Following is my Dec. 3 New Castle Courier-Times column. I’m still thinking about ornaments today as I prepare a new Christmas program for tomorrow night's Lilac Literary Club in Hancock County. It’s about how our ornaments tell the stories of our lives.
Thirty-one years ago, I couldn’t wait to place baby Sam’s first ornament on our Christmas tree.
As the years passed, new ornaments were purchased annually first for Sam, then also for Ben when he came along. At first I did the choosing, picking out Disney and bear decorations, but as the boys got old enough to care, they got to choose their own.
It became a much-anticipated Christmas tradition to take them to the Hallmark store and select their ornaments. As the “senior” son, Sam got first dibs, and usually selected the year’s cool Batman or sports hero. Along the way came orbs depicting trends such as video games or the hot sports figure of the year.
There were athletes with staying power such as Peyton Manning, and ones who are forgotten footnotes in old box scores. There were action figures such as Spider-man and Lego creations such as a fireplace with Santa appearing to be made from them.
Several years ago, I stopped putting the collection on the big family Christmas tree. These were during the years that the boys were in their late teens and early 20s. The boys had lost their thrill of selecting new ornaments and moved on in their interests. It seemed the time for childhood ornaments had passed.
It’s funny what a few years out of circulation will do to a collection.
Our younger son, Ben, is 26 now, and this is the first Christmas he’s truly been out on his own without a roommate. On Thanksgiving, he was anxious to get back to his apartment and have Brian and I help him put up his own tree.
His lights worked great on the shimmering white tree that came intact from his small patio storage closet. But the problem was, he had no actual ornaments.
So, I offered up his childhood Hallmark ones. I don’t know which of us was more delighted – Ben over the idea of the nostalgic decorations, or me over seeing his delight.
That weekend he came home and went through the pile of Superheroes and athletes, cars and novelty items, all created with the special charm of Hallmark, in ornament form.
One by one we looked them over and he separated his stash from his brother’s and home he went with them. Later that evening, he sent us a photo and video of his decorated tree.
I had always wondered what would become of the boys’ ornaments and if they would ever want them.
I’m happy to see them enjoyed anew in their new home on their new tree – with their old boy.
Don’t let anyone fool you. Brian is every bit as sentimental as I am. If you want proof, try getting rid of (um, I mean paring down and passing on) books of any kind.
Our book collection consumes a variety of venues throughout our home. There’s the glass-front antique secretary where choice volumes reside. There you’ll find author-signed editions, my assembly of Hoosier-themed books, special book gifts, the boys’ baby books, ours and Sam and Allison’s wedding albums.
In this household it’s hard to make the cut for inclusion behind that glass. One reason is that the books there are special and dear. Another reason, probably the main one, is there’s no more space on those shelves.
With the kids gone, our bonus room upstairs doesn’t get much action. There’s no TV there anymore, but the shelves brim as they always have. The three bookcases hold the majority of our collection, along with more than an entire row of photo albums and another row of scrapbooks. There are also school yearbooks dating to the 1960s continuing every year on through 2015, Brian’s last in education. The weight of that shelf alone may well warp the floor boards beneath it. If our house tilts a bit, that shelf is probably why.
In a corner is an antique cabinet that spent decades in Dad’s barn holding tools but then I bought it at the auction, had it refinished, and upgraded it to indoor life.
When we moved here 19 years ago, it went upstairs to hold our third-string books. These consist of college textbooks and reading-list materials as well as a career worth of Brian’s textbooks that were “sampled” to him from publishers wanting to place their books in his classrooms and texts that he used in said classrooms, now outdated, some by a long shot.
Lately I’ve been on a mission to go through every volume and decide if we should keep it or find it another home. I need to catch Brian in just the right mood for the 15-minutes at a time that he can tolerate this evaluation process.
My method goes like this. I grab a stack of his books, some dating a full half century spent on a shelf, and carry them downstairs. I hold each up and he tells me to keep it, get rid of it, or a third option: “That’s Steve’s.”
Yes, a news flash, just registering after 50 years of shuffling high school and college texts around: About 25 of them belong to Brian’s brother. Who knew? He will after reading this. Steve, they are coming your way. Or maybe I’ll send you photos and you can give me the yea, nay, or maybe.
Brian has his own techniques in deciding which of his books to keep or pass on. But darned if I have any idea what they are. Two examples:
Of a college poetry anthology, Brian said, “I hated that book.” He had to do a paper on one poem in particular. All over that poem he has arrows and notes. The thing is nearly covered in blue ink. He got an F on the paper! This from a man from whom anything lower than an A or B was rare.
“Keep it,” he said, shocking me. “That’s one bad memory I want to keep.”
Another college text brought the opposite kind of memory, but proved equally retainable. “We all had to write a one-page paper in that class. He limited us to that. I blew him away. I got an A. Keep it.”
I’m the same, in my own way. There’s an oversized, tattered Mary Poppins movie storybook. Mary Poppins was the first movie I ever went to the movies to see. Mom and I went to a theater in downtown Richmond. I was enchanted.
I carried tomato soup and bacon and mustard sandwiches in a Mary Poppins lunch box all through elementary school. That tin is now in our attic where it holds every high school corsage I ever received. There weren’t that many.
For now, I’m keeping the picture book, the lunch box, and the corsages. Next question.
Today I’m scooping up a stack of mostly textbooks we are parting ways with and handing them off to the library for a future Friends book sale. My thought is the Friends probably don’t want them either, but it seems unkind, somehow, and certainly not green, to just toss them.
I suppose there’s a proper technique for disposing of old textbooks and displaced volumes. Someone may email and say “You should have contacted the (this) or packaged them up and mailed them to the (that).” But instead, I’m palming them off to the Friends for evaluation and disposal. I’m wretched.
As the aging process continues, for the books and for us, there will be more volumes and other things to part ways with. I’m noticing that with aging comes decreasing our belongings and the space we consume in this world, a little at a time.
I often think of the lady who attended one of my “bucket list” programs. When asked what’s on the group members’ bucket lists, she provided the most curious answer I’ve heard from the hundreds who have participated in the exercise. She said, “To leave this world with no more than one bag of possessions.”
What would be in your bag? One thing that won’t be in mine is that poetry book of Brian’s with the bad memory attached to it. But I do see his point. Sometimes a bad memory points to the fact that we work hard, do what we can, and still fail. But survive it we do, then press on.
Sometimes these old, unwanted books still provide lessons.
Talk to me: How do you manage your book collection?
During an audience-participation program I present called, “What’s on your bucket list?” the responses are often predictable: Go to Hawaii or visit Europe. Or thoughtful: Live to see grandchildren (or great-grands) raised, married, and happy.
But of the hundreds of answers I’ve heard, one stands out. The woman said she wants to leave this world having no more than one bag of possessions to her name. One bag.
That's not enough space for family china, chests, antique children’s rocking chairs, a wooden wheelbarrow, boxes of newspaper clippings. One bag wouldn’t begin to hold a personal library of books, a closet full of Christmas decorations, a century-and-a-half worth of family photos, cards, and letters. It wouldn't even hold my restaurant-sized mayonnaise jar of mink pellets.
Some of us need more than one bag. We need a wing at the Smithsonian.
One thing is for sure; we can’t take it with us. Some of us think our kids should take it with them. But times change. Kids today have accumulated a boat load of their own stuff, or they prefer a lighter decorating style than mine which has been described as Stonehenge Revival.
To put it mildly, Brian and I have a full house. Whereas once my idea of a good time was visiting an antiques store and coming home with a treasure, now I would only enter one to see what things are going for and how that translates into my stuff.
Friends are probably surprised to accompany me to a crafts fair and see me walk right past clever jewelry or kitchen knickknacks that I formerly would have carried home. I don’t need them, or lotions, or potions, or more – of anything.
There’s no room at the inn.
While that's obvious to guests in our home, our attic would shock them. There are boxes and bins, stacks and piles. Brian and I have said we are attacking the space with ruthless brutality. We’ve even marched up that ladder like Sherman headed for Georgia. But once there, we pardoned the whole works the way the General did Savannah.
Call it a sentimental journey at the top of those stairs. We become distracted by the boys’ childhood toys and trophies; bins of prom dresses; every college paper that crossed my hands; second-string collectibles, and antiques handed down in our families. All that is not even touching miscellaneous categories up there.
We end up folding up the ladder and fleeing the scene. We can always use the excuse that it’s too hot or too cold to work. That's usually true, but the real reason is we’re not ready to deal with it.
It’s interesting how the aging process works. It seems we spend the first half of our lives accumulating, and the second half figuring out how to part with what we accumulated.
I know people who get genuinely stressed out over this. I know people who fret that their kids won’t want their stuff. It’s all interesting to talk about at this age and stage of life, but it doesn’t stress me. Here are my thoughts.
1. Yes, I’m a sentimental person combined with one who prefers antiques over new stuff as my farmhouse style of decorating. That’s a recipe for a lot of stuff. So what?
2. While I’m not actively accumulating more stuff (aside from replacing worn-out furnishings that we do have), I make strides into editing what we keep. If there are century-old photos of people who haven’t been identified by now, no one is left to do so in the future, so I throw away the photos. Same with fuzzy pictures of any kind as well as six routine shots of the same thing. Edit, edit, edit.
3. I will continue to keep cards and letters that mean something and contain personal notes and sentiments. But stacks of Christmas cards with only signatures? Birthday cards of the same? Toss them. I’ll never get around to cutting out the pretty pictures for gift tags, anyway.
4. The attic is a problem. But it hurts nothing in our daily lives. When the time comes – likely the next time we move, which will be to a smaller home – I’ll throw away the college papers, Brian will toss a lifetime of school lesson plans, I’ll decide no little girl will ever want to play dress up in my old prom dresses, and to the curb it will all go.
5. People say they won’t leave their kids with a mess to go through. Maybe we all shouldn’t leave ourselves with a mess, either. So edit, toss out, pare down – but hear this: Keep what you enjoy and what you love, or even what for some quirky, emotional reason you can’t part with -- even if it seems like a lot to others. It’s not their rodeo. You are living your life now. You don’t have to pack a bag and wait to die to make your life easier for someone else.
These are the artifacts of our lives, the illustrations of our stories.
6. It’s true that your kids won’t want it all. They might not want any of it. That's their choice. But let them decide what they do want, even if it’s nothing. If it bugs you that they will have to handle it all, think out of the storage box and sweeten the pot.
Create a special savings account designated for distribution of stuff. Put enough in there to pay for the whole works to be hauled away, for a couple of meals for the gang to eat while they are reviewing the chaos, and a letter to go with your will about how you’re sorry they have to deal with it all but you enjoyed your belongings and hope they understand.
Tell the kids to feel no obligation to keep grandma’s 24-piece lead crystal set or your collection of salt and pepper shakers from every state.
Tell them to keep, consign, throw out or haul away. Tell them that frankly, you don't care anymore because you are dead and you now have new concerns that have nothing to do with stuff. The special cash account should sweeten their outlook. They might even get a chuckle out of your creativity. (You're welcome.)
All that said – realize that every family is different in ways obvious and those not so much so.
Recently our daughter-in-law got her master’s degree in special education. It seemed the perfect occasion to present her with an antique desktop school bell handed down in the family. I also offered her all, her choice (or none) of the antique Indiana school books that came down in my family. She took a few, one that clear as that bell tone, contained my grandfather’s name and the year 1903. It makes me happy that she has it.
But once you give something away, it’s no longer yours. You have to let it go. I don’t have a problem with that. Our joy came in seeing her accept these family tokens. That joy is far greater than having a book and a bell linger on our shelf.
So what would I put in my one bag of final possessions? I’ll go with the classic response: Family photos. Then I’d smoosh down the photos and add choice cards and letters received over a lifetime, and, well, all that would fill the bag beyond the brim. I'm good at smooshing.
Even so, I can’t take it with me beyond this side of the grave. Not any of it. None of us can.
And that could only mean one thing: We won’t need any of it on the other side.
Hoosier journalist and author Donna Cronk enjoys giving a variety of programs to groups of all sizes and venues. Contact her for information at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her books, which are the sentimental, small-town sort, are available from her or on Amazon. They are: Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast, and That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland. Her next stop is 9-4, Saturday, Aug. 5 in downtown Pendleton, Indiana, at the first-ever Pendleton Arts & Music Fair. Stop by her table for a chat.
In 1981, Brian and I started a new life chapter with a move to Fountain County, Indiana. We each were excited for different reasons. Brian would transition from school teacher to administrator. His new salary of $22,000, an enormous figure to us (even though he would be working insanely long hours), meant that I was headed to college full time to complete a journalism degree.
It didn’t take long that late summer and early fall to connect with one Gay Kirkton, English teacher and wife of football coach Rick Kirkton.
Plans were made to get together at our house on a Saturday night. Maybe I cooked supper for all four of us, but that I don’t remember. We didn’t play cards or games but instead, we talked and got to know each other. If memory serves, the sun was about to come up before the evening-turned-morning ended. We had that much to say and the conversation has not stopped since.
The clearest memory I have regarding that evening didn’t happen that night at all, however, but arrived in our mailbox a few days later. It was a handwritten card from Gay thanking us for having them over and saying what a lovely time she and Rick had enjoyed. They hoped, in fact, to get together again soon.
What? They liked us, they really liked us!
I’m certain that somewhere in my personal archives, I have that card, composed in perfect penmanship, a textbook example of the warmth, hospitality, and encouragement found in a budding friendship – and in a thank you note.
Years later, when writer Joyce Maynard asked us what we would do for a living if we could do anything we wanted, Gay had a quick answer: She would be the social secretary for a First Lady.
I had never heard her voice this before but it was perfect! She would be ideal for such a role in every way that I could imagine. I had evidence in the stash of flawless, handwritten notes received to mark numerous occasions.
She still sends them.
Gay’s not the only one, either. There’s a good chance that someone reading this post (and I know of one in particular to whom this applies for certain, Debbie) are modern women by any measure, but they still prefer instead of a quick email a lovely piece of stationery inserted into a coordinating envelope, sealed, stamped in the front right-hand corner, mailed, then delivered to the recipient via the U.S. Postal Service.
I know this because I get these beauties at work, and I get them at home. And each time, when the mail carrier delivers such a treat, I can’t wait long enough to find a proper letter opener, but instead, tear open the envelope and as fast as I can, read the words someone has cared enough to offer.
For years, I assembled the work notes into large, red scrapbooks which are still shelved alongside our books. For a couple of years now, I’ve papered the front of my work station divider with the notes and letters and cards that newspaper readers have been so kind to mail. This is the beauty of being a community columnist and feature writer: touching other people, connecting with them, and sharing their stories.
At home, I have a special tray in a bedroom that serves as a default book office. The tray holds the thank yous book readers are thoughtful to send when I have spoken to their group or banquet, or the letters they have written telling me about enjoying one of my books, or they share a particular story such as how a husband and wife read my second book together aloud daily until they were finished.
If I ever need a reason as to why I have spent my career at newspapers, or why I wrote two books, or why I am grateful that I have been given the opportunities I have, or presented the cast of characters that fill my life, all I have to do is look at what people have written by hand and sent in my direction.
Yep, those are going to the nursing home with me.
On the other hand ... I’m okay at sending greetings, but no better than okay. I don’t much care for doing up Christmas cards anymore and I failed miserably at that task last year.
Sometimes I remember that I need to select a special greeting card for an occasion, and mentally, lazily I groan at the effort involved. Other times I forget and the card or the note are never sent.
As are most, I’m prone to express my sentiments with emails or social media posts.
What I know is that what is least common is most appreciated. It used to be the rare thing to get a beautiful email or text message. Now what is rare is the hand-addressed envelope with a personal message tucked inside.
Long live thank yous, letters, greetings, and other assorted messages that arrive the hard way, take the long route, the way of ink and stamps and time spent securing their passage.
They are jewels in the world of correspondence, relics perhaps from an another era, their effort preserved by a determined few.
How about you? Do you send or receive cards, notes, or letters the old-fashioned way? Do tell.
Donna Cronk is author of two novels, Sweetland of Liberty Bed & Breakfast and That Sweet Place: At Home in the Heartland. They are available on Amazon in print or for Kindle, and from the author.
This morning I noticed that another one had appeared. This one, bright blue, showed up front- and-center on the catch-all tray I keep on my bedroom dresser.
Whereas my Dad had a thing for guns, and if called to form a Union County Militia, would have outfitted Brownsville Township nicely, my husband is partial to flashlights.
Along with the newbie on our dresser, there’s a pantry full of them steps away in the laundry room. Next to the front door is a coat rack and on it hangs a mini-flashlight, ready for service. In the kitchen junk drawer is at least two flashlights, probably more if you dig deep. He tucks them in our cars too.
If there’s a midnight intruder, Brian will likely spotlight the whites of his eyes before the robber sees ours. And if the power goes out, no problem, there will be light. Flashlight, that is.
As for fresh batteries … that’s another topic.
We may end up in the dark after all. What are your possession obsessions?