To keep or not to keep: on things that spark joy

Each week the Reckon Women newsletter includes a column from women in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. Click here to join the Reckon Women Facebook group.

By Jane Patten

I could never claim to be like Marie Kondo, the decluttering guru who recommends giving away items that don’t spark joy. Neither am I a pack rat, though. I clean and discard regularly and donate items that no longer serve their purpose—utilitarian or decorative. On the other hand, I’m also of an age that I have found myself the inheritor of my loved one’s items and some things are just too heavy with memories to lift and carry out the door. Add in a late life marriage, merging my stuff with his stuff, and a couple of more moves—well, some items were easy to say goodbye to and others became a part of our new life together.

When I first moved in with my husband, Tony, I knew there were a few little things of his that I would just have to live with: his Three Stooges bobble heads, his Red Sox memorabilia, and a few ceramic angels and souvenirs from his long ago visits to Portugal with his now deceased parents.  What I didn’t anticipate, however, was his attachment to an old-fashioned china cabinet that a neighbor had given him and that he had lovingly repaired.  “Isn’t it beautiful?” he asked, when I moved in.

“Well, not exactly,” I answered. “It’s kind of like something my grandmother would have had.” Actually, it was almost identical to the china cabinet my grandmother had: dark wood, ornate curves, and a mirrored back.

Then, as we unpacked my things, Tony came across two cardboard boxes, both marked, “Fragile.”

“What’s in here?” he asked.

“My grandmother’s crystal,” I answered. “We can just leave it in the boxes.”

But Tony wanted to see it, and as he lifted the first bowl out, he proclaimed it beautiful too, and asked, “Why have I never seen this? Why have you never had this out?”

“I just never had a place for it,” I answered.  But that wasn’t true. It had been stored away almost from the time I first got it—after my own mother’s death years before. What I should have said was that it wasn’t me. I preferred earthenware pottery, items from nature, and deep-hued glass.  This was clear etched crystal, dainty, and delicate. It didn’t match my other belongings. Instead, it seemed discordant, out of place. Just like Tony’s china cabinet.

So, of course, he said, “Well, we have a place for it now,” and into the china cabinet it went. A funny thing happened, though. As the weeks went on, I found myself drawn to the ornate cabinet and the carefully arranged glass—and accepted my memories of my grandmother and her crystal, this wedding gift from her father, now placed in the china cabinet of my home.

The home she and my grandfather lived in when I was a child was a tiny row house in Wilmington, Delaware, sixty miles away from my rural home.  It was my second home, a comfortable place, with beige roses printed on the wallpaper, granny square afghans adorning the sofa, and the china cabinet that held the treasures of the house. My grandmother allowed me, even though I was very young, to dust its contents and to rearrange all the bric a brac, all the items she deemed important enough to group together alongside her crystal.  Handing me a lemon scented cloth, she’d make space at the dining room table so I could carefully place all the crystal, a ceramic cow pitcher, the Amish figurines, the souvenir shot glasses, the clay cat sculpture I had made at school, and my grandfather’s tin of hard candy.  Carefully, carefully, I would dust and then put each item back while she proclaimed that I had placed everything just perfectly.

I had remembered this time with my grandmother, of course.  But for the first time in many years, I was able to appreciate the lesson—there’s a special joy in mismatches. If you love it, you love it. Marie Kondo would understand this part. And why did I need to put myself in a box and say this crystal wasn’t me? Weren’t we all full of contradictions?  Wasn’t I allowed to contradict myself? Tony was right; it was beautiful—and for at least as many years that I had stored this glassware away, I wanted to enjoy it.

When Tony and I moved to Huntsville from Georgia, we managed to give away a few more things before the move—area rugs, duplicate pots and pans, baskets, and curtains. My pieces of Georgia pottery and Tony’s Three Stooges bobbleheads came with us.  So did the china cabinet.  It sits today with my grandmother’s crystal, Tony’s angels and souvenirs from the Sanctuary of our Lady of Fatima, assorted bird feathers found on my walks, a rock my grandson brought back for me from a trip to the mountains along with a red origami bird he made me, pinecones in the fall and shiny ornaments at Christmas. Marie Kondo approved or not, it’s a testament to the past, the present, and maybe even my future—at any rate, it’s a space, a place, that in all its discordant harmony, sparks joy.

After retiring and moving to Huntsville, Jane Patten decided to write about her adventures thus far, including growing up in Delaware and her career as a teacher in rural Georgia. Her poetry has been published in Outloud HSV: A Year in Review for 2017, 2018, and 2019. 

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