I get sad in antique stores.
It’s not that I don’t like old stuff; in fact, I’m a huge cheesy fan of it, generally. But something about antique stores depresses me. I can’t stop thinking along one of two tracks: either I get overwhelmed at the massive glut of stuff that just continues to exist, oceans of kitsch upon kitsch, from decade after decade, and this crap is the cream of the crop! Masses of useless material, flotsam crowding the tide of the Earth.
(That’s in a bad antique store).
Or, in a better one, where things are a little lovelier, I get sad because I can’t stop wondering who these people were who lived and loved surrounded by these items, and what happened to them, and why their things ended up here. Furniture I understand. But when it comes to the most personal of items—books with inscriptions “To Linda, with all my love, 1977,” or stacks of family photos, with names or relationships (Mother, Grandfather) scrawled in an idiosyncratic hand on the back—
A group of someone’s loved ones laughing at a barbecue. A man standing proudly in front of a brand-new bungalow. A baby in holiday clothes.
Did no one want to keep these? Did no one care? I tend to think our sentimentality about our ancestors goes back 100 or so years in most cases, but is it often far less than that? Did one generation toss out everything the previous one loved?
I can’t help but make up morbid stories about old people who died with no one loving them at all. Younger people carting the photos to the cash register for a few dollars a box, cackling like the charwoman and the undertaker’s man dividing up the despised Scrooge’s belongings in Christmas future.
See, this is why you can’t take me to an antique store. I end up crouching in a corner fending off malign visions.
And this problem follows me far beyond antique stores. It makes it hard for me to throw sentimental items away. Whenever I try to Marie Kondo my life, I’m fine with tidying my clothes and practical items and even books (although I typically find that every single book brings me joy, which Marie would not approve of). But I get stuck before trying the “sentimental items” step, and I just don’t bother.
Somewhere along the way, in a pathology that sits probably right next door to my scarcity issues, I decided that every physical parting is an unmitigated tragedy, whether it be a parting with a human or with an old birthday card. I’m sentimental as hell.
But I think I’m wrong.
Take Linda, who received a book with all of someone’s love in 1977. Why did it end up for sale at the antique store? Maybe she hated the book. Or maybe she enjoyed it so much that she wanted someone else to enjoy it too. Maybe the person who gave her all his love was a total dick. Or maybe she fell into such dire poverty that she needed to sell all her possessions to make ends meet.
Wait, no, it’s getting sad again. Hurry—maybe she sold all her possessions because she went on the lam from the law. Okay, or, maybe she sold all her possessions to buy a boat and sail the world.
The point is, I don’t know.
A few years ago my parents’ elderly neighbor Jane was clearing out of her house of 60 years and on her way to a nursing home. She was not pleased about it. We went to visit.
She wanted me to have something: an old paperback copy of “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam” from the 1920s. In the front cover, her father had written “To Janie,” “from Daddie.” He was a sailor. This had been his gift to his young daughter after a long absence at sea.
I struggled to accept it. Didn’t she want to keep it? How could she not? Her father was long gone. Maybe this was one of the only items she still had with his handwriting.
No, she was sure.
Now both Jane and her father are gone. I have her book, for a time, until someone else will.
Something about how Jane passed the book along to me is a clue into how I can change my hoarding mind about sentimental items. Jane, at 95, parting with the inscription, could do nothing to lessen the love with which Daddie gave the book to Janie at 5, nor the joy with which Janie received it. Instead it multiplied, because I got a glimpse of that bond and I have not forgotten it. And now so have you.
Little bits of love can spread out into the world, as long as I don’t keep them clustered around my feet like a dragon jealous about her jewels.