Friday, September 23, 2011

The Importance of Things

As Alzheimer's disease increasingly claimed my mother's memory and cognition, her things grew ever more important.

As her life shrank itself down into smaller and smaller proportions, the little trinkets she kept with her transformed themselves from tchotchkes to treasures. Whenever I visited one of her last apartments, she would pick up the items she had displayed and tell me the stories that went with them: Where she bought this one, what that one meant, how long she'd had it.

These were tiny trinkets, most of them, and I'm not sure whether she was inventing their histories or not. But as she went from a home to a condo to an apartment and then to assisted living and finally a nursing home, what struck me was how poignant it was to winnow her life down from truckloads to suitcases and finally an overnight bag - for a trip from which she would not return.

One of my favorite journalists, Dan Barry, wrote about the mundane relics of 9/11 on the anniversary a couple of weeks ago. His column echoed the sentiments of many who were interviewed about surviving that awful day: They couldn't bring themselves to throw out the tattered shoes, crumpled train ticket or ash-covered jacket they had worn on that September morning.

We're often told that it is the big ideas, like love and loyalty and courage, that matter in this life. So why do we attach ourselves so thoroughly to our objects: Could it be an antidote to lives that are oh-so-transient and temporary?

Poet Naomi Shihab Nye writes often about this concept of objects. Here's her take on it.


  1. The stories about your mom always touch me greatly.

    Am I attached to objects I wonder? Maybe a few that have been passed down through generations. Yes, certainly those.

  2. Thanks, AH. :-)

    I don't consider myself a material girl - anything but, actually - but I do feel a sentimental attachment to certain things. Particularly to those few older things that have come down from the generations, definitely, including my grandmother's egg beater and meat grinder - which I never use but keep in my cupboards nonetheless!

  3. I think things become symbolic of those larger concepts. They're tangible representations of love, sadness, family, memory. My parents each kept treasure boxes of small items that had meaning for them. I have these boxes, which now are treasure to me.

    Karen, your eloquent words about your mother always make me want to read more.