Last year, I spent a spell working at Medicine Hat College. Though founded in 1965 and thus a relative newcomer on the academic scene, the college laid claim to some history. Proudly displayed outside the C-Suites on the 2nd floor, was an old painted glass pitcher with several matching glasses. Bequeathed to the college by Vera Bracken, a pioneer woman born in 1909 and after whom the college library is named, her parents had received the glassware as a wedding gift and packed these precious objects into a covered wagon for their cross-country journey. A pretty if not particularly exceptional set, I was drawn to it and moved by the extent to which Vera and her parents had held these fragile items dear. In a small wagon with not much room, tough choices as to what could fit must have been made. And they chose the glassware. Goodness knows what was sacrificed in its place. Extra shoes, cooking implements, chamber pots, perhaps even the family dog.
What we choose to keep and take with us when we move is highly idiosyncratic. My Austro-Hungarian grandmother, fleeing from the Russians at the end of the Second World War, packed a pressed Edelweiss flower so she would always carry with her a memory of home. My mother, a devoted reader, brought her beloved children’s books with her when she emigrated from England by steamer. And I myself have carted hunks of grey concrete from the Berlin Wall in an aluminum frame knapsack across countries and continents.
In Sisters in the Wilderness, the remarkable biography of Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Trail, author Charlotte Gray recounts, that in the vain hope of recreating elements of her genteel British life in Upper Canada, Susanna Moodie selected a Coalport tea service to take with her when she emigrated in 1832. The china survived a sea journey, rough roads to her first homestead and almost made it to her second home intact when careless movers caused the wagon to tip over and the service was smashed beyond repair. For Susanna, it was a devastating psychological experience.
On a happier note, children’s book author Laura Ingalls Wilder of Little House on the Prairie series fame gives special place in her novels to the china shepherdess that her mother brings with them throughout her peripatetic childhood. More than just a beautiful object that signifies the creation of a new home, the shepherdess represents civilization itself. She embodies all the family has left behind and hopes to build, and it is almost the only object that has any real emotional value beyond Pa’s fiddle.
In an age where we are encouraged to fill larger and larger houses with more and more stuff, the impulse to accumulate the new is relentless. Given that we now move an average of 12 times in our lifetime, it is remarkable that we wish to keep anything but the most necessary objects for any length of time at all. All this packing and unpacking can make even the most materialistic of us long to live like a monk.
And yet. Anyone who has gone looking for antiques knows that objects both tell us their story and we, in turn, imbue them with our own. Perhaps it is this dynamic that makes our relationship with stuff so emotional and so visceral. Our cherished possessions affirm who we are and where we come from, and even assert who we might become. Beautiful or ugly, practical or ephemeral, they surprise and delight us with their resiliency and their preservation or destruction marks us indelibly.