The Things We Collect

In the lobby of the public library in my neighborhood, there is a yard square glass-topped display case with the intriguing sign, “Things People Collect.” It draws me every time I am there to peek into the curious favorites of other people. I have dawdled over marbles in every color and pattern, vintage ceramic flower planters shaped like lambs and ponies, and a dizzying array of Pez dispensers.

I once installed my own collection there for a smug month; miniatures from dozens of places I have visited around the world, such as a pinkie-sized Eiffel Tower and Plymouth Rock as a pebble. I like my miniatures because they are—of course—small and they remind me warmly of places and things we did there. Noble purposes for a collection.

Why we keep what we keep is a mystery. I’m referring to collecting, not its unwelcome cousin hoarding, which differs in many respects, principally that one is by choice, the other compulsion. Not all collecting is by choice, of course. Once you admit to liking a particular category of things, mere affinity can swiftly be transformed into collecting by well-meaning friends who are relieved to have a ready gift idea.

Maybe we keep things that remind of us things we’ve done or places we’ve gone, like my miniatures collection. Sometimes we are drawn to things that complement our inner being.

My husband doesn’t collect so much as he gathers. Perhaps as a hedge against the day we will run out of the skinny plastic sleeves the newspaper comes in, he will stash them in drawers for some undefined future use.

My collecting co-exists uneasily alongside a frequent exhibition of spartanism, the moments when I determinedly eject things from my life, such as the day I emptied my house of all the unconnected-to-anything cords, wires, chargers to things that no longer charge, extra-long cables to A.V. equipment that doesn’t A. or V., and anything with the word coaxial in it. Although my friend Anne believes I really do still have every stitch of clothing I have ever bought since the early 1980s, I go through phases in which nothing in my or anyone else’s closet in my house is safe. I plead guilty to having pitched the paper while my husband was still reading it, and once got rid of a box of slides from my grandparents’ attic dating from the 1950s without even opening it.

I have also deliberately sabotaged my collections in order to keep them from growing. My last kitchen redo included a non-magnetic stainless steel refrigerator; now I have nowhere to display my hundreds of magnets. Some collections simply die a natural death; with the demise of smoking in public watering holes, no one makes matches with clever bar logos anymore. Does that make my thousands of matchbooks more or less interesting?

Maybe we collect in order to stave off the passing of time: If I have all the plastic Harpo’s cups from my sorority years, I can’t possibly be old enough to have a child looking at colleges, right? Or to tie us to a certain time: I love using my grandmother’s china because it makes me feel her around my table, although she has been gone for decades.

I am at the point in my life when purging is more attractive than acquiring. Unfortunately, so is my mother, and frequently her outlet is me; many the mom night when she brings another load of “my things,” which I reluctantly take, knowing these items of questionable sentiment will soon hit the Goodwill pile. I look forward to the inevitable downsizing of the house, as my clearing out will then finally have purpose and justification.

Until then, I resolve that collecting will be as it should; narrow, focused, and only of those things meaningful and symbolic. However tempting it is to continue acquiring decorative plates for my kitchen, knowing that I now have enough is both liberating and satisfying. I will revel in the seashells I have without needing to pick up any more. I will collect experiences, memories, and emotions, all things for which I have unlimited storage. Although I can never fit them in a display case, they will never be purged from my heart. Or have to be dusted.