In Defense of Magpies

“What are you going to do with that?” said my son, barely containing his disdain. He’s looking at a recent acquisition: a set of multi-colored cordial glasses set on a gaudy glass tray. Yikes – even reading this description causes me to wonder about that as well.

I’m surveying the top of the breakfront at our camp in the Adirondacks. It contains: the previously referenced set of cordial glasses, a segmented wood peppermill made by a friend, deer antler salt and pepper shakers, a large maple bowl that a buddy and I collaborated to make, a lamp, a glass paperweight, a cherry and purple heart toothpick holder, a crystal clock gifted by my brother and sister-in-law, ceramic pinecone salt and pepper shakers, a small turned Applewood box made by a friend, an aluminum candy dish, and a wire figure constructed by my adult son last night.

Maybe he is right – in this era of minimalism and Marie Kondo, perhaps I don’t deserve horizontal space. Yet this plane serves as a memory platform for me. Each item has an association – and is a reminder of an important person. The cordial glasses were exactly the same type that my parents used for special occasions. My brother Rich and I used to love to gaze at the different colors and pick our favorites. The cordial glasses are really markers of an earlier life. They bring a sense of family now gone and recapture that sense of wonder that kids have when they see something ‘magic’ for the first time.

While many of these relics are personal markers, it doesn’t stop there – I love artifacts, objects worn smooth by human hands. The patina of use is what attracts me. The idea that the object captures a little bit of the essence of the prior owners inspires reverence. I used to collect old woodworking tools, but how many can you have? The tactile attraction is important; proper attention is required for each. Shutting them away in boxes is simply gluttony. The joy is in both seeing and handling these artifacts. They need air.

I also collect woodturnings that my friends or I have completed. Each with a different style and different story: Ronnie, now in assisted living, Big Joe battling cancer, the memory of Phil who passed away – but also Ralph improving his craft, Matt’s lovely vessels, and Steve’s delicate work. These works are from the hands of people I like and respect.

I refresh their pieces with a drop of oil and wax mixture at frequent intervals. In this manner they will last longer and can be passed down to someone else when it’s my turn to do so. I’ve heard that the Japanese also practice this routine. Future owners may not have the same cherished memories I hold of the makers, but I’d like to think that some of their essence still abides to be shared with the next person in line.

I have a Collect Call for…

In college, after a weekend away, upon returning to the dorm, I had to call home to let my folks know I made it safely. I would get the operator and place a collect call to myself.  My mom would answer and the operator would tell her she had a collect call for me.  Mom would say that I wasn’t in.  They then knew I was back safely. Probably everybody back in the 60’s did this.  What does this have to do with Magpies?  ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!  But I am a collector like Wally, too.

Collections don’t spring out of nowhere.  There is usually a reason behind the madness of collecting.  Someone near and dear to you started the collection, someone near and dear collected some weird stuff and you wanted to honor their interests, or something caught your eye and you decided to buy something.  Then for birthdays or Christmas forever after, people who didn’t know what to get you would remember you collected salt and pepper shakers and buy you a pair of piggies with little holes in their heads- 2 holes for pepper and 3 for salt!  And so a collection has begun.

I have a few collections that I admit to.  Some others that I don’t.  I love large wooden or metal folk art toys- homemade trains, trucks, planes.  The kind a grandfather would make for his grandkids.  They are all over my living room.  And I am always on the lookout for more.  Then there is my plastic Santa collection.  Santa’s from the 50’s and 60’s, some from Occupied Japan. I no longer go out in search of them but there is one piece if I should ever find I would grab at any price!    They of course are stored safely away ‘til a week or two after Thanksgiving when they come out for air for about a month only to be packed away again for the remaining months ‘til next year.  But my prize collections are close to my heart. I have been a model railroader since I was a kid.  My dad bought my brother a 1938, prewar, Lionel train when he was a little kid and I got mine many years later, a 1954 Lionel train, no longer made of metal.  It is the only thing my dad, brother and I ever did together.  My dad made a platform for our living room that took up almost half the room. It would take the better part of a week to set up our Christmas layout.  Every December my brother and I would head off to F.W. Woolworth’s to see what new Lionel cars were available and to see what new Plasticville structures came out that year.  Those trains and then, years later, my HO and N gauge trains are all packed safely away and stored in my basement.  They haven’t been set up in over 20 years!  But,  DON’T TOUCH MY TRAINS!  And finally, for my college graduation, my brother bought me an original water color painting by a Long Island painter named Alan Ullmer.  From that day on, anytime I saw an original painting that I liked, I bought it.  I would go to art shows and check out the paintings. If I saw one I was interested in I would squint at it, like I do with the Christmas lights, and If I could imagine myself in the painting, I would buy it! Now that is not to say that I don’t collect new things.  Sometimes something catches my eye and I have to have it.  You know, that useless piece of junk that you can’t live without!  You have a problem with that?

In Defense of ‘Less is More’

“Where’s all your stuff?” a friend once exclaimed when he visited my home for the first time.  I have plenty of “stuff” mind you.  Some is tucked away in boxes in the basement – my children’s school records, birthday cards, artwork, and a stuffed animal or two.  Nearby are outdated cameras, boxes of Kodachrome slides, old pictures in older frames; the list goes on.  And I do have a few decorations on my walls, books that mostly fit on my shelves, and a knick-knack and picture or two here and there.  But I don’t have stuff that fills my counters or floor space or the horizontal space that Wal describes.  This friend, perhaps like Wal, also loves his stuff and he and his wife abundantly fill their home spaces with those things they hold dear. 

I do know that my children are less interested in those things of their youth and likely will have little use for my “stuff” when I’m gone.  Both of them, each in their own family setting, seem to cycle out stuff to make room for the new.  I wonder how that kind of balance may change for them and each of us as we age.

Wally’s piece speaks to me about acquiring and holding on to what we value, what matters.  And things that represent connections to cherished memories are often valued. 

I grew up with little, now have much, and hope to leave my children with little worry to wonder about what to do with all my stuff. 

Wally referenced Marie Kondo who asks us to part with anything that didn’t spark joy when we touched it.  Margareta Magnusson, is the author of a book that speaks to the art of Swedish Death Cleaning.  The idea is for middle- to older-aged people to rid their homes of things they/we don’t need.  This not only is a huge favor for those we leave behind, who must decide what to do with our things, but often allows our lives to run more smoothly with less stuff. It also affords us a trip down memory lane as we go through these belongings, adding value along the way.

I’ll be looking at my stuff from now on, with purpose and more intention.  I’ll begin to let go of many things I no longer need or use.  And along the way, as an item raises a fond memory, I’ll be sure to share that with the appropriate person, if I can.

I wonder if, in one year, I can wander about my own house and exclaim, “Where’s all my stuff?”

8 thoughts on “In Defense of Magpies

  1. I have been spare the collector bug – if you don’t count the songs, baseball stats and trivia swirling around in my head. I think having to pack and move around over the last half century(OMG) has helped keep me from holding on to too many things. Still my daughter will “love” having to go through boxes of old photo from her grandparents and parents.

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      1. According to the great sage Arlo Guthrie, we should move every five years just so we go through and clean out our “stuff”.

        One of my favorite quotes (referring to ukulele acquisition syndrome) is “Why have one when 12 will do?).

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  2. Probably because we have moved 6 times in the last half century(OMG), I have been spared many “collections”. I have the mental baggage of song, trivia and all important baseball trivia to deal with but that is a whole different problem. I am sure my daughter will “love” going through the boxes of photos we have amassed but rarely look at, unless we are paring down for another move.
    I really enjoy your blog and look forward to the stuff you are thinking about.

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  3. This year I turned 70. I’ve lived in six habitats… Bouton and Crispel Halls and the Fraternity House comprising half that amount. I was …born … into my childhood home in Pawling and left it temporarily for those college digs. All three of my kids were born into the house Judy and I purchased when we were 25. They love to bring their kids “home.” Thank God I married Judy who is blessed with the embrace of the dictum … if you haven’t used it / worn it in a year get rid of it. It’s not like I’d be a hoarder or anything but …… well, I still see the value in things I obtained a …long … time ago and I’ll admit to the uneasiness I have with things passing from the way they are to … the way they were. I love to travel …. but I always love to come home.

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  4. I had a wonderful childhood and now I am surrounded by pieces of furniture that I grew up with.
    Every time I open the front door, I get a warm feeling that I have come “home”.
    I have surrounded myself with gifts from family and friends and momentoes from trips. But I feel that all of it triggers wonderful moments of my life.

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  5. “Treasured Places”
    December 2007

    A treasured place keeps cherished time,
    A box and bottle for amulets and charms,
    A suitcase and sock for shells and stones.

    Unlikely objects holding fragmented memories,
    Attached in the heart of lost confidences,
    Examined in the matter of secret wishes.

    Searching softly finds a calming trance,
    In a joy or sorrow long survived,
    In a smile or sigh more certain.

    Handling sacred time in favored things,
    Brings wonder to your life,
    Secures the worth of each treasure.

    Keep precious events with cherished jewels,
    Keep them together and shared,
    In a treasured place for now and always.

    – Jack Caldwell

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