Stray Kernels – The Things We Treasure

When you receive a greeting card or note from a friend or relative, what do you do with it? Are you the kind of person who reads it, thanks the giver for the sentiment, and then discretely places it in the recycling bin within a day or so? Or are you the sort of person who reads and saves almost every letter, card, and newspaper clipping?

Do you still have keepsakes given to you by long-deceased family members or friends you haven’t seen in decades? Or did you “rehome” such items long ago to minimize clutter? Are you a “keeper” or a “pitcher?”

Chances are that toward whichever end of this spectrum you lean, you live or work with someone whose tendencies are exactly opposite yours. And they make you crazy.

A few weeks ago, I heard snippets of a conversation between my husband and my dad. Mark was telling Dad about the recent passing of his stepmother and subsequent need to move his father out of his house and into a managed care facility. A collector of interesting rocks, shells, and antique radios, his father had lived in the same home for nearly four decades.

My dad asked Mark how he and his brother had managed to clear out their father’s house and put it on the market within just a few days. Mark’s reply? “We hired a dumpster.” What didn’t go into the dumpster was set out along the street for neighbors to acquire if they wished.

I was near enough that I saw my dad wince when Mark mentioned the dumpster. He took a deep breath and asked, slowly, “Wasn’t there anything your dad really wanted to keep?”

One of my dad’s treasures. A sign he made for 4-H in 1960, when he was 14. I treasure it, too.

I winced, too. I like to keep stuff. My stuff falls into roughly three categories: stuff that is meaningful, stuff that is or might be useful, and stuff I don’t know what to do with but seems too valuable to simply throw away. Marie Kondo would be horrified: Her KonMari™ method hinges on the premise of keeping only the things that “spark joy.”

Well. I still find joy in the letters my friend Leigh sent me back in the ‘90s when we had recently graduated college and were early in our careers. I find joy in interesting empty containers that might be handy for storing useful items. I find joy in ordinary objects that might become teaching tools.

The Lifestyle section of the Daily Chronicle’s May 18, 2019 issue featured the story of Greg Weinman’s newspapers. Greg’s grandfather Myer Weinman started purchasing and saving newspapers in the 1920s, eventually amassing a collection of more than 2,000. He saved newspapers with headlines he found significant, like the end of World War II and the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision.

Myer Weinman’s grandson Greg still treasures those papers. He remembers learning about history, bias, and point of view at his grandfather’s elbow as a kid. But now he’s moving and he can’t keep them. Libraries and museums don’t want them; they have all those papers on microfiche. So, much like my husband and brother-in-law did with their dad’s extra belongings, Greg Weinman is giving those treasured papers away. Chances are many of them, too, will be pitched. Is that a shame? Yes. And also no.

I think our world needs both “keepers” and “pitchers.” Because of “keepers,” we have museums like the DeKalb County History Center which teach us stories of the past via tangible items. Because of “pitchers,” we’re not utterly buried in stuff.

The challenge for both keepers like me and pitchers like my husband, is finding that elusive place in the middle, where we can find joy in both our treasures and in (relatively) uncluttered lives.

I’m still working on it.