The Relative Nature of Things

1 roomful of antique white wicker furniture. 3 crystal vases, Waterford. 1 hollow-base chrome sailing cleat, never used. 1 Afghan rifle, circa 1900. 1 unopened condom, packaged to look like a matchbook, circa 1947.

“We have to stop,” Margaret says.


“Because I haven’t gotten anything I’ve wanted.”

It’s the autumn after our father’s death, and Margaret, the oldest daughter, is fretfully brewing coffee in our parents’ New Jersey kitchen, which is equipped with a 1970s percolator and three dozen aluminum foil pie plates, testimony to our mother’s addiction to apple pie in the last years of her dementia. There’s also evidence of our father’s valiant efforts at cooking: three cans of chicken gravy, a half-dozen open jars of mustard.

Margaret burns her hand and drops the kettle. She’s been up all night, she says. She’s been bulldozed and rushed, she says.

Always attuned to stress, Carrie, the middle daughter, stops eating.

This is unfair, Margaret goes on. This is moving too fast.

Carrie expresses sympathy.

Then: silence. Our microclimate—this weird, insular, dorm-like experience living together in a house we haven’t lived in for years—has suffered a microburst, and the mood is suddenly dark and ravenous.

I’m surprised. For five days now, we three daughters have genially walked through our four-story, four-staircase childhood home with colored dots, marking the things we want. When two of us want the same thing within a category (furniture, for instance) we’ve negotiated: “I really want this chair. If I give up on the armoire, could I have the chair?” When negotiation failed, we’ve flipped a coin. I’ve given a number of things up to Margaret in negotiation—an 80-inch antique plank table, for instance—and I’ve lost a lot in coin tosses, paintings mostly, and the shell of a giant Channeled Welk.

We have just 36 hours left to empty this 4,000 square-foot house. We can’t let this eruption slow us down.

“Listen,” I tell Margaret, “What do you want? If there’s something I’ve gotten that you want, take it. I’m fine with that.”

“I won’t go back,” she says, brown eyes intense, slender body nearly shaking. “I want to change the process going forward.”

“But if not getting something has kept you up all night, and I’ve got that thing, then take it.”

“I won’t go back,” she says.

Was it the matching brass candle holders that kept her up all night? I wonder. Was it the Eames chair? The cheap little Santa with the extra long beard? “I can’t stand the idea that some thing that I’ve gotten has soured—”

“And you can’t make me talk about this,” she interrupts. “I’m an introvert.”

The fact that I too am an introvert appears to be irrelevant.

I can feel us swerving dangerously toward a cliché. I’ve heard it a thousand times: “She took the fill-in-the-blank (wedding ring, grandfather clock, string of pearls) even though it was promised to fill-in-the-blank (her brother, son, grandchild) and they never spoke again. Never.”

I won’t do it, dissolve into a pointless argument about things, not for a World War I saber, or a 19th century dental drill, or my great grandmother’s tea lamps, or the books we read as children. Not for my mother’s flatware. Not for an antique ship’s clock. I won’t.

Pause. Okay, I realize this argument is about more than things. It’s how we perceive those things and value them. And even more than that: it’s the meaning that is created as we three construct our own collections, as we choose the props of our own evolving narratives, as we toil, conscious curators of our own stories. For we’ve reached a turning point, an inescapable moment when this living archive that our parents kept intact for 60 years—these photos, scribbled drafts of sent letters, cookbooks, yearbooks, matchbooks from places we’ve never been—will disappear, just as our parents have.

And when the archive is no longer intact, what is left is merely unaided memory.

Maybe we’re actually fighting over memory?

No, we’re fighting over wealth. I bet it’s the Eames chair that’s pissing her off.


6 shillelaghs. 13 ceramic beer steins from 4 nations. 4 carry-on bags of travel brochures, 1960-1975. 2 quart bottles of paregoric, a controlled substance, bottled during the Kennedy administration.

Some people don’t believe in having things. Recent pioneers of simplicity have pared their lives down to 2,000 objects, 417 objects, 288 objects, 100 objects, a daring 72 objects, even a spare 50. (One woman apparently reached an angelic 47, but she has since disappeared from the blogosphere.)

These minimalists are more diverse than you’d think. They’re driven by myriad motivations. Adam Baker and his wife were motivated by the $18,000 in consumer debt they’d incurred by buying too many things; they pared themselves down to 400 items and took to the road. Tammy Strobel was driven to promulgate a philosophy of personal empowerment; she now lives with 72 objects and her husband in a 400-square foot apartment, where she blogs with a tone best described as incorporeal happy talk (“February’s focus: noticing life’s lovely details. Sign up for my daily photo and note!”).

Different minimalists also count differently. For instance, Joshua Fields Millburn (288 things), counts the category of food as a single thing, whereas others count each can of creamed corn as a thing. Adam Baker doesn’t count food at all, and Joshua Becker, who is nearly as famous, doesn’t count at all.

But the minimalists do share compelling themes and an irrepressible energy that borders on the evangelistic. And I’m intrigued. They talk about the complication and intrusion of clutter; they talk about finding personal peace in owning only what needs to be owned in order to do what needs to be done. Some are concerned about the health of the planet, some about the spiritual integrity of their lives. They are, all of them, wading through waters of meaning—some are in fairly shallow waters; others, such as adjunct professor Dave Bruno (100 things), who teaches at Point Loma Nazarene University, are neck-deep in questions of purpose, necessity, and the divine. In this light, there’s something endearingly ambitious and compromised in their literal counting; they may be anti-consumerists whose way of life could topple the largest economy in the world if they were to prevail—but at heart they’re still competitive, capitalist Americans. And, being competitive, capitalist Americans, many of them sell products—books, workshops, courses.

Things, by any other name.


4 copies of Tuesdays with Morrie. 1 copy of The I Hate to Cook Book, 1962 paperback edition. 1 copy of Diet for a Small Planet, never used. 1 copy of the book Vicktor Frankl conceived during his time in a concentration camp, Man’s Search for Meaning.

If there is a guru of the new American minimalism, it’s probably Leo Babauta (100 things), who claims not to be a Zen master, but whose blog is named Glance at Babauta’s “short list,” and the tactics for achieving the blessed state of few possessions seem simple:

1. Identify what’s most important to you.
2. Eliminate everything else.

It’s his “long list” that snags me. It contains seventy-two tactics, some of which seem obvious in the world of Zen habits. Number 10, for instance, is Get rid of the big items, by which he means boats, vacation homes, and unused appliances (none of which I have). But to be fair, the list also includes Number 4, Simplify work tasks and Number 6, Learn to say no. Most of the 72 tactics have articles and sub-tasks associated with them—it’s a complex system. I guess this is why minimalists end up writing books.

Yes, some of this does appeal to me. When I left graduate school I moved everything I owned (except the books) a thousand miles in a Honda Civic. Marrying late, I didn’t acquire the spoils of a typical wedding: silver, china, duplicate Crock-Pots. I got my first microwave at forty and still brew coffee in a pot bought before Starbucks was a gleam in Howard Schultz’s eye. But this simplicity is only partly intentional. It’s also two parts circumstance and two parts temperament. Its momentum—or maybe its stasis—lies in who I am and what I’ve done in life, and I’ve never thought much about why I’ve wanted more, and thinking about that now feels foreign and potentially superficial.


5 laughing Buddhas, 1 in jade. 11 complete and incomplete sets of specialty glasses, including 3 sets of shot glasses; 2 sets of crystal wine goblets and 1 set of crystal brandy snifters, 8 in each set, Waterford. 1 funeral Mass book for Leo Reilly Sr., our grandfather, d. 1957.

The wealth that we’re disassembling here in our childhood home came quickly to our parents, and I think our father never really trusted it. He carried scars from early homelessness, an abusive and alcoholic father, a mother who was maddeningly forgiving, and the charity of the Catholic church, which came with strings of epic length attached. Scars deeply embedded, our father benefitted from an accelerated college education, the GI Bill, and the post-World War II suburban boom. He was dashingly dark, with eyes the color of fresh celery. He was smart, talented, and intense in all matters.

And also profoundly untrusting of his luck. He consumed widely and deeply—cars, boats, sports equipment, international travel. But he rarely bought a piece of clothing voluntarily. He opted for the cheapest version of almost everything he bought. And he periodically retreated into doubt. When I was 10, I discovered a secret room in the attic, and a Chock full o’ Nuts can containing $14,000 in small bills, stashed there in case of a stock market crash.

His father was rarely mentioned in our presence, and as we disassemble the house, we find only two photos of him.


1 leather-bound copy of the Alcoholic Anonymous Big Book, 1971, gift from a friend. 3 brass bed warmers, 19th century. 3 knife sharpeners, 1 of them electric. 10 kitchen knives, none of them sharp.

In the last years of his life, our father mounted the steps by crawling, and, irritated by the cost of heat, confined himself to two or three drafty rooms. When we tried to get him to move to a less precarious place with a bedroom on the first floor, he resisted.

“Why?” Carrie asked. “Now that Mom’s gone, why do you want to stay here?”

“I want to be with my things,” he said.

Those things he treasured are mostly in the family room, I think. Certainly it has always been the heart of the house and the core of the collection. Along the fireplace wall: the antique bed warmers, copper pots, fireplace tools, ski-scapes painted by his cousin, a spy glass frozen in one setting, and the Afghan gun. On an adjacent wall: an antique set of bells of the kind used at high Mass and a couple of Spanish swords.

In these last five days, we’ve heartlessly broken his collection, corrupted the exhibit as he left it: We’ve carted in paintings from all around the house, piled all the candle snuffers in a corner, emptied out a huge cabinet full of 78- and 133-RPM vinyls, arrayed all the ceramic beer steins found in other rooms. The story he saw as he sat in this room is adulterated. I want to be around my things, he said. All the things in this room as he left it? Some of them? Or was there comfort in unseen things too, in the objects stored in cabinets and corners and under beds, things that testified to his wealth? Or to his life story? Is it possible that without these things he would have come to feel deserted, unrecognizable, as if his life had not in fact happened in the brilliant colors and leaps of fortune that he remembered.

I have no idea. He swore by Man’s Search for Meaning, which he read after breaking his neck in a sailing accident. He also swore by Morrie and sent multiple copies to each of us.


2 pairs of skis, 2 bowling balls, 2 sets of golf clubs. 2 index-card boxes of family recipes. 1 salon-style bubble hair dryer in working condition.

Maybe he wanted to be around his things because the collection reminded him of our beautiful mother. Endowed with Katharine Hepburn cheekbones, a prickly wit, and a nascent feminism, she was an adored woman, and he spared her nothing. The house speaks of her tastes and life experience: the silk curtains, the multiple sets of serving dishes, the figurines from France. Wherever she traveled, she acquired exquisite things: real kimonos and silver jewelry, simple watercolors painted on a Portuguese beach.

After her death, our father obsessed over her jewelry, particularly a string of pearls bought in Japan forty years before. He claimed that the home health care workers had stolen them. But we knew that our mother had begun moving her things around relentlessly, hiding them and losing them, finding them and hiding them again, or throwing them out deliriously. For months, under Dad’s hyper-critical eye, we tried to retrace our mother’s actions. He insisted the loss was our fault; we were the rubes who’d hired hourly workers and failed to secure the valuables.

Eventually, Margaret found the pearls, absurdly packed under some winter hats, and Carrie had them assessed. Twenty-five dollars. Our parents had been fleeced all those years ago in Japan.

See how little the assessed value matters? I tell myself. Both parents enjoyed the fake pearls for forty years. And look at the unnecessary angst. The excess anxiety. The accusations. How silly!

Or maybe not. These things, phonies or not, are an expression of real hungers. Now, walking through rooms, I have to wonder about our mother’s hungers. She is the art director of this house, the prop manager who expertly arranged these artifacts to our father’s satisfaction. Even now, even in disarray—muddled with half-packed boxes and swirls of bubble wrap—the house has the feel of a well-designed stage set. Well-designed and tasteful, and yet the hungers expressed here are surprisingly expected; they’re the desires of a class, not a person, and I feel sadness toward my remote and lovely mother, and find myself staring at a quirky collection of primitive pottery pieces made during the one art class she took back when she was probably 50 or 55. What hunger was that?

Or this: a large, framed, hand-colored photograph of her father and his big brother dressed in overalls at ages three and four; they’re standing next to a child-sized wagon on a dusty road. This was the father who essentially disinherited my mother and her sister, giving all of his considerable fortune to his three sons. Yet it fell to the girls to empty their father’s house, and when they sifted through the basement, my mother found postcards addressed to herself as a 10-year old, 12-year old, 13-year old, from far away places, Batista’s Cuba, Miami Beach, Tucson. All of the messages were instructions for making sure her brothers got to school, her sister got to dance lessons, the baker got paid. None of the cards said love you or miss you or even thank you. My mother didn’t cry, sitting in her father’s basement. She threw the cards out and never mentioned them, and then she brought the haunting photograph of her father-as-child home to this house, where it has hung ever since.

And what about this thing? A large replica of a painting, three long-haired girls dowsed in impressionist pastels sitting peacefully on a pleasant hill. Our mother loved this piece. But none of us want it. It’s only a copy, of course, and none of us wants to deal with the sentimental wishfulness of it.


6 pieces of slab pottery, made in a beginner’s art class. 3 fur coats. 1 cherry dining room set. 14 hand-carved decorative duck decoys. 1 duck-hunting shotgun, last used in 1962.

The last cogent, in-person conversation I had with my father was about burying my mother. He was hanging out of a second story window and I was sneaking away in a mushroom dawn, trying to make a 7 a.m. flight.

“Wait!” he said. “I want to say something.” He paused to catch an elusive breath. “I realize that if you weren’t there to do it for us, we’d all still be standing in the bay.” He was referring to the day before, when the family stood waist-deep in water, my frail father, wracked with congestive heart disease, clinging to an old foam surf board. We each of us had spread a handful of my mother’s ashes and then stopped, unable to go on. It was decided that I would spread the rest of her. So I walked alone into the outgoing tide, moving toward the channel, toward pleasure boats and fishermen, and I spread my mother and she sank slowly, the way a heavy snow falls, disturbingly easy in the melting. No longer a person or a thing.

Thank you, my father said through the window.

He has been dead five months, and now, standing in the kitchen, the three daughters are renegotiating. Here are the categories we have already dispatched:
Angels (31)
Art (40)
Bells (28)
Books (uncounted)
Boxes/trunks, antique (4)
Brass candle holders (13)
Christmas (65)
Candle snuffers (5)
Duck decoys (14)
Fish weights, antique brass (5)
Furniture (uncounted)
Hats (9)
Recipe books and recipes (uncounted)
Spoons, antique collection (16)

Through all of this, we have shared long meals over red wine and our father’s Scotch, and stories we’d never dared tell each other before. Margaret has talked about afternoons spent leashed to a tree as a toddler. Carrie has admitted to remembering nothing before the age of eight. Margaret and I have reminded her of the late-night raids when exotic punishments were meted out. We have all agreed that the discipline—erratic, private, humiliating—produced three very well-behaved little girls.

It also produced wariness: In adult life, we’ve been occasional friends and frequent adversaries—there have been missed weddings, manipulations, silences spanning a half decade and more. It was in the face of our mother’s dementia that we formed a fragile and respectful alliance of care, which has persisted unevenly. Yesterday morning, before a 13-hour day of carrying, categorizing, and climbing all four staircases, up and down and up and down, we danced to the Dixie Chicks. The song was “Long Time Gone.”

Now we’re arguing.

But what about? Not memory, which Carrie doesn’t have and Margaret fears so profoundly that huge events have been submerged in her mind, available to her only with prompting. And not wealth, because many of the most contended items are not the most marketable items. The small painting of a lighthouse. The tea lamps owned by our great grandmother.

Maybe we’re arguing about the categories themselves, the way items have been arranged, forcing negotiations and choices within shaped universes. Should the angels have been part of the Christmas category perhaps? Should the antiques have been separated from the furniture? Would we have valued, compared, and chosen them more carefully?

Identify what’s most important to you, Babauta writes with the kind of confidence that comes with extremism, or godliness, or maybe simple-mindedness. Eliminate everything else.

What is worth arguing about? Why do I care about wicker furniture?


Rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens/Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens/ Brown paper packages tied up with string/These are a few of my favorite things.

Fleeing from the house in my father’s beat-up Maxima, it occurs to me that most of Maria Von Trapp’s favorite things, as reported by Oscar Hammerstein, are not things at all, but images. Girls in white dresses with blue satin sashes/Snowflakes that stay on my nose and eyelashes.

What things do I care about? What are my favorites? What am I willing ship from New Jersey to Chicago? Stuck at a stoplight, I’ve got that la-de-dah song stuck in my head and I’m getting annoyed. Hammerstein was a romantic. Wild geese that fly with the moon on their wings are downright un-American. For Americans, favorite things are by definition eBay-able, more on the order of brown paper packages tied up with string than silver white winters that melt into springs. And while I’m at it, let me just point out that Frank Sinatra did not really have plenty of nothing, nor was plenty of nothing plenty for him.

The majority of the American economy is consumer spending—a giant portion of it for things that the minimalists count and then eject from their lives. It’s true that in the Great Recession, Americans did more (canoeing, gardening, reading) and bought less in the way of toys, electronics, and clothing. And a number of social entrepreneurs started organizations that help Americans borrow yard tools and other things from their neighbors, rather than buy them, thereby minimizing the number of things everyone owns. Nonetheless, Americans were still buying millions of microwaves a year and brides were still registering—the average bride asked for 151 things at the height of the Great Recession. That’s 50 percent more things than Babauta owns.

More startling: even if Americans are not buying as many eBay-able things today as we used to (as poverty among children soars and joblessness remains rampant) we are still storing things—in 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space. Which we pay for. We Americans pay to store trillions of favorite things we never see. Shoppers by birthright, hoarders by culture, we are curators of the superfluous.

In the UPS store, the lady says, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

And the loss is immeasurable and also indefinable. And the things—what they are, whatever they mean—are likewise. And I start to sob, and the UPS lady watches me with a look of recognition.


3 vintage political buttons: Goldwater, Nixon, Clinton. 1 Swiss cuckoo clock. 16 reel-to-reel tapes, once little audio postcards of childhood events—Easter evenings, birthday parties, kids’ plays mounted in the backyard—now taped over with our father’s Orpheus Club concerts, the Christmas concert, the Spring concert, the Christmas concert.

The new rules for choosing are: everything. Look at everything and choose, round robin. This category-free universe includes all the rooms, the yard, the garage: It is a mall without stores. There are antique sleds, vintage noisemakers for New Year’s, garden rakes, brass carriage lamps, Cannon cameras, hundreds of candles. The visual center to this universe is the dining room table, covered with platters and serving bowls, hotel matchbooks, hand-crafted cheese boards, the family silver, playing cards and poker sets, magazines, three sets of salad dishes, the World War I saber, a ceramic tray for surgical instruments retrieved from our father’s dental office.

Once when we were very young, the elderly couple across the street announced they were moving. They invited us children to come over and circle a table very much like this one, choosing anything we wanted from it. Heartlessly, I never asked where they were going. I took a cut-glass candy dish. Their name was Lang, I think.

My mother said, “Good lord, what do you think you’re going to do with that thing?” She had a point. In our dental family, candy was consumed exactly twice a year.

No, this experience is bigger than that. I am Ozma of Oz, a character from one of the original Frank Baum books. In the book, Princess Ozma must identify which objects in a huge menagerie are actually people, transformed into baubles and statues by the Gnome King. Each of the enchanted objects has an intrinsic meaning—a life. But which are enchanted and which are just, well, things? Ozma fails. Dorothy fails too. Only by cheating do the two heroines, with the help of a talking chicken, win.

No wonder I’m having trouble.

Carrie takes a brass sconce hanging in another room. Margaret chooses the family silver. My turn. And it’s only now that I get it. We’re arguing about relationships. In the old category system, we had to talk, to publicly struggle with memory and loss, want and need; we had to value and compare, respect each other even while competing with each other. We had to share our parents with each other. Now all we have to do is buy.


1 suitcase, 1 canvas bag. 2 blankets. 1 tarp. 1 can of peaches. 1 flare gun. 1 pistol. 1 bullet.

These are the things the man and the boy have at the end of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel, The Road, which I’ve been reading at night in my childhood bedroom. The list is not very different from the supplies I packed in a Grand Union shopping bag when I was seven and ran away to the woods at the bottom of the street.

It’s still my turn.

I came wanting three things. I wanted the hand-colored photograph of my grandfather as a child; an antique dry sink, one of my mother’s proudest possessions; and a brass cowbell she used to call us home when we were kids. I have those three things. No one else wanted them. So how can I still be wanting, taking: now it’s the saber, and now antique sleigh bells, now the political buttons. What am I doing?

Is there a constant meaning to things? Throughout The Road, things always mean survival. In Ozma, things mean lives rescued and reanimated. At a certain stratum in America, things mean comfort, wealth, cultural coolness: They are our public collections, physical affirmations of our personal brands. And seeing this collection I’m creating—comprised of shards of choices our parents made, constructed of an economic status I will never acquire on my own—I feel as if I am not myself. Now: a set of crystal brandy snifters. Next: a Waterford vase. No, that one didn’t feel like me. Back on track: a 1943 TIME magazine, Hitler’s Henchmen. Then: wine glasses—no, not wine glasses—the bag of vintage matchbooks and the ancient, cleverly packaged condom instead. Then: my grandmother’s potato masher.

Carrie calls an end to the session. If we take too many things, the lady who is running the estate sale will complain. We have two last rounds. The dental tray for surgical tools. A pottery candleholder my mother made in her one art class.

We stop. We pack up. More bubble wrap, and that awful tape that sticks to itself so tightly that I throw a roll of it across the room, narrowly missing an unclaimed angel.

Still not myself a month later, I’ll see the things I’ve chosen in my living room. And my grandfather looks out of place, and the saber is invisible, stashed on a high shelf, and the dry sink feels heavy and dark. Did I ever really like that watercolor of the barn?

A month later: there is no narrative to my collection. But the cowbell will give me transient comfort when I retell the story of three little girls, so free in a leafy suburb that their mother’s voice wasn’t loud enough to call them home for dinner.

And a month after that: I’ll serve Cognac in the crystal brandy snifters, self-consciously; and yes, I’ll have to explain their existence, because they’re so glaringly out of place alongside the juice glasses we use for wine.

And then, some time after that, when I’m not thinking about the things at all, I’ll discover that almost everything we three daughters left behind that day ended up in a New Jersey landfill, deemed worthless and tossed. It’s all likely in a trash heap called HMDC 1-E.


10 pairs of men’s leather shoes, 3 pairs of men’s shoe-trees, oak. 1 dining room set, cherry. 4 bookshelves. 2 full sets of pewter dishes, 2 sets of pewter goblets. 1 sewing machine, circa 1960. 100+ books, mostly popular history. 27 antique bells. 1 pine liquor cabinet, circa 1955. 1 Alcoholics Anonymous Big Book. 5 pieces of assorted pottery, made by a beginner. 1 string of Japanese Akoya white pearls, 8-millimeters in diameter and luminous, and also fake.

1 impressionist print of three girls on a hill.


In “The Relative Nature of Things”, a woman comes to terms beautifully with what is left of her parents through an elegiac, and heartbreaking catalogue of her their possessions. She finds meaning through a graceful and eloquent telling of the process of sifting through her childhood home for an estate sale with her sisters. The author traverses the history of the minimalists and then arrives brilliantly back in her own living room, enlightening the reader on what is important to take with her. In her moving study, she has shown us that true value is not in material objects, but the memories they bring.
—Anthony Swofford & Christa Parravani, 2012 Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize Judges

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