In Objects Of Our Affection, you write, “We’re Americans in the 21st century. We have more stuff in storage bins and basements and attics and back rooms than we can ever use in a lifetime. Or three… We can never be free of our stuff until we have dealt with the stories it carries.” Can you explain?
Particularly now, in the last couple of years, I think people have become much more aware of a drive for simplicity. We feel a desire for simplicity in our lives, of freedom from time constraints, clutter, a complicated lifestyle. And the things we own and carry with us do take up precious time, as well as space.
But what I discovered in the course of researching and writing Objects Of Our Affection is that what we are really attached to is not so much the object as the memories it evokes, the people it makes us think of. Even when we acquire something new, we immediately have a story to go with it: Who gave it to us, where we bought it and why, how it has become part of our lives. THAT’S what is really hard to let go of, even more than the thing itself.
Do you ever hear from the people who bought your family furniture—do you have any idea where those objects are now?
For the most part, no, and that was tough at first. We did hear from one woman who was interested in the history of the love seat she bought. Some of the stuff was bought by individuals like her for themselves, but some was bought by dealers, so heaven knows where it is by now. The auction house we dealt with sort of protects its buyers, in that they won’t tell you where the stuff went. It felt a little bit like we had put our family up for adoption. The things are like family… you’d really like to get an email from that favorite chair, you know?
Why did you decide to take your family’s furniture to auction, and when did you decide you had a memoir in the making?
After my mom died, my sister and I stored the furniture for almost 10 years. We both had our own houses full of furniture, including a few family heirlooms. We knew couldn’t just keep on paying for those bins, and we weren’t using all these beautiful things that were in storage. This stuff was old. It couldn’t be good for it to just sit there and it didn’t seem fair—they could be showpieces for someone who really had the space to display them. So we decided on an auction, even though the idea of letting go of the family stuff made us wince, big time.
One morning, I woke up in my New Jersey rancher and looked around at the bedroom furniture that had belonged to my grandparents—just a bed and a bureau, but I started really thinking about how we were going to have to deal with it all, and I didn’t know how we could.
At that moment, it really felt as if my grandmother—she died when I was a little girl, and I’m named for her—it felt as if she actually came into the room, just a wisp of a presence. “Write about it,” she said. And I picked up a notebook and started writing.
Tell us a little bit about your own family. To what extent are they representative of Americans generally?
Our family is military, going back for generations. My father was an officer, and so were both of my grandfathers and three great-grands. One of my grandfathers was, in 1920, the most decorated man in the U.S. Army, according to records. He eventually became superintendent of Virginia Military Institute, during World War II. He was also directly responsible for building the Malinta Tunnel on Corregidor, in the Philippines, which was the American army’s first and final line of defense against the Japanese before the islands surrendered, and was where Douglas MacArthur took refuge for five months during that battle.
But for any military family, besides fighting wars, there was all the moving from post to post.
And that’s why I think this is such an American story.We are all on the move. All of us. We are such a transient nation. We move for work, for jobs, for better schools for our children, to be near our parents, or just because! And of course a military family moves sometimes once a year or even more. So my family’s experience really has something to tell us about how we deal with all our things.
What do you hope readers take away from Objects of Our Affection?
I hope it might help other people think about why we hang onto our things… and maybe to start exploring and telling their own stories about the family that’s in the furniture.