Just a thing?

"But, of course, a thing is just a thing."

Amor Towles - A Gentleman in Moscow


Yesterday I spoke about saying a sad goodbye to a friend, today in, at first sight anyway, a much more trivial exercise, I am talking about saying goodbye to things. Or rather that things, in their own way, are as important as people. Well of course they aren't. A thing is indeed just a thing. But ...


I am rereading this wonderful book for my Eltham Book Group. It's an absolute pleasure to read and is full of small observations about life, the universe and everything.


In case you don't know, because it is a big best seller, at the beginning of the book the central character - a Russian aristocrat who lives in a suite in a grand hotel in Moscow is condemned by the Bolsheviks to never leave the hotel and is transferred to a small and dingy room in the attic. And so he has to vest himself of many of his precious possessions. I'm now going to quote the entire passage that gave me the inspiration for this post, because hopefully you will see that all of it is relevant. He leads into it by explaining that although it is terrible to lose people who are precious to us, we are, in a way, trained to expect this. And also, as I guiltily said yesterday, we lose touch with our friends.


"experience is less likely to teach us how to bid our dearest possessions adieu. And if it were to? We wouldn't welcome the education. For eventually, we come to hold our dearest possessions more closely than we hold our friends. We carry them from place to place, often at considerable expense and inconvenience; we dust and polish their surfaces and reprimand children for playing too roughly in their vicinity - all the while, allowing memories to invest them with greater and greater importance. this armoire, we are prone to recall, is the very one in which we hid as a boy; and it was these silver candelabra that lined our table on Christmas Eve; and it was with this handkerchief that she once dried her tears, et cetera, et cetera. Until we imagine that these carefully preserved possessions might give us genuine solace in the face of a lost companion.


But, of course, a thing is just a thing.


And so, slipping his sister's scissors into his pocket, the Count looked once more at what heirlooms remained and then expunged them from his heartache forever."


I suppose when I look at it with cynical modern eyes, it's a bit corny and a bit sentimental, but at its heart is truth. As we grow older we accumulate stuff - things - some of us to an inordinate degree. I can't tell you how many conversations I have had with my sister, my husband and lots of friends and acquaintances about the need to declutter. Partly for the sake of our children who will be left with it all when we die, and partly because - well they gather dust, are never used and take up room. It's untidy. Beside we might downsize and then what would we do?


But it's those memories that we can't let go isn't it? So maybe the first thing to do is to sort the things that have no memories attached - there are a few - and throw them out. In an environmentally conscious way of course. The next stage might be to then sort those that could still be useful to those that could not. Which is much more difficult. I mean what real use can be ascribed to old photos, old love letters and so on.


Anyway that small piece in this lovely book made me reflect on whether I should be throwing out some of the things in my kitchen and perhaps I could start a new mini series of posts on memory laden equipment that I could turn to every now and then when otherwise uninspired.


A few pages further on from the above piece, we have the Count standing at the large desk that he actually saved from his possessions and had taken to his new attic. It belonged to the Grand Duke, his godfather, who fundamentally raised him when his parents died young of cholera. And so the desk is irrevocably connected to memories of childhood, of this man and his life. But importantly it also has a practical use - besides the ability to write upon it - its legs are hollow and hide a fortune in old coins. It is therefore doubly precious.


What a lot of pretentious waffle you might say. Yes indeed, so let's turn to my 'thing' of today - my wire basket salad shaker. Here it is on my kitchen bench. When filled with wet salad leaves, well wet leaves of any kind, it expands into a basket. You then wrap the handles over each other, take it outside and swing it vigorously from side to side, thus removing almost all of the water from the leaves. You can even swing it completely over your head if you like as the young woman below is about to do.


You might need to then lay the leaves on a tea towel to dry, or just hang the basket on the kitchen tap to drip the last bits of moisture away, but fundamentally your salad leaves are now ready to use. It's a wonderful thing that gets used quite frequently.


So what you might say?


It's practicality is not the only reason I have it. I bought this salad shaker in France. I can't quite remember when or where, but I'm pretty sure it would have been on one of those exchange holidays. For I remember very clearly, that every evening as the sun was going down, Mme Coutant would put her washed salad leaves into her wire basket, go out on to the balcony and swing it from side to side over the edge until the leaves were dry. Below is a vintage postcard of the Mairie - where I used to stay. The balcony of the flat is in the centre of the building above the main entrance. The flat extended all the way to the right-hand end of the main building. I slept in the room at the far right next to the steps.

And so every time I use my salad shaker I am reminded, not just of Mme Coutant swinging the shaker but also of all of those holidays, even though my salad shaker is not the one used by Mme Coutant. But it is identical. They were happy memories even though at the time I was often embarrassingly self-conscious and overawed by the chicness of the French girls of my own age, as well as being embarrassed of course, by my poor French. But yes, it was one of the golden periods of my life. And I have been fortunate enough to have had many.


These are not the only associated memories though. Over time, some of the pieces of wire at the top slipped from their mooring to the bottom section and it was often a bit tricky to use and a tiny bit annoying. However eventually I asked David to see if he could fix it and of course he could. It took him a few minutes I think. So now I have memories, not just of France, but also of difficulties using it here, and of all the other things that my very handy husband has fixed over the years.

There are also slightly unrelated memories of another holiday in France, much later in life, with Australian friends in which we found ourselves in a house with no means of drying the washed salad leaves. Well that's what I thought. But our friend Fred - another very handy man - simply placed the leaves in a tea towel, gathered up the edges and swung it around his head. A small moment in a week long holiday, that brought back more memories of that particular holiday. I think the guy in the picture is using a pillow-case, but it's the same idea. It was very effective and for a moment I thought I should throw out my salad shaker at home. But, of course, I couldn't do that.


So one small, very ordinary object, can conjure up one moment in time, which in turn conjures up a multitude of other memories moving further and further away from that original moment. I also have one of those plastic salad spinners somewhere and it's probably even more efficient but it has no memories attached. It would be much easier to throw that out.


It does make one wonder though whether one is kinder to things than people.


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