I listened to a heartbreaking interview on WBUR’s Here & Now on Wednesday with a woman named Katy Brogan, who last week lost her home in the Pawnee wild fire in Northern California. She offered a raw and honest account of her experience, including her bewildering feelings about the things she and her family lost, and the often not-so-helpful words a few people said to her following the loss. (Hint: Don’t be a sanctimonious ass and tell someone who has suffered a catastrophic loss that it happened because you didn’t love (G)od/Jesus enough.)
I’ve said it before in this space years ago (see “Fire”), and I say it again: “Things” are important. Not as important as life (usually), but “things” are often what help us remember and honor our own life, as well as the lives of those before us. For instance, my grandmother and great-grandmother, who emigrated from Norway in the early twentieth century, were very poor, and they brought their things over in one trunk each. I have the great fortune of owning both of those trunks, and I would be very sad if I lost them, as they reflect part of my history.
History in the Kitchen
A few years ago, my daughter Carlene rearranged her kitchen to make room for the items she received when she got married. However (and this made me happy), she kept many of the things I’d given her over the years, including loaf pans, Tupperware, a pizza stone, and decades-old dishes that we used when I was a kid. I was struck by the connections we have to our kitchen stuff in particular, including how we acquired certain items. For instance, I inherited my the lefse stick and roller when the grandma (with one of the aforementioned trunks) passed. Her initials, K.H. (Katinka Hagebakken…you can’t make that up, folks), are still printed in permanent marker on the stick. I use it every year when I make lefse. I also still have a smoke-colored Pyrex bowl that was once part of a set of four I received at my bridal shower when I got married 37 years ago. I don’t know what happened to the other three, but I still have the Black and Decker hand mixer I got at that shower, along with the Fannie Farmer cookbook my sister gave me. I won’t part with any of these items until 1) I no longer have a kitchen or; 2) I am no longer breathing.
The folks in California who lost their homes to wild fires also had lefse sticks and Fannie Farmer cookbooks and dishes and pots and pans they acquired in special, meaningful ways. Katy Brogan lost “Memories of my dad, pictures, some family heirloom jewelry. All my Carhartt stuff. I’m a big Grateful Dead fan, so all my Grateful Dead stuff’s gone — just kind of things that might seem stupid to somebody else.” These aren’t stupid, Katy! We all have that “stuff” that may not make sense to anyone else, but that’s not their business. Losing things we love, rely on, or give us historical perspective is painful, and despite what the “well-intentioned” say, “At least you got out alive” isn’t very helpful when it comes to needing empathy and comfort from others.
It’s OK to grieve the loss of the cookie molds you inherited from your great aunt because she cherished the Sundays when you’d go over to her house and make cookies with her; the cast iron pan your great-grandfather used to fry the walleye he caught in Lake Erie when the family camped on the weekends; the Number Thirty Hamilton Beach malt mixer you bid on and won at your first country auction; the monogrammed apron your husband bought you when you “graduated” from that six-week Asian cooking class. Can we live without these things? Of course. But “things” enhance our lives in many ways.
When we witness the suffering of those who have lost their things, rather than offer pithy, moralistic, and priggish sentiments that suggest they’re simply lucky to be alive, we’d be better off to reflect on and appreciate our own impermanent, often ethereal “things.” Look at the loss from their perspective. Think about the stuff we still have the good fortune to touch, look at, and use. Is Grandma’s green depression-era measuring cup tucked away somewhere in a buffet collecting cobwebs…as mine was? Get it out! Use it the next time you’re measuring broth for soup or flour for cookies. Do you save the “good dishes” for special occasions? Use them the next time you serve sloppy Joes! Dirty the fancy linens. They’ll wash up.
Using your things or passing them on to people who need them allows “things” to do what they were meant to do: enhance lives. And when those lives are gone, “things” can offer comfort in the memory of how, and by whom, they were used.