I once had a not-very-nice neighbor who objected to my stuff in my portion of our shared basement. She particularly objected to my paper goods–manuscripts, letters, etc., despite the fact that they were neatly encased in metal files. One day we had a not very pleasant conversation in which her rantings featured the phrases “pack rat” and “fire hazard.”
During this attack, I kept my mouth shut and did not say, as I could have done, Your husband’s overconsumption of alcohol and your own cigarette smoking are more of a fire hazard than my stacks of paper in metal file cabinets could ever be, because that would be mean. And I try really hard not to be mean.
But one thing is definitely true: I am sentimental and I do keep stuff that means something to me, especially things my kids have drawn or written, letters from people I care about, and hard copies of my manuscripts. I live with someone who is not the least bit sentimental and throws out or gives away almost everything she doesn’t use frequently, so it is true that my stuff does dominate the house.
But my propensity to keep things is one reason this trip overseas has been so interesting. Because I came with virtually nothing: a laptop, and one suitcase. I have never traveled so far and for such a long time of time with so little.
When my parents made the opposite trip from England to America on the Queen Mary, it was well after the Second World War, but in England, rationing and privation continued well into the 1950s. My parents had very few possessions, just a couple of steamer trunks carrying necessities for their new life in America and presents from their wedding. Both their families were working class, so whatever they had been given was inexpensive.
My young parents passed by the Statue of Liberty in the early morning hours, and pulled into a dock on the West Side of Manhattan. When they told the customs official that some of the items in their luggage were wedding presents, he took almost all the money they had as customs duty, leaving them with the grand sum of $7 and two train tickets to Washington, D.C., their ultimate destination. My mother still wonders why the customs agent had to be so bloody mean as to charge two wet-behind-the-ears twenty-three-year-olds duty on wedding gifts that would be no doubt appear paltry by American standards.
Back home in Boston I have a house (or half-a-house, really, since it’s shared with another family) and a reasonable amount of furniture (at least half collected from the street) and several thousand books.
Here in Cambridge I rent a smallish semi-detached house and our furniture consists of a used two-seater cream leather sofa bought for 120 pounds from the Gumtree website; a desk, two double beds and mattresses and one single bed, all bought in a liquidation sale in Saffron Walden; a table that once belonged to my grandparents and whose leaf has broken off; four chairs from a charity shop, and 7 books bought from Waterstone’s.
It’s a very spartan existence. There is nothing here that gives me psychological comfort or tells me who I am: no photographs, no much-loved and carefully chosen artwork, no excess clothes, few books. This lack of stuff was first very disconcerting, but now it makes me wonder why (and if) possessions are really necessary, beyond what you just need to get through the day or give you a reasonable amount of pleasure.
And I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re really not. While I love one sofa back home in Boston, I can live without it, and ditto for the beds, chairs, tables, TV, desks, carpets. But I can’t live without the family photographs of my great-grandparents, grandparents, parents and my children, or the most meaningful of my kids’ artwork or notes or hard copies of my short stories or manuscripts or published work or the wooden chest made by my great-grandfather Robinson or the paintings done by my great-grandfather Wallis I can dispense with anything made by someone I don’t know; I can’t dispense with anything made by anyone I love. So yes, here in Cambridge, I am saving my younger daughter’s artwork and stories.