I enjoy Caitlin Kelly’s Broadside blog. Kelly is the author of Malled and Blown Away and, as a journalist, has written for the Financial Times, the New York Times and Forbes. And every Monday morning, without fail, I can count on finding Broadside in the dozen or so emails that have landed during the night.
What I enjoy about Broadside is Caitlin Kelly’s concise, sweet, simplicity. She has a way of taking quiet moments from her own life and writing about them in a way that makes her readers feel as if she’s writing each one a personal letter. Kelly is not maudlin nor does she over-romanticize stories from her life. She writes with touching economy and clarity that’s easy to read with my morning coffee. And more often than not what she chooses to share resonates because I either have been or am ready to go through a similar experience. I’m certain it’s because we are about the same age and life events tend to align, but sometimes I can’t help but say, ‘dang girl, you too?’.
For example, in a recent Broadside Kelly wrote about a small inheritance she received from her mother with whom she was estranged. The inheritance included a large pastel of Kelly’s great-grandmother and a small framed sampler – the embroidered alphabet grey with age. Having never received an inheritance, she found comfort and continuity in having these objects around her. And then she asked her readers, ‘what brings you comfort?’.
Many things, of course, bring comfort. A good meal. A loving partner. The purrs of your feline purr baby or the unconditional happiness of your canine best friend.
But other things – other circumstances – bring me comfort, too. I find comfort in surrounding myself with objects that have a history and the energetic imprint of the people from whom they were received. In fact, from where I sit this morning, I’m surrounded by things given to me by others: the painting on my wall, the brass lamp, the sofa and chairs, the tea chest and pillows, the porcelain box and the ceramic vase. Everywhere I look I’m reminded of friends that feel more like family and am I filled with love.
I wasn’t always so blessed. I’ve lived what I might describe as an IKEA-like existence. Easy to assemble, sometimes quick to fall apart, ready to go at a moment’s notice. No matter where life took me I managed to get there with as few boxes as possible. With as little excess weight as possible.
There are a few things, of course, that managed to stay with me through my many moves. I still have the capo I was given fifty years ago when I played 12-string guitar. I still have the little plastic box that held my guitar picks. I have a few of my picks from those days, too. But these things don’t speak to who I am. They speak to a time in my life when I borrowed my roommate Sissy’s Gunne Sax dresses, which were always a size too small. They speak to a time when I rode shotgun in Mike’s green Chevy Nova from our college campus in Crete, Nebraska to a shopping mall’s fern bar in Lincoln where we’d unpack our guitars and sing Dan Fogleberg songs.
I love that I have that old capo and those guitar picks even though I no longer have the guitar. It’s nice to have a few things that hold the memory of moments decades old. But what do I have that tells the story of who I am and why does knowing who I am – where I came from – bring comfort?
Over this past weekend I drove five hours north on Interstate 81 to clear out the books and tchotchkes and photographs and furniture that filled every square inch of storage locker 2011 at the East Penn Self Storage emporium in Trexlertown, Pennsylvania. These things were the remnants of my mother’s life and had been collecting dust and bugs and spiders for four years. My mother was still alive when I sold her trailer; when I threw away her sofa and shoved her clothing into a collection locker I found in the parking lot of the Walmart off of Hamilton Avenue. She didn’t know that I needed to do that; that she wasn’t going home. And I didn’t tell her. Instead I saved what I thought was important. Furniture that had been in the family for a few generations. The dog tags she wore when she joined the Women’s Army Corp. Family photos, marriage certificates and divorce decrees. A complete set of the Harvard Classics. I saved a wooden 12-inch ruler advertising a long since closed life insurance company headquartered in Pittsburg. And her knitting needles. I really wanted her knitting needles.
What I saved has little monetary value. Not the ugly Edwardian pendulum clock that stopped working before I was born nor the yellowed newspaper clippings my mother taped onto lined binder pages, her perfect Palmer penmanship taking note of why and how and who. I saved them anyway.
I don’t need these things. And while friends who, like me, are approaching the middle of their seventh decade choose to downsize I’m choosing the opposite. I’m gathering. Surrounding myself with a collection that others might describe as junk but to me is a treasure that exists to remind me of a time long past and a place that no longer exists.
It’s important for me to do this because it connects me to a history and to people I never knew but who gave me my nose, my blue eyes and my propensity for weight gain. These strangers whose blood is in my veins also gave me a passion for art and music. A love of nature. Keeping my great-grandmother’s writing desk and my great-aunt’s crocheted doilies honors my history. It honors them. I know the fragile aperitif glasses, the shell shaped plate from Japan and the lustreware casserole dish in which my grandma made my favorite corn pie could be gone in an instant. And after the sorrow of loss passed my life would be the same. Every new day people move through the loss of the things that remind them of who they are and I know how lucky and how blessed I am and I understand the impermanence of this jumbled collection of artifacts that until Sunday were covered in grime in a storage locker five hours up the road. But having these things around me now helps me feel less lost in this world; less like an uncertain, aimless wanderer and more like a woman secure in who she is and how she came to be.
And that brings me comfort.