Personal Effects

My mother has a strong, mostly hidden, sentimental streak. She just can’t bring herself to get rid of certain things that have memories attached to them. My mother kept every get-well card she received when she was gravely ill in 1965. She also keeps every little get well gift. I learned that you can take any object, like a walnut shell, and if you add googly eyes and encase it in leucite, it will live forever. I have no issues with my mom keeping these often ugly and very dated keepsakes. Except when they are broken yet still displayed with pieces obviously missing.

Where I did have issues with my mother was over her sentimentality for food. Therefore, our freezer was a museum of my family history through food frozen. You would need to carbon date collected food to estimate its age. If you want to know about food in the in late 19th century Russia, go to the back of the freezer. We had baked goods made by my great-grandmother who had been dead for 30 years. And when the freezer was full, we had to add another freezer. No occasion was important enough to thaw and eat food made by a long dead relative. We had frozen fudge squares made by my great aunt and apple strudel by great grandma. Open the freezer and all you would see were tightly packed freezer-burned Saran Wrap, plastic bags of all sorts, and enough aluminum foil to fill a recycling bin. And lord knows what else was in there. I’m told this behavior is typical of people who come from Eastern Europe. No occasion was important enough to consume any of the archival family edibles.

There were two events that were the best moments of my childhood. The first was when the ceiling collapsed over our piano and I couldn’t practice or take lessons until everything was repaired. The second was when we had a power failure for a few days and my mother decided that perhaps the food had spoiled so we should empty and clean out the freezer. Otherwise this food would have moved homes with my mother, never to be seen or eaten but always there for comfort.

When my father passed away in 2006, we had shiva at my mother’s house. Shiva is a time after a Jewish funeral where people come and visit with the family of the deceased. The guests often provide food for the bereaved and there is usually a ton of food available for all the visitors plus some. After my father passed, there was an incredible amount of extra food. I asked everyone packing up this surplus food to add the date to the package before it entered a freezer. I knew it would be important information.

My mother is now in a house that has 4 refrigerator/freezers. Yes, all them get used when she hosts holidays. However, I suspect that, when she leaves us, we will be surprised at the quantity of aging packages remaining from shiva, for no event is important enough to eat food brought to sustain us during our mourning. Some things never change.

I’m not great about going through my freezer and pantry and discarding old items. But I am not emotionally attached to my left-overs. Or any food, for that matter. It’s just not how I’m built. Where I do have an unreasonable collection due to sentimentality and superstition is with photos. I have lots of boxes and bags of photos. The kind that you would get from developed film back in the old days. Periodically I will go through some old pictures and discard some. But I still have a lot of pictures of people who are no longer in my life, particularly people I met when traveling. I have this ridiculous feeling that throwing out a photo of a person is like erasing them from my memory. Or deleting their spirit. It is dishonoring them. In my closets, I have some duplicate and some out of focus prints. I have lots of photos I took of wild animals. Eventually I will discard all but the really important photos. But I’m not there yet. It is a slow and draining process of letting go.

I also have more books than I will ever read and I get comfort from my pile of books waiting for me to get to them. And I still have a ton of VHS tapes and DVDs that I promise to discard but I just am not yet ready. On occasion I will watch a VHS tape. Especially if it is homemade, like a vacation movie. But I have a lot of Hollywood movies I should and eventually will just discard.

I don’t think my attachment to these things is any better or more logical than my mother’s attachment to her items. Each of us gets a feeling of connection to our past, a sense of cohesion in our lives, and a sense of warm comfort from having certain personal tangible items in our homes that, on the surface, seem ridiculous to be saving yet have some sort of visceral and important role in our lives. I guess a beautiful thing about being an adult and having a home is that I can hold on to things and dispose of them at my pleasure. And although logically I know I should reduce the clutter, I will only do so when I am ready. And even a power failure won’t force me to let go.

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David Fink

I'm a midwesterner who is living this phase of his life in the arts.