what to keep


My grandmother’s depression-era wisdom advised keeping everything, just in case: plastic bags upon plastic bags of … plastic bags. Scraps of fabric. Decades-old catalogs. Her basement was full of these. I’m quite certain that the bags and bags of bags didn’t really bring my grandma much in terms of joy though she did put them to use over the years, and not only to line the bathroom garbage can or to wrap up leftovers to take on our journey home. She wove the bags into rugs, squeaky and shining. She kept one on the linoleum in front of her sink.

A patchwork blanket that she made from the scraps of old sweatshirts is the most sought-after movie-night snuggle item in my house. That blanket, more than all the others in the closets and on the beds and stuffed into storage ottomans around here, is the one we reach for on cold winter nights, on days home sick. Really it is the only blanket that counts. Not much ever came of the old catalogs, though as kids — as my cousins and I played store and school alongside the sagging, worn furniture of her damp lower level — we often turned them into props of pretend, which is I suppose one of the more valiant uses of anything.

My grandmother always lived on a modest budget; even so, by the time I knew her she certainly could have purchased a cheap rug for the kitchen sink just as her children could eventually without much worry afford to buy whatever blankets they desired. Her practice of reuse – like washing out the margarine (yes, margarine) containers and adding them to the already-ample supply in the door by the stove — continued long after it was needed for getting by. Keeping, just in case, using what was already on hand was her habit, her way of life.

As was making homemade plum jam and rhubarb preserves from fruit in her yard. Baking bread from scratch. And serving pickles — made with cucumbers and dill from her garden, of course — right out of the Mason jar (long before it was on-trend to do so).

She was, in a deceptively simple way, a master of transformation.

Meanwhile, in my present-day existence and in my little city house, far in time and space and experience from my grandmother’s childhood, I try not to collect too much of anything. I regularly clean out our closets and pass along what we’ve outgrown. We put the books we no longer want in our Little Free Library, and I’ve called to stop the delivery of most print catalogs. We bring – most of the time – our own cloth bags to the store. I dream of blank spaces and carefully edited closets. If keeping was her habit, de-cluttering is mine.

Still, I do want to hang on to the wisdom in my grandmother’s way of being. I do not think I will ever weave rugs from plastic bags, though I from time to time bake my own bread and aspire to do so more. I haven’t yet learned to make preserves or can pickles, but I would like to one of these days. (My “one of these days” is overflowing, as crowded as the margarine-container cupboard by Grandma’s stove.) I admire all that my grandmother re-imagined and remade from the odds and ends or scraps or leftovers of daily life, all the somethings she made out of little things that to an unpracticed eye may not seem like much of anything at all. Her lesson, deceptively simple: just how often we have the makings of something quite useful and beautiful right already in our midst, in our homes and in our lives, if only we have the imagination to see it and do the work to make it so.