ask her to tell me again what it was like when she was a little girl.
Few things delighted me more than watching my great grandmother’s hands form cornbread into patties for frying. By the time I was old enough to remember, Sugar wasn’t cooking much anymore, but she would always fry cornbread for me. It was my favorite.
In a jeweler’s glass case, the rings would be lovely but meaningless, white gold and diamonds, sparkling and cold. But as I turned them over and over, looking at every angle, I could see my great grandmother’s hands. It had been a long time since I had pictured her so clearly in my mind, but there she was, as if in the room with us. I clutched the rings as if they would link me directly to her, and enveloped in nostalgia, I felt a pang of grief so sharp it startled me.
She’s gone, I thought. She’s really gone.
It’s been nearly 20 years since I said goodbye to my great grandmother, and there I stood, bewildered by her absence, by the hole she left behind.
Some things aren’t just things, I’m finding, and my great grandmother’s wedding rings will never be “stuff.” They feel charged with her life, a tangible piece of the past, a part of her, almost. I’m wearing her rings as I type this. One day I’ll pass them on to my daughter, but it won’t be the same. She never knew Sugar, so for her, they will carry different memories. She won’t look at them and recall my great grandmother’s hands; instead, the hands she will see will probably be mine.
(Betsy Swenson can be reached at email@example.com.)