My mother was the classic child of the Great Depression. Though she remembered her upbringing with fond nostalgia, the stories she told were mostly of staying one step ahead of the landlord, relying on government commodities to keep food on the table and learning to make something from nothing.
Puppies and kittens substituted for dolls until she was 13 years old and the sailors of the U.S.S. Oklahoma threw a Christmas party for impoverished children onboard their massive battleship anchored in California’s San Pedro Harbor. As afternoon shadows began to fall on that 1937 holiday, she contently rode the motor launch back to the docks with her very own doll cradled in her arms.
Like so many other men and women of her generation, Mom didn’t understand or condone the throw-away mentality of the modern age. If something was broken, you either fixed it or kept it until you were able to fix it. If you didn’t need something today, you hung onto it because you might need it tomorrow.
Family folklore is packed with stories of Mom retrieving this-and-that from boxes bound for thrift stores or tables laden with items priced and ready to be sold at the next day’s garage sale. While I was her caregiver, my hands were tied when it came to clearing out clutter. Once she spotted a broken birdfeeder I had tossed on top of a rubbish pile way off in the far corner of the backyard, foolishly thinking she wouldn’t notice before we loaded our old pick-up truck for a trip to the dump. She did, and the next morning I tramped out there and found a place for the poor, maligned birdfeeder in the bushes under the crabapple tree by her bedroom slider. Another time I bought her a new wind chime to replace the mangled one hanging from the trellis near the same crabapple tree. She wouldn’t let me throw away the old one, and I’m quite sure it’s still tucked in a box in our laundry room.
I also still have the last two of the four acrylic tumblers she bought at a neighbor’s yard sale some 25 years ago. Painted with pink and purple flowers and molded of thin material, they were just the right size and weight for the fresh glass of water she liked to keep handy to wet her whistle now and then. Eventually, the tumblers began to crack and leak, but parting with those last two was never an option for her and, by way of respecting her memory, it is not an option for me either. They were and always will be the best example of …
The Perfect Thing.
That was the line Mom used to justify countless stops at garage, yard, driveway, lawn and patio sales as well as the occasional second-hand store. “They might have the perfect thing,” she would say to me or my sister or a granddaughter or whoever was in the driver’s seat that day. Somehow, having a house full of her own paraphernalia was not quite enough. Someone else might have something better or different.
After she moved to Nevada to live with me, we managed to squeeze two households of furniture, kitchen gadgets, memorabilia and other miscellaneous belongings into one little, yellow house. Seven years later my ex-husband and I remarried, and we bought a 2,369-square foot, four bedroom, three bathroom house with a three-car garage because wedging yet another household of stuff into our compact, 1,420-square-foot home clearly exceeded the state’s legal limit. Still, the treasure hunting continued.
At times, the accumulation was laughable. If Mom could have rolled on the floor guffawing when my visiting sister played us a video of a George Carlin routine about stuff, she no doubt would have done just that. As it was, she and I both had tears of glee rolling down our cheeks.
That’s all your house is, is a pile of stuff with a cover on it,” the late comedian quipped. That’s all your house is; it’s a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff! Now, sometimes you gotta move. You’ve gotta get a bigger house. Why? Too much stuff!
At other times, belongings were anything but laughable. Mom was already in Nevada with me when my sister and her family packed out Mom’s storm-damaged trailer and transported a small U-Haul down the long Interstate 5 through Oregon, across the northern tip of California, and finally to our little house in the desert. For years Mom was convinced that some of her things were missing no matter how many times we tried to reassure her that none of us would ever betray her in that way. She had seen too many of her brothers and sisters give up treasured possessions in their old age and too many residents of the nursing home where she worked sadly arrive with just the bare essentials.
In the end, of course, we all move on to a place where stuff isn’t necessary. We can’t pack a bag of our favorite things and take it with us when we walk into the Light, cross the Great Divide, ascend to Heaven or make the final trip Home. Mom prepared for that eventuality by amassing an inventory – on cassette tapes and on dozens of pages organized in a three-ring binder – virtually everything she owned. If she remembered when and how she acquired an item, she documented it for posterity. The tapes even have some amazing back stories that shine a light on family history, on bygone days, and on Mom’s personality. Of the tapes I’ve listened to so far, a favorite tale is the origin of the Pink Depression Glass. She recorded this memory in 1990 while living in her trailer on the Oregon Coast.
Four plates, four saucers, four cups, a sugar and creamer, and a platter. My brothers, when they were very young, used to do canoe tilting. And you’ve probably never even heard of that. Two guys would get in a canoe. One would paddle. The other one stood in the front of the canoe with a long pole with a padded end on it and they went up against two other guys in another canoe and they tried to knock each other out of the boat. So a lot depended on the paddler to keep the boat in the right position and the other guy had to be really strong and steady. God, I can’t remember which of my (six) brothers it was but it was probably … Gene and Tom. This set of dishes – this Pink Depression Glass – was a first prize they won and they gave them to my mother. A lot of years ago, one time when I was visiting her, she gave them to me. And I love those dishes. I’d like to be able to eat off them every day. Of course, I don’t know why I couldn’t, but I love those dishes. So whoever gets them, cherish them. They’re very special. Anyway, they’re probably worth a little bit of money. I mean, Depression Glass is considered a real collectible now and these date back to … well … Tom just died at 81 … you can see it must have been more than 60 years ago when he was a young boy. All my brothers were real good swimmers.
Mom handed down the Pink Depression Glass to my sister several years before she passed away. My sister didn’t need the story to persuade her to hang onto this treasure. But that, I believe, was the purpose of Mom’s tape recordings and inventory binder. Perhaps if we knew where certain things came from, we might be more apt to understand the sentimental value and keep them in the family.
These days I love browsing through second-hand stores almost as much as Mom did, but now when I walk through the maze of this-and-that, I find myself wondering how century-old family photos wound up on a shopkeeper’s shelf or who might have sipped tea from a delicate, old china cup. Was that Depression Glass in the display case a prize in a canoe-tilting contest? Did that vintage birdfeeder once hang outside a homebound grandmother’s window? The mystery intrigues me
All right. I know that every room in our big house and too much space in our multi-car garage already are devoted to storing a lifetime of Mom’s things, my husband’s things and mine. I know I don’t truly need one more thing. I also know that the stuff in those second-hand stores represents someone else’s life; someone else’s stories. But I can’t let go of the notion that maybe, just maybe, if I keep looking, one day I’ll find …
The Perfect Thing.