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Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Things They Carried

In one of my college literature classes, we read a collection of stories by Tim O'Brien called The Things They Carried. The first of those stories, the one by the same name as the collection, talked about the things a group of American soldiers in Vietnam carried with them.

It starts out with what you would expect--all of their clothing and equipment and gear--and then keeps going a little deeper. Eventually, the reader learns a great deal about each of these men, because of the specific items they had with them. A photo of a baby. A cross. A letter. Then we learn more about these specific items and why these men carried them, sometimes for surprising reasons.

If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it. But as I've recently gone through and purged a bunch of the things that I carry around with me, both before my move and after it, I've discovered that there are certain Things I Carry that I'm not ready to get rid of.

These are things I brought with me to North Carolina from Texas...and I can't get rid of them.
I mean, seriously. A single, broken drumstick. An ugly, dirty stuffed donkey for goodness sake. A shredded to no end cat collar. And an ugly pair of black, leather shoes that are caked with dried on mud.

Just looking at it, and thinking about it like that, it's hard even for me to remember why they come with me--why I have such a hard time letting go. But then I look at them more closely, individually, and there's no way I can not keep them.

For instance, the cat collar.

This collar belonged to my very first cat, Bailey. Bailey was my sweetheart. He was big and fluffy, and he loved to snuggle. He was scared of almost everything, but he wasn't scared of me. When my younger cat started trying to sneak out the front door, and actually got past me one time (she waited in the bushes by the door, and then hissed and grumbled at me when I finally opened the door and let her back in, like it was my fault she had gone outside), I decided that my cats needed tags with their names and my phone number.

No, Bailey would never dare to step foot outside--he was too scared--but I put him in one anyway. And he hated it. Within a couple of weeks, he had the poor thing shredded so badly that it was getting tangled in his fur. When the stupid thing ripped a chunk of his fur out one day, I gave up and decided he could go without. When I took it off, I put it in a drawer, thinking maybe sometime I would find a different collar that he couldn't shred...and I could use the same tag.

I never found another collar. A few months after that, he got very sick and we had to put him down. But I still have his one and only collar, complete with a phone number I no longer own. I thought about tossing it before the move, but I just couldn't. And I still can't.

Then there's this ugly stuffed donkey.

This is Jingles. Jingles isn't just ugly and dirty, but he's older than me, and he's got bells in his ears. Annoying bells in his ears. Every time you move him, he jingles. Hence his name.

He's so old that I'm afraid to wash him. I don't think he'd survive the wash. So the stains he's got? They're staying. I also don't really have much need for stuffed animals any more. I stopped sleeping with them over two decades ago.

I could keep him around for my nephew to play with, but I don't trust him to take good care of Jingles. He's a rough-and-tumble boy, and he's destroyed more toys than I can count. My cats, also, would LOVE to play with Jingles. But I don't think he'd last a day in their clutches.

So why do I keep him? Jingles was a gift from my last living great-grandmother to me. He belonged to her (her daughters gave him to her), and when she died, I was her youngest great-grandchild (I wasn't yet one). I don't remember her. I never knew her in a meaningful way. But still, I have a part of her...and so I keep it.

Then we have this single, broken drumstick.

I was a percussionist through junior high and high school, so I have broken my fair share of drumsticks over the years. But why keep one?

This one wasn't one of mine. I never had its pair. It came from the drummer of a band whose music helped me through a very difficult time in my life. Years later, I got to see them perform live from the second row. After the show, the drummer handed me his stick just before he walked off the stage.

Despite the potential for splinters, I don't know that I'll ever be able to get rid of it. Maybe I should frame it. That might be safer.

And then, finally, we have the ugly pair of black, leather shoes caked with dried-on mud.

Why on earth do I hold onto these? Or if I'm going to keep them, my haven't I cleaned the mud off?

The mud has been there for about four years now. The last time I wore these shoes, I was at my Grandpa's funeral. It was raining that day in south Texas, even though it hadn't rained in way too long before that. It wasn't just a little rain, either. It was a soaker, where the water really got down into the ground.

I wore these shoes because I didn't want to destroy a good pair. We had to walk through thick, heavy mud to get to the burial site. It was all over everything, but the rain washed some of it away before we got back inside. Some, but not all. Some of it was so thick, so heavy, that the rain couldn't cleanse it away.

When I got home, I put those shoes in the bathroom to dry out, thinking I'd clean them off in a day or two. Four years later, I still haven't been able to bring myself to do so. I know, intellectually, that washing the mud away will not change anything. The mud is not Grandpa. Grandpa is dead and buried, and nothing I do or don't do can change that.

Yet I can't clean those shoes, and I can't get rid of them.

So these are the Things I Carry. I don't know how long I will carry them, or if they will have so much control over me in ten years, twenty, forty.

What are the Things You Carry? Have you ever been able to let one of the Things You Carry go?


  1. Aww, Catherine, what a sweet post. It puts me in a reminiscent mood myself. I can't believe you played the drums! Love that! *looks left and right* Shhhh...I was a band geek. I can play the saxophone. Don't tell. ;}

    1. Yes, Andris, I was a very bad percussionist. LOL. My older sister played both clarinet and bassoon (and then in college, she played flute, trumpet, guitar...she was a music education major), my younger sister played oboe, and one of my brothers played trombone. We were a bit of a musical family, but I was the rebel. :)

  2. I carry several things that I will never get rid of and they all are related to my children. I carry both of their first ident-a-kid cards. This is a card that has thei thumbprint and picture on it along with basic facts about their physical appearance. The cards crack me up because they both got the first cards when they were babies and they have these sweet fat baby faces on basically a mug shot. I also carry pictures of both of them for every year.

    1. Julie, that's hilarious! A mug shot for a baby? LOL. So cute. My Mom still carries (well, not all the time, but she can't get rid of them) one special outfit for each of her five kids, from when we were babies. She went through and picked out the one outfit for each of us that she thought was most memorable for whatever reason. She's got them locked away and only takes them out from time to time. I doubt she'll ever get rid of them. :)

  3. What a great blog, Catherine. There isn't much I hold on to, because I like to purge. I'm sentimental, but I don't necessarily need objects to remind me of the past. However, there are several things I haven't been able to give up. 1) The tape from my old answering machine that has the first message my husband ever left me. I don't know if I can even listen to it ever again because it's so old, but I can't bring myself to throw it out. 2) A jean jacket my grandma embroidered for me with my name on it. Who will ever wear it? I has my name across the back! But it's staying. 3) The outfits my kids came home in from the hospital. 4) The bodice of my wedding gown. Yes, just the bodice because I had the skirt made into a baptismal gown for my daughter. 5) A book my husband gave me after a loss. When I see it, I'm reminded of the loss and it seems like that would be a negative thing. But I don't want to forget that person. I'll keep holding on to it.

    1. Samantha, I love the list of the things you carry with you. I don't even have a cassette player any more, so I wouldn't be able to listen to an old answering machine tape. :) And I completely understand keeping things to remind us of a loss. I don't get sad when I look at my muddy shoes. They always make me smile, thinking of the things Grandpa used to tell me. "Keep your nose to the grindstone," is always the first thing that I think when I see those shoes.

  4. Thank you, I'm not alone. Great blog. I still have the top I bought to go on my second date with Hubby. I could no more get in it now than walk to the moon, but I still have it. Why? Because it was the only thing I've ever bought to go on a date and putting down money I really didn't have to get it showed me that there was something special about this guy. (We decided to get married on our third date, so I was right. I can state it with assurance after 34 years.)

    1. Now that's awesome, Donna. I have been known to hold onto clothes I had no hope of ever being able to wear again, but never any with such a story behind them as that. Congratulations on 34 years together. :) Keep that shirt as long as you can.

  5. Do you guys remember filofax books? Those little personal organizers that everybody used to be addicted to? Way back when information technology was new, they made an electronic version. Valiant Husband got me one for Christmas one year. It has a calendar, contact/address info, daily schedule, notes, everything the little leather books had.

    I opened it. Thought it was cool. He told me to read the notes section. In it was a poem he'd written himself, about how much he loves me and appreciates all that I do for him. At the end, it said to look in the Christmas tree for another gift--I did and found a gorgeous emerald and diamond ring. I love that ring. But I love that poem more. I will NEVER get rid of the electronic gadget, no matter how outdated it is.


    1. Oh, Deb...I had one of those little personal organizers. It was easy for me to get rid of mine in the pre-move purge. But then again, mine didn't have a poem that my husband had written for me. :) Very sweet. I'd be holding on to that sucker forever.

  6. Good heavens, Catherine! Now you've made me cry! Darn you!! I don't like to cry, and especially not at work. :) There are people here who now think something awful has happened. They don't know I'm just a big baby, and I'd rather not have that rep get out there, thank you very much!

    My maternal grandfather was very special to me. I was his first grandchild, and I think I was always his favorite - I mean, I am pretty awesome. What's not to adore, right? Anyway, I was pregnant and living across the country when he died. I was actually on a plane, hoping to make it there before he passed when he did finally take his last breath, and so I missed saying my last goodbye in person. Guilt, I will apparently never get over. And here I am, 15 1/2 years later, crying my eyes out at my desk, thinking about him. He died at his house, wrapped in an afghan I made for him years earlier. After his funeral, my grandmother gave the afghan back to me, and I don't believe I'll ever be able to part with it.

    1. Great Ava...you and Catherine both suck for making me cry. Ugh!

      I refuse to contribute to this crying mess. ;)

    2. I'm sorry I made you cry, Ava! (I have to admit, when I wrote this and set it to post a couple of weeks ago, I got pretty teary-eyed myself.) I have a feeling you won't be letting go of that afghan ever. I know I wouldn't.

      Marquita, I *did* tweet and FB a warning back when I wrote the blog that it might be a bit tear-inducing. I can't be held responsible for your crying. LOL.