The Clean-Up Continues
Together we managed to pitch quite a lot, and rounded up plenty to donate. But for those things that they chose to keep, the stories were often moving and even enhanced the value of the chosen item. Murphy made a case for almost every rock he had collected. He knew which rock came from which beach, describing one blustery day of searching for a perfect skipping rock. And Spencer wanted to keep a cardboard car he had gotten at a restaurant he had gone to with his dad on a father-son camping weekend. He even pointed out its practicality—he could store paper clips inside the car.
When Pat and I applied the same criteria for freeing ourselves of even more possessions, we found that we too could give up a lot. However, what we chose to keep were things that not only had a story but epitomized a time in our lives. There is, for example, the sculpture of a nude couple holding up a crystal ball.
The first year of our marriage, Pat and I were living in New York and acting in a play in the West Village. We lived in a charming garret that was so small we could wash dishes while sitting on the couch. We often frequented a glass shop down the street where the merchandise was too pricey.
In early June, though, we paid off a student loan and were feeling flush for the first time. So we went to the glass shop and found the piece that sits in our living room today. It cost two hundred dollars and we agonized over whether or not to buy it. The thought was exciting and terrifying. The owner wrapped it carefully and we carried it home like it was the baby Moses.
Two weeks later, we got the shocking news that the show was closing. We had gotten no warning and we were both out of a job. I remember sitting on the couch and hating the sculpture. How could we have been so stupid as to throw so much money away on that thing?
It wasn't elegant; it was garish. An embarrassment. We put the sculpture in a box earlier than was necessary just to rid ourselves of its silent recriminations.
On our last night in New York, with our future very uncertain, we lifted the sculpture out of the box and placed it carefully on the kitchen counter.
"It's really beautiful," Pat said, putting his arm around me. "Let's stop hating it."
As if one could simply elect to stop hating, my young self silently scoffed.
"I can't stop just like that," I said. "We'd have two hundred dollars if we hadn't bought it."
Pat slipped his arm off my shoulder and repositioned it so we were looking from a different angle. "What if we changed the story?" he said. "What if the story isn't that we were stupid and spent our last dime on a silly item? What if the story is that we were optimistic, we were in love, and we were living our dream—and this is our reminder that everything is possible?"
I'm not a woman who switches on and off that easily, so Pat's romantic-comedy dialogue only irritated me at the time. But through the years, the sculpture has come to epitomize those words. Even though it is mere stuff, it has also come to stand for freedom from fear of the unknown.
Nowadays, when I am visited by nagging doubts about my children's future, the sculpture offers reassurance. Totems like these are worth keeping.
Of course, the sculpture also could make an awesome launcher.
Originally published in the February 2013 issue of Parents magazine.