Here’s a philosophical question for our times: If a tree falls on the coffee table and no visitors are around to see it, does it matter?

Ok, so we don’t have trees in the living room, unless newspapers count. But we also don’t have visitors. And COVID’s never-ending emotional drain has made me wrestle with the mythology of tidy-up guru Marie Kondo. With so little interaction with the outside world, is there a danger that “Why keep it?” could slip into “Why bother?”

Where did all of this stuff come from?

First things first: I confess that dejunking our bulging closets, shelves and forgotten corners would be a worthy mission. OK, a very worthy mission. Let’s start with that teetering pile of who-knows-what? on the side of my desk. Motivation is another matter.

Well, motivation did kick in last fall when a long-delayed flooring project broke through the supply-chain madness and whipped us into a frenzy. Everything had to be moved out of the living room, dining room, front entranceway and closet. In no time, our garage and basement looked like settings for a Marie Kondo nightmare.

“Aha!” said the newly revived orderly side of my brain as I jammed a box of books under a bed. “This is a perfect chance to tidy our house and ‘spark joy’ (at last).”

But here’s the thing: I don’t know about other people’s “stuff”. Does their stuff reflect passing whims inspired by TV decorating shows? Late-night shopping binges? The quest for dynamic colour co-ordination?

Well, that’s not our house.

Even in the Before Times – i.e. before visitors were all but banned – our decorating style was best described as “early eclectic.” Sure, there are elements such as the loveseat and chairs that exhibit some degree of co-ordinated planning, but other items are there because they were treasured gifts or relics from the past. In fact, the rooms are anchored by large items tethered to my very soul.

The dining room table, for example, originally purchased by my great-grandparents Richard and Minnie Birdsall, is an easy survivor of any purge. Even with all of its leaves removed, it commands a prime spot in the room. On installation day, my husband Dwight and I were barely able to manoeuvre its bulk into the adjoining kitchen, probably because of all of the protesting ghosts of ancient relatives clinging to its underbelly. (These ghosts are well known to anyone who has shared a meal at our table – you have to speak clearly to be heard above their incessant squeaking.)

Like the table, three large cabinets are deeply rooted in the family tree. And inside those cabinets? Well, I was forced to thoroughly assess that disparate collection because although the flooring guys would move these cabinets around on installation day, the shelves had to be bare.

A pandemic is probably not the best time to approach such a task. For several days I sorted, the near-empty rooms as hollow as a lockdown morning. As I pulled items from the cabinets, each one morphed into a momentous symbol of family, friendship, happy times, my place in a larger world.

How could I possibly get rid of the tiny creamer with the double spout, for example? I have no idea of its vintage or value, but it was from my childhood home and it has a horse motif, for goodness sake. I love horses! And that Minton tea set with its oversized sugar bowl and cups too fragile to use? Why that belonged to my late aunt Rachel Grover.

This water flask was carried by Gertrude Reid during the First World War. She was a nurse and good friend of my grandmother, Ruth (Birdsall) Elmhurst.

So what if the finish on that pottery platter is showing signs of wear? The platter is an instant reminder of a 2000 trip to France with our sons, Nick and Nate, a trip in which I insisted on hauling home this awkward, very heavy souvenir from a Provence pottery studio.

That silver serving spoon belonged to Dwight’s great grandmother. This First World War water flask was carried by a nurse, a beloved friend of my grandmother. Four of those bunny napkin rings were gifts from a late friend; our daughter-in-law Emma completed the set.

Cabinets finally cleared – and carefully packed – I opened the doors to the antique washstand. Finally! Stuff that could be purged!

Yes, I admit it. Despite my Paprika app, our remarkable cookbook collection and the Internet’s (infuriating, over-stated) recipe websites, I still had file folders stuffed with recipe clippings. Many, their rips and splatters like badges of honour, dated back to when the boys were young, a period in which I ditched full-time work for a few precious years.

There were 1980s recipes from the New York Times and Gourmet magazine, a time when eggplant was exotic, pesto was a revelation, and experiments with Middle Eastern or Asian flavourings were sure signs of our progressive sensibilities.

The “sweets” file included granola, cookie and smoothie recipes that underlined my earnest commitment to nutrition. But what’s with this 1990s recipe positioning carob as a “healthy alternative” to chocolate? Gone.

As the “discard” pile grew, I acknowledged the real issue: many of these clippings served as unwelcome reminders of the passage of time. Gone. Gone. Gone.

But there were keepers – recipes that evoked the sounds of my mother’s kitchen, children’s laughter or relaxed conversations with longtime friends. A scrawled note was all it took: “Mom’s Tea Biscuits”; “Nick’s 5th birthday” (carrot cake, if you can believe it); “Roe gathering 2015” (a dinner with our former neighbours that brought together our now-adult children); “Sue’s pumpkin squares” (a share from a close friend with great taste).

As Dwight and I repositioned our furniture on our newly installed floors and I set to work reloading the cabinets, I felt refreshed even though we still had almost all of our original stuff. Surely the fact everything had been washed and dusted counted for something. Those Minton dishes sure do gleam!

I’m taking Marie Kondo at her word – it’s the joy that counts, not the discard pile. And sometimes joy is embedded in a squeaky table or a well-used recipe clipping.


2 thoughts on “So, is this joy or junk?

  1. Kathy!!!

    This is a absolutely beautiful. Touching, humorous, and oh so wise. It is a JOYFUL read! I love it. Now, About those pumpkin squares…❤️


    Sent from my iPhone



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