In her pantry, my mother kept three translucent teacups and saucers glazed with navy blue on white, accented with raised golden swags and dots. From these elegant vessels, she claimed to sip tea with her friend Jim while they worked jigsaw puzzles or did the New York Times crossword.
I had my doubts. We weren’t tea drinkers in my family. Mom and Dad started their day with coffee in ceramic mugs bought while touring England. Still, Mom kept her regal teacups, insisting they were objects of utility.
Hardly anyone in America uses the cups and saucers that come with their dishes, and Mom had a dozen in her English transferware pattern (Johnson Brothers, Old Britain). So she had no need of those delicate cups. I think she just admired their unmistakable whiff of extended-pinky snobbery.
Mom came from rural South Dakota, but her parents relocated to North Hollywood when she was a young teen. She made friends with girls from prosperous families and enjoyed beaches, cotillions, and trips to Catalina Island.
These halcyon days came to an end when she married a sailor and became a mother at age seventeen.
Soon after, my grandfather’s business failed. My grandparents retreated to South Dakota. When her marriage failed, so did my mother, but she’d been infected with class awareness.
She never recovered.
Social class had a code, and Mom wanted to crack it. She understood that the more comfortable echelons of society actually used their beautiful objects, so she strove to do this. She glowed with pride over her Johnson Brothers dishes. My parents ate from those pink castles every single day and ran them through the dishwasher.
On her entry table, she kept a huge antique Asian bowl she considered valuable. That was where she threw her mail and keys. Alongside it stood two large white ceramic rabbits with pink eyes; knickknack outliers.
My mother first saw these rabbits in an expensive gift shop in 1977. She spoke of them with longing and bitterness, because she never had enough money to buy anything as costly and wonderful as those big white rabbits.
My brother, sister and I pooled our meager funds and bought them for her birthday. We thought she would be thrilled, but she seemed disappointed that she could no longer complain about that particular deprivation.
Eventually, more white rabbits came her way as gifts. “I don’t want to collect anything,” Mom complained.
My mother would not suffer the social embarrassment of accumulating fussy objects that had no use. She preferred to pass them along to me with the admonishment, “You should keep this. It will be worth money someday.”
I accepted various knickknacks (including the largest white rabbit), ornate teapots, and flowery teacups, and kept them against that promise of future value right up until Mom died. Then, I quietly donated almost everything she gave me.
But not everything…
I claimed the various large white ceramic rabbits. Each spring, I display the entire fluffle on my dining table. I even added one this last year, so the current count stands at six. My mother would be horrified.
She may have thought it tacky to have knickknacks, but Mom had a stash of extraneous flowered porcelain somewhere. I’d seen it. After Mom died, my father offered up her small accumulation to me and my sister.
My sister reluctantly took “Grandma Lucille’s teapot,” ancient and oval, patterned with pansies. It had been promised to her years before with great solemnity. Somehow her desire to actually own it was never taken into account. She accepted it with duty, not desire.
I took two small bowl and pitcher sets, and a Wedgewood “Windrush” demitasse cup and saucer. Mom had the pitcher sets as for long as I could remember, but where had the demitasse come from? Had she bought it on a trip to Europe? Dad didn’t remember. It held no sentimental value, but was too pretty to let go.
Finally, Dad opened the cabinet and offered up the imperial three, those delicate navy blue and white teacups trimmed with gold, saying, “I’ll never use them.” To his surprise, Cat and I both declined. They meant something to Mom, but nothing to us.
Those swagged and stately teacups reemerged seventeen years later at Dad’s estate sale. They went quickly, I imagine to a person who never uses them. That’s what I like to think, anyway. I hope they sit proudly on a shelf, gathering dust, their potential utility ignored in favor of their regal beauty.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom. I miss you every single day.
I used to love to watch AMC Hoarders. I was repulsed and amused as a woman said a blessing over a rotted squash before she could let the clean-up crew carry it out of her house. This same woman had kept a dozen eggs for over a year because they were pretty and her sister gave them to her. I couldn’t believe it.
Did you see the rabbit episode? This man let his pet rabbits run wild and free, and they totally destroyed the home he was renting. I am not exaggerating. They ate through the wall board, wiring and insulation, they made burrows through all the walls, and they filled rooms with dung. When the landlord stopped by during cleanup, he almost fainted.
I’d watch until a big ball of anxiety built up in my gut, and then I’d jump up and go sort through a junk drawer and do some laundry. I’d dust. I’d feel better. Then, I read a book called “Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.” It takes a deep dive into the relationship between the hoarder, memories, and the actual objects a person hoards. I identified with what the case studies were saying. Things were special. Things had feelings. Things were devalued when they were used. Things connected the present with the past, and to let things go would let the memories go.
And I realized that I have a very organized, well-stored hoard in my house. My house is spacious, tidy, airy, even. But it’s there. You just can’t see it (aside from the books).
These are some of the things I have carefully packed up and hidden away in my home:
My very best teddy bears and vintage stuffed animals.
I know exactly which bears and so on are in these boxes, but I haven’t looked at any of it in 14 years, and the only reason I looked at it back then was that I had a house fire, and I had to mourn all the Steiffs that didn’t make it through. The reason they didn’t make it through? They were declared “smoke damaged,” and kept by the guy who did the restoration. This still burns me up, even though i have not touched one of these stuffed animals in FOURTEEN YEARS.
Enough Christmas decorations to adorn at least three houses.
This is a great improvement from when my Christmas decor filled the entire over-sized linen closet. I could have done ten houses at one time, but I gave 80% of it away two years before the fire, and lost about half of what was left in the fire, including all the darling vintage stuff I’d picked up over the years.
Like, 150 of them. Don’t even ask. Or if you must ask, ask something specific, and I’ll try to answer.
Of all my undisplayed collections, this one bothers me the least, because the entire lot fits in an old Christmas card box. I love them, but I don’t know how the heck you display them, so I don’t.
Vintage ceramic pins.
I have an sizable collection of realy cute and fun 1980s ceramic pins (inspired by a love of Mork-era Robin Williams) stashed in a jewelry chest. I have a glass box of metal and celluloid pins on my dresser, but that is a displayed collection, not a hidden-away collection, so it doesn’t count.
I have a pink plastic carrying case full of the ragtag survivors of my childhood obsession with these funny little dolls. They are not in good shape, since I played with them. A lot. I have no idea what to do with them. They are all shot.
American Girl Dolls.
No, I don’t have a Molly, but I do have an Addy, a Samantha, and a baby. My daughters don’t want them, and I don’t want to let go of them, so they are in a box in my closet.
There are only three (Stacey, Twiggy and Malibu Barbie), but I have them and all their clothes from the 1970s.
There is probably more stuff, carefully packed and stashed here and there. And this doesn’t count what’s actually out on display, or the two sets of dishes stashed in the breakfront, or the vintage purses on my closet shelf, or the hats in the vintage hatbox, and all the damn detritus that accumulates when you live in the same house for over thirty years.
So, believe me when I say that once I read “Stuff,” I could no longer watch Hoarders. I felt compassion for these people who were climbing through piles of junk. I had too much in common with them.
Why am I so weird about stuff? I don’t know, but I do know it’s a family thing.
For as long as I can remember, my mother rhapsodized about my grandmother’s possessions. I wrote a long blog post about this here, which you are free to read, but the point is, things were kind of a religion in my family as I grew up. The more storied a thing was, the more precious it became.
Since we lived in South Dakota, there was an abundance of farm auctions and antique stores full items that came with imagined stories about pioneers built right in. That crumbling iron rake might have arrived in a Conestoga wagon! It might have been part of a fire line in a prairie wildfire! Or it might have just been, you know, a rake, but we were expected to mythologize right along with my mother, her parents and her sister.
I realized how deeply ingrained this is in my family when my aunt called me after she sold her home, where she’d lived since the 1960s. She wanted to apologize to me for the fact that, when she moved, she left behind a loveseat that had belonged to my grandmother. That loveseat was fifty years old.
I thought about this quite a bit when my father died after a long battle with COPD. His home showed his infirmity — the gigantic oxygen compressor and all the spare bottles were cleared out, but the adjustable bed, bath chair, walker, wheelchair, and comfortable lift chair where he spent most of the last weeks of his life. His priorities showed in his state of the art TV and sound system, his curated wall of books and his carefully stocked cabinets.
As Dad aged, I felt like he’d done an admirable job of paring down and keeping things minimal, with some help from us. My brother had cleaned and sold all the family’s Turkish rugs years ago, and I’d dumped a 1967 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica that my mother left with me “for the kids.” We’d done our part.
But Dad did have a lot of Mom’s precious stuff — things that were kept (and occasionally passed to us kids) with the warning, “This is worth money, you know.” We didn’t want it, but we knew she’d kill us if we dumped it. After Mom’s death 15 years ago, it mostly found its way back to my dad.
Stuff. Good stuff. Restored cast iron pieces from my grandfather, including miniature salesmen sample stoves, toy vehicles, cornbread molds and pots with seams that peg them as pioneer material. A family clock from my grandparents’ home that is broken. A working antique spinning wheel. Various stoneware crocks, also ancient. An enormous unfinished dollhouse that has been in the family (and in the way) since the 1970s, and boxes of miniatures from the years when my parents ran a miniatures business. Mom’s pink and white Johnson Brothers transferware. Blown glass cocktail glasses. The Polish ceramics she took a shine to later in life. A set of vintage blue Canton dishes that had been tested for lead, Mom pointed out repeatedly, which did nothing to make us want it.
We sold it. At an estate sale. We sold it in waves, in boxes and bags. We sold it to delighted, happy people, we sold it to hagglers, we sold it to newlyweds and drug addicts and collectors and neighbors. I’m sure we sold it for pennies on the dollar. And it was liberating in the extreme. If I could sell my mother’s cast iron miniature cookstoves, I could dispose of anything.
So this has launched me on a mission: to clear my stuff. I exempt myself from getting rid of books, which would be the first place to start, but I just can’t do it. I took eight bags of books to the Goodwill this past weekend, but that’s a mere fraction of what I have shelved. The books can stay, to be gone through at my leisure, if ever.
Everything else has to go, before the rabbits move into my walls.