A stuffed rabbit made of white organic cotton, its black eyes circles of thread so there are no buttons a small child might pull off and place in his mouth. A palm-sized plastic banjo that plays its one jaunty riff loudly the moment it’s touched. Chinese checkers. Monopoly Junior. Clue. The clothing I pull out of Ethan’s closet tells me he was probably ten the last time I did a purge like this. But the rabbit was given to me at my baby shower, the banjo his favorite toy when he was two. It seems I’ve blinked and now Ethan is a high school freshman. His new school enforces a dress code and what he needs isn’t a storeroom for old beloved toys but uncluttered space for his good clothes.
Further back, I find a green boat with a matching truck driven by a small plastic man — a present to Ethan on his eighth birthday from my brother. Steve drove a green truck and had a green boat and black hair like the little figurine. He died this past February after a decade-long battle with cancer. Sighing, I put the banjo in the thrift store box, give the rabbit to our dog and, as Cindy runs off with her new prize in her mouth, place plastic Steve with his boat and truck back on the closet shelf.
Flanked by trash bags, give-away boxes and piles of stuff — and with Steve’s presence now solidly in the room — I recall the weekend, eight years ago, when I had to clean out my parents’ apartment after they died. Steve was too sick to travel, so I was on my own with the dreaded task. As I boxed up the various knick-knacks my mother had carefully dusted week to week, the thought occurred to me that we fill our homes with things because it makes us feel more permanently rooted to the earth. He can’t be gone, I had heard myself say when I first entered the living room and found my father’s worn oxfords lying where he’d last kicked them off. There’s his shoes! Later, as I sorted through his papers — stock quotes and bank statements — I asked aloud, Dad, where’s your emotional life? As if in answer, the next paper I came across was his brother’s marriage certificate. The one after that, an enlarged photo of his parents. Then, a decades-old letter from me.
What do they say about us, the objects we keep? Recently I read in a magazine article that if you tend to surround yourself with mementos it’s a sign that you are happy with your life. Right after I read that, I rummaged through my purse in search of a breath mint and pulled out a seashell. Guess I’m happy, I grinned.
Still, ideally, I think I’d like to cultivate a Zen-like non-attachment to belongings. There are times it feels like I’m close. I’ve always liked giving things away, and when I’ve lost loved objects or had them taken from me over the years, I find the sting is usually short- lived. The exception — note how reluctantly I part with a stuffed rabbit and a plastic banjo — is if the item is somehow tied to someone I love.
The pull of precious gifts can feel uncomfortably weighty to me. For over thirty years, I had a necklace my parents gave me on my sixth birthday — my nameplate on a gold chain that had belonged to my grandmother. Then one day I entrusted it to a flighty friend who knew a guy she thought could get the knots out for me. They lost touch soon after and I never got the necklace back. I still sometimes wake up feeling bad about that, imagining how disappointed my parents would be if they knew.
“Take me somewhere,” I’m quick to say when people ask me what I’d like for a present. Last year, on my birthday, Ethan treated me to the movie, Taking Woodstock, and then bought me dessert at a favorite cafe. This year, Dan surprised me with a night at a Bed & Breakfast in Cape May, the beach town where we first met. As often happens, my birthday fell in the midst of the High Holy Days, so we performed our version of Tashlich, tossing tortilla chips from our lunch into the water to symbolize casting away our misgivings for the year. Standing barefoot in the ocean, I had a truly visceral experience of the ritual, the tide literally pulling my regrets away from me before cleansing me with its spray.
Soon after, as we gathered our towels and shoes to go dress for dinner, I stopped to pick up that shell and put it in my purse. What I asked for, and what I treasured, was the gift of a shared experience. Yet I found I wanted to take some thing of it with me, some keepsake to remind me of where we were and how we felt on that particular day. Maybe I haven’t quite cultivated non-attachment but, instead, a Zen-like appreciation of what I have.
Now, I bring bins filled with Legos and Matchbox cars downstairs, sure that some neighborhood child will appreciate chancing upon such a windfall. Meanwhile, Ethan’s closet is finally clutter-free, his crisp shirts (size men’s small!) and pressed khakis hanging in a neat row. In a way, it’s like Tashlich, a clearing out for a fresh start in the New Year. And, because I can’t help but give meaning to certain objects, I imagine plastic Steve sitting sagely in his truck on the closet shelf, a talisman from the past watching over us as we embark on yet another beginning.