By the Rev. Barbara Threet
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what has deep personal meaning, and why. My ruminations have been sparked by my mother’s death, as my family begins the process of dismantling her household. Our family moved there almost 60 years ago, so there’s a LOT of stuff there – the usual mix of household goods and old photo albums, stacks of birthday cards from 60 and even 70 years ago, mementoes from short trips just before Covid and from grand adventures decades ago. There are things from my grandparent’s households, and even from great-grandparents, lots of tchotchkes and dozens of boxes of old family slides. There are odd things – my Dad’s 1940s roller skates, the cage a pet mouse lived in 30 years ago, and macaroni-decorated pencil jars from grandchildren. There’s an elaborate silver tea set that my parents received as a wedding present that got polished every few years and put right back on a high shelf, and a large stack of outdated topographic maps. It’s probably a pretty typical household – some things with actual monetary value and a lot more that’s just part of what life was for the people who lived there.
Out of all that jumble, what I wanted most– and what I now have – is a Scrabble game. It’s old: the copyright on the cover says, “1948, 1949, 1955’. The cover is held together with blue painter’s tape, which replaces various iterations of duct tape and masking tape that have been used over the years. A note tapedinside indicates that my mother and I laid out all the pieces in November of 2013 and discovered that one A and one B were missing, may have been for – years? Decades? We discussed whether to reassign the point value of a B since it was now the Only One, like a K, or J. It certainly didn’t have the value of an X or a Z, but should it be more than just the usual B? We finally decided a B was easier to use than those other odd letters, so we left it at 3 points. My mother and I have played hundreds of games – probably thousands – over the years. After my father died 17 years ago, we’d play for hours every time I visited. I virtually always won (she’s a lousy Scrabble player actually). I played against myself – I do (did?) try to top 300 points – but it didn’t really matter whether I beat her score or not, or even beat my own goal. It was the social interaction of playing that mattered so much, the light (or sometimes serious) conversations that could start and stop as we played, the ice cream eaten, the ancient dictionary consulted, or the pauses to watch the ducks outside the window.
My 51-year-old daughter wanted a small wind chime that hung in my mother’s sewing room. I’d never noticed it: since it’s inside, it never chimes, although apparently when she visited as a child, she’d take it down and play with it. A niece wanted a small wooden-handled screwdriver that lived in the junk drawer in the kitchen, and her brother claimed the ceramic handle on that drawer, which says, in quite elegant script ‘Junk Drawer’. These things speak to our souls and evoke memories, although they have little or no financial worth.
There are some items of real value in the house. There are plenty of things that are actually useful. Fortunately, dividing all of those substantial things is going quite smoothly. And fortunately, each of us seems to be drawn to a different small thing – nobody else had any interest in the old and incomplete Scrabble game. But it has intrigued me to notice what each person cherishes, and what has real, personal meaning. Not financial value, in most cases, but emotional and sentimental value, which seems much more important.
I’ve wondered what my own children and grandchildren will find most meaningful in my household someday, and contemplated how the ‘Most Meaningful Thing’ changes over time. I don’t know what would have been most meaningful to me 20 years ago, but it wouldn’t have been that Scrabble game: endless games of Scrabble were something ‘old people’ did, and I wasn’t as old then, so I only played an occasional game in the evening. But what would have been meaningful, and what changed? What would I save (after family pictures and my passport) if I had to leave my home in a hurry? I watch peers downsize now, decide what to keep and what can be released, and emotional attachment seems every bit as important as practicality.
I think of Antoine de St. Exupery’s words, “We live not by things, but by the meanings of things. It is needful to transmit the passwords from generation to generation.” We do, and it is. Amen.
Shalom and Salaam,