We Never Threw Anything Away

WHEN I find myself hesitating on the way to the incinerator, wondering if I am doing away with something of use to anyone, I realize that the habit of saving everything, instilled during a New England upbringing, springs not from avarice but from caution.

As a family, we never threw anything away. We were afraid we might be sorry later. Some day, perhaps, such a terrible calamity would descend that we should be grateful for the old golf cape and the raccoon coat, too bare in strange places to be given away. All obviously useful things in good repair were handed on immediately where they would do the most good, but the worst and most useless things we kept, ours forever, because they had belonged to someone we loved or were not good enough for people we did not know. They became increasingly ours as the years went by — the elaborately cut broadcloth and faded sealskin and odd ermine tails and ornamental buckles and fans and hats, which grew funnier all the time although we could never be funny about them, remembering the owners. The longer things were kept, the less we could do with them, except change the creases they were folded in when we made annually sure against moths.

Pure caution was behind the drawer full of odd skates and shoes and gloves. Some day, if we should ever get rid of these things, all the other gloves and shoes and skates would suddenly turn up and leave us just where we were in the first place, only on the other feet and hands. . . . And prudence made us keep all the bits of broken china in a special place in the pantry, all those irreplaceable patterns that would be ours again with the invention of really good glue. Next door to these fragments were preserves put up by my grandmother’s own hands, spiced from a receipt her mother had given her. No one would be the first to dispose of these, although we would all have choked rather than eat them. And in the medicine cupboard were the halffull bottles for when you had it again, and the empty ones to help you remember the prescription or against those awful moments when the doctor asked for a clean, empty bottle, please. . . . We were always prepared for anything with that medicine closet — for the next summer with white shoe polish no one had liked enough to use up, with smelling salts that had been bought in nervous moments somewhere and never touched again. The closet was beautifully arranged with stepped-back shelves so that one saw everything all at once, and it was built in above a set of drawers which held the mateless things and neatly sorted snapshots of people we did not know (but who had apparently meant a lot to others), and empty picture frames and old school notebooks no one could bear to look inside again. There were also several practically untouched gift books against the emergency of a nearly neglected relative who could be presented with Spanish Missions in Water Color at a last desperate moment.

There was a conviction that anything which had belonged to anyone in the family was better than something new. We laughed at the people who went out to buy antiques because their forbears had not been sufficiently provident or cautious, but we also felt bound to give loyal houseroom to whatever atrocity might be left unchosen after the breaking up of some family house. We took in stained-glass lamps as if they were lonely animals. We rescued four-posters from chicken houses and desks from woodsheds, and then gave place of honor to a leather rocker on a stand, associated fondly with the person who had been so amazed by the ingenuity of anything at once so substantial and disturbing as to buy it and sit in it for thirty years. We were loyal to everything, even a bronze lion half-killing a snake, a flier into museum art taken by an uncle whose reputation as a connoisseur will be vindicated when a museum takes away the group. In the meantime we try not to look.

When I wanted a fur coat, being away at school, it was felt that I was too young, as my mother had not had her sealskin jacket until she was twenty. But my grandmother had had a squirrel cape, of much finer skins than could be got today, we all knew; and at great expense that was made into a fur coat for me. It was a lovely coat, and worth so much more, we all felt, because it had been hers. It was the same with linen: my grandmother’s was better than my mother’s, and both were better than anything I could get anywhere today. . . . And lace — it had to be real, and to have belonged to someone else. . . .

There is something about hair that awakens odd reactions. The fact that a thing, like a fingerbowl or a lampshade, is made of human hair seems to make the same interest juices flow in observers as the mention of a king’s mistress. Stray bits of hair are difficult to throw away. Anyone who has seen Byron’s little trunk full of hanks and braids and curls, all neatly labeled with the name and place and date, will feel a slight shock and wild surmise forever after when coming upon a long strand in an old trunk. Only the other day I managed to throw away two infinitesimal teeth which I had seemed to consider worthy of a jewel box under lock and key, but I put back a small light curl, knowing that I shall simply come upon it like that all my life and always be unable to throw it away.

Sometimes, of course, the mere keeping of things serves to Soften tragedy. I kept a frosted cake and a papier-mâché rabbit when I was nine, and it seemed that not until they entirely disintegrated would the giver be truly dead. This fending off of realization hangs in closets full of clothes, and rests on dressing tables where silver is still polished and arranged, and lies in piles of unsorted letters. It is an indication that those who change their homes every year are happier and freer and braver. . . . The ashman and the junkman and the Salvation Army come and not a trace is left. . . . Or no? Do these people who fit themselves into different shapes and sizes and heights and styles annually carry about with them all those oddments from the little closet under the stairs that is such a comfort to those of us who have dug ourselves in for generations? Pity the people with no stairs, but most of all those who have no dark hole under them. What do they do with the collar of the favorite dog, however long departed, and the things unidentified guests left and may some day come back to claim? . . . And do they forever drag with them their love letters, the boxful from the one they married and the selected samples from others, kept against a rainy flay when one needs heartening, and always forgotten until the next move? How dreadful not to own one’s own attic.

There was one thing I thought had cured me of ever saving anything myself, a triumph in keeping for another generation that should have, I hoped, made me throw away everything twice a year. In the stable, where the sleighs and carts and saddles were all in place, stood our pony. Pie waited from the time our legs grew too long until we came back with our children and set them on his back. Then he died.

I had determined never to keep anything myself. . . . But when I married an Englishman who had had six years of war and wanted to throw away all traces of it, being a considered pacifist, I refused to get rid of the stained khaki, the scarlet mess jacket, the Cossack coat. I kept them in case we ever had boys who would like to dress up. And last year I went up into the attic, with the boys’ help, and got out the Sam Browne belt and buttons and badges and knapsack, and sent them off to England to him, remembering his laughter at my inability to throw anything away.