Archive for the ‘Stuff’ Category



I’ve waited too long. It’s nine in the morning, but the heat is already climbing. It’s too late now for my usual walk in Eaton Canyon. On a day like this, the snakes will be out, weaving their sinuous paths on top of the silty trails. My daily exercise will need to take another form. I decide to ride my bike the one mile to Jean’s house to pick up her Silver Anvil.

The Silver Anvil is an award given annually for outstanding performance by the Public Relations Society of America. Jean was awarded hers in the 1960′s. The award itself is about ten inches tall, shaped like an anvil and weighs upwards of eight pounds. Why I feel this must be shipped to Syracuse University where Jean’s life and papers are archived, is beyond me. An over-scrupulous sense of duty has always weighed on me. And now it is in my backpack.

The last time I rode my bike to Jean’s was the day she died, four months ago. Peggy had called to say the hospice doctor had told her Jean was going fast, though at ninety-three and bedridden for a decade, it had hardly been a rush. But I rushed to see her one more time. I listened to her rasping, rattling breath. I told her I loved her. My car had been acting up so I left after a while and took my ailing Volkswagen in for a new battery. The dealership had brought me home.

My phone was ringing when I walked through the door. Jean had died. I hopped on my only available transportation and rode my bike to her house. Peggy, Jean’s caregivers and I waited quietly for the mortuary people and then the hospice worker, who flushed all of Jean’s drugs down the toilet. I mourned the morphine. As the attendants

wheeled Jean’s body out on a gurney, Peggy noted that Jean always said she’d have to be taken from her charming cottage, her home of forty-four years, “feet first.” She left with one possession: a small plush skunk she’d named Percy, that never left her side. He had even been x-rayed with her once in the hospital. When it came time for us all to leave, my bike had a flat and I walked it home.

I’ve now spent four months pouring through Jean’s “stuff”. As Peggy and I break down the house, I find myself accumulating things I’d never thought about before. What was I doing? Did I need eight more water glasses? Five red candles? A brass bottle opener shaped like a squirrel?

Things we keep out of remembrance we often forget. They molder in our attics and garages. The crocheted linen table runners, the jade cats, the twisted strands of costume pearls, the dove gray three-quarter length gloves, the scarab rings, the silk shawls, the coasters from the Dordogne.

And the paper. An ego-driven imperative pushes some of us to write it all down to save. “Because the flesh can’t stay, we pass the words along,” Eric Jong said her Poem to Keats. As Jean’s literary executor, I’d spent four months marinating in paper.

I began with her office drawers and file cabinets. As a poet, essayist, columnist, editor, teacher and lecturer, Jean had a prodigious amount of paper. She maintained a voluminous correspondence and kept carbon copies of her letters. Pages scotch-taped together half a century ago fell apart in my hands. The yellowed tape was crystallized like mica and crumbled in shards through my fingers.

For weeks I worked alone in the quiet of her house. “This house feeds me,” she’d said many times. Her peaceful haven, surrounded by trees and a shaded garden, nourished me as well. The redwood house with its wide front porch was filled with things that pleased the eye and touch. Stones collected from the river in Big Sur, art, calligraphy, jade figurines of cats, brass bells and candlesticks, silver and turquoise combs that pinned up her waist-length hair. There was jewelry of all kinds, handkerchiefs, gloves, silk slips, classic shoes, a mink stole. Paintings, many of them very old, were lorded over by a large oil portrait of her father at four. There were mirrors and mahogany bureaus. A mezuzah graced her front door. Jean sipped from all religions “as needed” and drank in any parts that quenched her spiritual fires. Cartoons, many of Snoopy, adorned her walls along with photos clipped from magazines and newspapers of animals, especially cats. A large poster of Koko with her kitten hung on the bedroom door. The ashes of Jean’s last cat, Mrs. Pennington, rested in a small “cremains” box at the top of a bookcase. Photos of poets, writers, statesmen, lovers, philosophers, ministers and mystics were thumb tacked in her study next to family photos. A picture of Jean at three playing with blocks showed her apparently spelling out the word “Zen.” There were cupboards of LP’s of symphonic music along with poets such as Dylan Thomas and Auden reading their work. There were walls, and walls, and walls of books. You could look through her house for weeks and keep unraveling the story of her life, as if following an eternal skein.

Our interest in buried treasure, stockpiling the past, keeping mementos, and establishing value for art, all seems rooted in our longing for safety. Hoarding stuff, as a

homeless person pushing a shopping cart loaded with things that could be useful someday, seems more like the basis of success for storage companies and eBay. Even things that help us understand who we are bore us eventually, and we look to someone else’s objets, something new to fill that hungry place inside that is forever emptying itself. We appropriate patina and wear it as our own.

After Jean’s death, Peggy made a trip up the coast to Cambria with a friend. She marveled at the antique shops they perused. Most were full of the same stuff we had been crating up at Jean’s.

Stuff acquires and looses meaning. After we look at the same painting, statue, nut dish or vase for thirty years, we often no longer see it. We’re lucky when we see it differently, or better. If the way light falls on a painting of a four-year-old boy from long ago continues to refresh us, we’re glad. His golden curls devour and surpass time. We become sojourners, and not merely trespassers to the past.

Jean’s last name was Burden. I strapped the weighted backpack across my shoulders and headed home.