Category Archives: Objects of Our Affection


My wool socks
My wool socks


Use it up … Wear it out
Make do … Do without

We grew up with that Yankee frugality.

So this morning when I grabbed a favorite pair of grey wool socks, neatly rolled and folded in the way we pair socks, I was chagrined to discover the holes.

The first sock was fine. But as I pulled on the second one, I saw the small hole at the big toe – and then the huge one at the heel. When and how the heck did that happen?

I loved these socks. They were just the right weight, not too heavy, but wool, so they were really warm. A soft charcoal grey with muted but elegant ribbing, they went with everything.

And now one of them was so ruined that I couldn’t even wear it with clogs or boots.

I was tempted to blame moths, given the wool and the suddenness … but then in truth I reckon these holes were coming on for a while and the last round in the laundry did them in.

Problem now was what to do with them. I know, I know. THROW THEM OUT.

But that’s the problem with material things. They take on a life of their own. They have a personality and a place in your life. You know what I mean: It’s why we like some socks and gloves and jeans and coats better than others. They have their place in the natural order. And these were just impeccable.

I struggled. In another time – a time when I actually HAD time, maybe before the Internet or something – I might have darned them. The picture’s proof that this still wouldn’t be impossible. That’s my grandmother’s darning egg, one of two that came down to my mother, who actually taught us to darn.

So there’s no reason, if I had the time and the inclination, that I couldn’t make this sock almost as good as new. Almost. Truth is, I HAVE darned socks – maybe forty years ago – or more – and they are never quite the same again, no matter what thread or yarn you use. And eventually they come apart again.

Still … back in the day, I darned them with pride. Pride in actually knowing how. Pride of craftsmanship and of beating the house – winning against the odds, salvaging the unsalvageable.

Later, I might have made them into sock puppets. All it takes is a little felt for mouth and ears and buttons for the eyes. Back then I still embroidered, beading little chamois pouches, with blanket stitch around the holes where the drawstring went through. Back then I patched the elbows of sweaters too.

Who knows where the time goes, as Sandy Denny famously remarked? Back then, hours expanded mysteriously into days, and it all got done.

I still have a basket of lone socks I’d imagined might become sock puppets. Before I move again, I guess I’d better throw them out. Or maybe they could be used to polish silver? HA.

Make do … Do without


Objects ~ Why We Love ‘Em

Somehow it all seems to revolve around telling. Writing, editing, telling stories … what one friend refers to as “drinking tea and swapping lies.”
Lies, truth, fact or fiction … in the swirl of the Internet, the distinctions aren’t so clear. But in truth, they probably never were.

And I digress. Other stuff I’ve put my shoulder to:  An introduction for a children’s book of Walt Whitman verse, when I was executive director of the Walt Whitman Association in Camden. … Press releases about Jacques Cousteau, Alan King, Harry Reasoner et al. when I worked for ABC-TV. Am I dating myself? Yeahhh. … Stories about children’s television and about the Philadelphia Folk Festival; about Paolo Soleri and life on a reservation in Montana. … A bio for the catalog of a fabulous artist who paints the life of her childhood in the coal camps on old quilts …. And a lot of journals, some songs, some poems.

It all comes out of our memories and our daily observations in the end … and from that mysterious place where ideas form, so that when they come through us, we say, privately, Whoa! Where’d THAT come from?

We think we are so special, we humans. And we are. But so are the whales and the elephants and all the rest of them. I always say, we just got lucky. We got the thumbs. The opposable ones.  But as for the brains, well, don’t you wonder what the whales and the elephants are thinking right now about how we’ve managed things?

But, says Jalal ad Din, We were born with wings.  And we were born with a love in our hearts for the work we were meant to do. May we do it well, and the planet thrive, as we go forward.

Not fare well,
But fare forward, voyagers.

– T.S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages”



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.

The Grapevine

“Lisa Tracy’s Objects of Our Affection is a lovely and loving book, revealing the life of her well-traveled military family not just through the furniture they chose to keep, but through what they lost and surrendered along the way. Moving from the heights of San Juan Hill to the courtyards of China’s Forbidden City, this book shows us why the possessions of our ancestors exert a profound influence upon our modern lives. Anyone who finds meaning and memory in the belongings of their forebears will enjoy this book.”

—Jeff Gammage, author of China Ghosts: My Daughter’s Journey
to America, My Passage to Fatherhood.

Objects of Our Affection is a memoir in belongings, right down to the salt in an old glass shaker with a dented lid. Being a born Southern story-teller, Lisa Tracy has captured beautifully why we love our belongings—not for their actual value but for the family stories they hold, and for the way they allow us to follow the threads of continuity in the red velvet fabric of life.”

—Susan Caba, author of Guilty Pleasures

“A bittersweet memoir that recounts a family’s history through the furnishings they had accumulated. Readers will never again be able to visit an auction house, antique shop, or second hand store without wondering what stories the items could tell.”

—Gail Caskey Winkler, author of Victorian Interior Decoration

“An instructive and compelling narrative about the stories that long-cherished family heirlooms can tell us, if only we will listen, this is a book that will strike a responsive chord with a wide audience.”

—Charles F. Bryan, Jr., Ph.D., President Emeritus, Virginia Historical Society

“Lisa Tracy’s Objects of Our Affection is a marvelous mix of tenacity and tenderness. Yes, it is about the history of certain carefully collected heirlooms; but it is also about something much greater… the soul of a family, any family, our expectations and regrets, our loves and losses, our search for meaning and belonging in the things that fill our houses and our hearts.”

—Robert Goolrick, author of A Reliable Wife

“Plush stories of love, war, life and death are lovingly tucked inside the drawers and chair springs of a remarkable family’s furnishings. Lisa Tracy brings them to life with tender humor and due respect.”

—Tanya Maria Barrientos, author of Family Resemblance

“This is a book that gathers emotional momentum as you read it. Gradually you realize it is a rare look at the women who have devoted their lives to the men who have fought America’s wars. I read the closing chapters with tears in my eyes.”

—Thomas Fleming, author of The Officers’ Wives and West Point: The Men and Times of the U.S.Military Academy

Old Photos

I am overcome with sadness. Excavating behind the sofa, I find that finally Mother has the last word. I’ve uncovered a cache of the family pictures she carried with her to the retirement home. They’re crudely wrapped in aging newspapers and stuffed into a paper grocery bag. They are testament to the day we packed up her room, on the afternoon after her memorial service that weekend almost twenty years ago.
I wrapped them up that day and took them to New Jersey, and now of course I’ve carried them back. In all that time I guess I never stopped to unwrap them. Why bother? They’d still be there whenever I got where I was going.
Which as it turns out, was back where they started, at the house in Lexington where we lived: three generations, my grandfather, my parents, my sister and I. The pictures do not include my grandfather; when she left this house, though, my mother took with her the photo of her own mother, dead by then more than 40 years. And she took the glamorous diptych of my sister and her son as a teenager … and one of me … and one of Owen as a little boy and one of David as a baby. And one of my father, that handsome, dashing guy she had married back in 1931.
This photo of Daddy, though, is not the young officer she wed in Washington, D.C. He’s older, and looks tired and a little worried – probably wondering why we are spending money on formal photos instead of food or good liquor – but still handsome, even with his receding hairline.
What was this man ever doing in a suit? He was so much more at home in tennis togs, crouching under tropical skies, playing with their little dachshund Gretel. And what was she doing, gazing off into the distance over the photographer’s shoulder with a hauteur that defies the viewer to question her modest sweater or the life she now finds herself in, married to a smart, capable alcoholic, living under her father’s roof, caught between two high-ranking Army officers who happen to be her husband and her father, trying to raise up two headstrong daughters who are much too smart for their own good and must be coaxed and coached to get into the requisite evening gowns and get out there and meet eligible young men.
But there is no picture of Mother in this collection. The photos themselves stand as a reproach – once again, and now almost 20 years after her death, she can still confront me with the anger, contempt and grief I felt from her when she accepted her consignment to that nursing home.
I am so sorry, Mommy – so sorry we couldn’t play out that solution where the dutiful daughter and her silent husband come home to care for the old folks. It just wasn’t happening in the generation you raised. We do what we can. I’ll find a place for the pictures.

True Patriot

On the Fourth, NPR aired people’s ideas of America’s most, well, American music … with the implicit thought of replacing the unsingable “Star Spangled Banner” with its mind-bending lyrics …
I actually like the SSB. I don’t have a problem w/ the fact that most of us probably have to screech or drop down an octave on “land of the freeeee.” And I like the crazy images the anthem conjures up, of a battle long ago, if not so far away.
But as I listened, I suddenly heard it all in a brand new way.
First, it turns out that America’s choice of most American musician is – The Boss. I can totally get down with that. As they discussed it, Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A” was blasting in the background.
A friend subsequently and tidily pointed out that a big part of the point of the U.S.A. is and has always been that we are NOT all born here. True! And important – but for me, the song is still about all of us. If we CLAIM the U.S.A., then it is ours. By claiming it as our homeland, we BECOME born here.
That’s not to discount the pain and toil of being an immigrant. In truth, we are ALL immigrants – as I mentioned in OBJECTS OF OUR AFFECTION — except for the “native Americans,” who mostly simply called themselves “the people” in their own languages. And I believe we carry that longing for home, that vague, unarticulated sense of displacement, in our psyches.
Perhaps that is why we find it so difficult to get along. Are we all still separate tribes, deluded into thinking that OUR version of America can, will, and should prevail?
Just a thought, as yoga diva Connie Fernandez used to say as she coaxed us into headstands.
Yeah. What this country really needs about now is to be stood on its head so its brains can readjust themselves, what’s left of them.
But I digress.
Here’s the thing: It would be fine with me if we ensconced Bruce’s music right up there as an alternative beginning to baseball games, in lieu of the national anthem or “God Bless America” or “America the Beautiful.”
But there’s more. Close behind the Boss in people’s appreciation of TRUE national anthems was MARVIN GAYE’s “Star Spangled Banner” in 1983, with homage to Hendrix and Feliciano.
Listening to Gaye, I heard the words in a whole new way:
“Oh, say can you see, by the dawn’s early light … ?”
Can you see – Is the flag even still THERE?
And DOES it still wave – prevail – over the land of the free? ARE we still the land of the free, the home of the brave? Because if we are not – every single one of us – tending our democracy with love and courage, then the experiment has failed.
Gaye, Hendrix, Feliciano – all men of color – slow us down to reveal the metaphor: This national anthem of ours is not about some almost forgotten battle against the Brits in 1814. It’s about US, right NOW.
United we stand. Divided we fall. In a global economy, that is trickier than ever for a single nation, never mind all of humanity, but like it or not, that is our challenge.
United we stand, one tribe, indivisible – NOW.

More on Keys and What They Can Tell Us

So I was talking about how I spent more than an hour sifting through this box of keys that had somehow accumulated on my kitchen counter.

A less than optimal place for the keys, I’ll admit – but then, that meant they did keep getting in the way, and that eventually led me to sort them, on a morning when I had a lot of probably more important stuff to do.

Or what seemed like more important stuff.

But what the keys told me opened doors on more levels than I had any inkling of, when I grumpily dumped them out and started trying to remember why I would have two keys marked “Do Not Duplicate” and a bunch of little bitty ones that look like they’d go to padlocks but don’t fit any of the ones I still have.

The sorting of the keys was in itself a key.

First they told me to quit putting them back in a jumble until “the right time” came to sort them.

They’re are now  in a half-dozen clear plastic baggies with labels like “Other People’s Keys: Return” and “Take to Hardware Store” and “Previous Incarnation” and “Interior But Not to Storage Closet.”  It’s a start.

Sorting brought me face to face with my chronic, cosmic inability to SIMPLY THROW ANYTHING AWAY. Especially anything permanent, like a metal key.

Some folks say we just have to learn to throw away. I partly agree. But I am taking a clump of keys to the hardware store where Quint will tell me what kind of keys they are likely to be and whether they can be recycled.

And meanwhile I had to laugh at myself, the process and the pretty humble result. But – the keys had more to say!

So here it is:

1)      WE ALL HATE TO SORT, AND WITH GOOD REASON.  We hate to sort because it takes time from what we’d rather be doing, at a time when we already have too much work to do and not enough time to play.

2)      But sorting, alas, is too often where downsizing starts.

3)      Sorting is the key to unlocking that downsizing.

4)      And the key to sorting is creating categories.


Does it resonate, this inability to throw away? Then let me encourage you to just take one small category and do the basic  KEEP – RECYCLE – GIVE AWAY – THROW AWAY. You know you’ll be amazed at how encouraging it is. Just one little category.

But the trick is, YOU have to choose the category. Invent it, or whatever you must do. That’s where it starts.


I just spent  a couple of hours going through a pile of keys. House keys, car keys, bike-lock keys, office keys. Keys to gates and storage bins.

I’m sure you know exactly where this story goes: Most of these keys, I have NO IDEA what they unlocked back in their glory days of real utility.

Labeled? Nope, not a chance.

Except for one whole envelope that my sister the archivist sorted through.  Those keys, at least we know they were our mother’s, and that means they go to this house where I live now. They are helpfully labeled “interior lock” and sometimes even “interior lock/closet.” It’s a start.
Then there are he keys from previous incarnations. At this point, I don’t even remember what my son’s car keys to his first, second and third car looked like. Yeah. Maybe some of these are those.

These, those … My point is – well, I have several. First of all, we all have too much stuff. Well, most of us. This is not news.

The news is – I just got it this morning – that SORTING STUFF IS NEITHER WORK NOR PLAY.

That’s why we hate it so much.

Sorting stuff does not pay us. Nor does it further any tasks (a.k.a. work) that WILL eventually pay us. Nor does it fuel anything we are passionate about.

Au contraire, it actually takes time AWAY from the tasks that will pay us either in money or pleasure.

And it eats up valuable time that might otherwise be devoted to playing. Hiking, biking, dancing, surfing … reading, sewing, fixing the car (if you call that play) … or simply lounging around or hanging out with friends.

NONE of this do we get to do while we are sorting. It’s tedious, solitary, time-consuming  …. And did I mention tedious?

And it gets worse. Sorting can also be traumatic, because it almost invariably dredges up the past.

In the case of the keys, it dredged up my life as an editor, where I was able to open doors on levels literal and metaphoric. And the houses where I lived with my son when he was growing up – gone, the houses and the childhood. Can’t tarry there or I’ll never get through the pile.

And my mother. Some of the printing on the keys that are labeled is hers. I probably don’t have to tell you what a mental side trip those provoke?

I have a lot more to say about it all. But for now, what I want to leave you with is this:

You’re not crazy if sorting makes you feel crazy.

Not at all.

And: There are solutions. Every problem holds keys to its solution. To be continued …