psy·chot·ic leop·ard sīˈkädik/ˈlepərd/ noun · anything that is funky, interesting, beautiful, niche, useful, and grabs one's attention

Cart 0

Precious and Valuable: Finding Personal Significance in Family Possessions

Posted by Lisa Johnson on

My mother is the kind of person who saves everything, including the unimportant, and over the decades, it’s taken over her and my father’s house.

Within weeks of my sisters and I going off to college, our bedrooms were transformed into what appeared to be retail storage space for her clothing, as round chrome store-bought racks became centerpieces we had to squeeze around whenever we came home for a visit, the cold metal sagging under dozens of cheap dresses and floral pant sets. I don’t even remember her wearing most of them.

To assuage everyone’s complaints and because she actually enjoys the social aspect of it, two or three times a year she holds a huge garage sale in the driveway and basement, but by the end, it doesn’t seem like much of a dent has been made.  Objects never sold continue to be put back into the house countless times.  There is a long table perpetually full of outdated, old baby clothes that didn’t belong to any of us, plastic towel racks from decades earlier, leftovers nobody wants, even if you tried to give them away.

But she holds on to them, and woe to the daughter or husband that presses her on the countless benefits of a few significant trips to Goodwill.  And so our childhood home feels cramped with a jumble of extraordinarily personal items, like my grandmother’s framed hand drawings, mixed in with lots of cheap crap.  It’s hard to determine what is personally significant.

There’s a difference between “precious” and “valuable.”  My mother has a great eye for finding treasure - after all, she’s the one who taught me how to tag sale.  Being an artist (who unfortunately doesn’t practice anymore), she can’t help but notice more than most people do.  Being a realtor, she also has access to that which has to be moved quickly or gets left behind, and like me, she can’t stand waste.  And this is how so many items end up in my parents’ garage, with vague future intentions, but it seems like the time never comes to decide what exactly to do with it all.

There are valuable items, I suppose, that should not just be given away.  The problem is that I don’t know how to tell which are personally meaningful.  My mother has not sat down and told me the stories behind her possessions, though I have asked her to more than once.  She does not seem to have the inclination, and I worry that I will never know what is really special to her, or why.

This past year, a couple of my friends lost parents, and there was the awful and all-consuming task of having to sift through their belongings, while dealing with the anguish of the loss.  How to let go of objects representing the essence of a person so deeply loved?  

I am not one for saving much in general. My business allows me to buy things I love, and then let them go to good homes, often for more than I spent. So I get the pleasure of the purchase. What I do hold onto is mostly sentimental... journals, photo albums, and especially homemade birthday and apology cards. Or coupons the kids created promising to make my favorite salad dressing and to obey requests without being asked four times in a row.

Everyone is getting older. This past year, I lost one of my favorite aunts, an antique dealer with a great eye who collected all kinds of things, displaying them with pride and beauty. She cherished her stuff, and had no patience for poor quality. In every room of her house, I can feel her still from the items she left behind, especially in the vintage trophy collection in the downstairs bathroom, and the sterling Tiffany miniatures on another shelf.

And so I think about what is precious to me in my parents’ home, what I will want to keep.

My Grandpa Dave, the grandfather on my father’s side, dropped out of school in sixth grade to help support his family.  He taught himself many things, and lived his life as a cultured, well-educated man, with classic books all over the house, and art everywhere.  One of his later in life hobbies was teaching himself how to sculpt stone, and he became quite talented.  My parents and uncle have most of his pieces, and one of my favorites is a white Buddha head on a wooden stand, whose mouth I can’t help putting my hand into every time I walk in the front door of my parent’s house, as if for good luck.  

On the upstairs bathroom wall, the one that my three sisters and I had to share with our father (our mother had her own bathroom, of course), is a piece of what I call “funky functional” art - a ceramic plaque with three pairs of hands in different position, which we used to hold toothbrushes, razors, and hairbands.  That piece is so emblematic of my father - quirky, funny, and clever.  

Maybe it’s because so much time was spent in the bathroom, but the third item I covet is a small painting of birds, seagulls I think, flying over a marsh, which also hangs on that same wall.  I tried to copy the picture in high school in a painting class, but I just couldn’t capture it.

There is one item thing which stands out for me of my mother’s vast collection of stuff:  a simple, handmade sterling silver bell in the shape of a Native American woman.  I think she said she got it on a trip with my father to Mexico, shortly after they married when she was twenty years old.  There’s so little my mom shares about herself, and the fact that this was one of the first things she fell in love with and bought, while on the cusp of a huge life-change, seems really special to me.   

In this disposable society, it seems like material items come and go without much significance.  Some of it we can’t help - a lot is not made to last, and does not deserve to be preserved.  But when you find something that makes you feel spectacular and screams your name, I think it’s a sign that it might be worth holding onto.  Who might even end up in your daughter’s hands one day...

Share this post

← Older Post Newer Post →

Leave a comment