A Short History of Ordinary Objects

We start young. A favorite blanket, one our mothers keep until the smell is gone, but we can still remember it. Later come the favorite books, which we buy in special editions, signed editions, in versions that make us feel like we’re holding something unique. We begin to collect movie posters in our teen years, and they cover the walls of our bedrooms, representing taste or goals and dreams. Trinkets from our travels—boxes too small to hold anything substantial, necklaces we will wear for a couple of days after returning home.


When I was a child, I would tip-toe into my mother’s room and look through her jewelry box. She would ask me to be careful; the rings and studs and necklaces were all fragile, old, and belonged to her grandmother and great-grandmother. The jewelry fascinated me, the stones a bit dusty but still shimmering with glory.


Some of my favorite treasures: a special edition of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan; Sirius Black’s wand from Harry Potter World; a stuffed bear my sister got for me on a trip to Germany; a broken pair of old aviators my father wore in the 70’s. My engagement ring. My wedding band. These things, and the memories attached to them, make me happy.

When I was a child, I would tip-toe into my mother’s room and look through her jewelry box. She would ask me to be careful; the rings and studs and necklaces were all fragile, old, and belonged to her grandmother and great-grandmother. The jewelry fascinated me, the stones a bit dusty but still shimmering with glory. Every once in a while, she would let me pick a ring out and wear it for the day. I would slide it on — loose on every finger — smear some of her red lipstick on my mouth, and strut around the house feeling beautiful.

My sister has lived in Mexico City for a decade or so. She’s moved a few times, from my aunt’s house to her first apartment, to another, to another, to another. I have grown used to seeing pictures of her latest move, and I recognize her things — those things she carries from one place to another. Two posters of Marilyn Monroe she’s had since she was 15; a small, green chair that once upon a time belonged to me; and books, always books, piled up in different corners of her home, titles so familiar now they seem out of place when I spot them in a bookshop.


Books are his most prized possessions, and I can’t help but wonder if he loves words more than he loves people, if he’s lost himself in stories he’d rather not share, forming a sort of secret world he treasures more than the one outside his walls.


I think of my father. Sometimes I believe the pages of his books have witnessed more of my father’s life than I have. I imagine him sitting in his living room, in his dining room, in his office, being swallowed whole by the cluttered shelves that refuse to leave room for anything else. The shelves take over the walls up to the ceiling, towering over us while we eat or watch TV, and I catch myself glancing at them. I fear them falling, fear them becoming what glues the house together. Books are his most prized possessions, and I can’t help but wonder if he loves words more than he loves people, if he’s lost himself in stories he’d rather not share, forming a sort of secret world he treasures more than the one outside his walls.


We have little stacks of pressed pennies around our house, and every once in a while I find one in a purse or my wallet and it makes me smile. 


I think about this often — about attachment to my house, my home, about our preference for things over people. I think about the beauty we impose on otherwise ordinary objects. The first few times I went to my in-laws’ house, my husband showed me his old things — his samurai swords (yes, samurai swords), his yearbook, medals, things so many kids return to as adults and still love. He looked like a boy on Christmas morning, showing his parents what Santa brought him, toys that would be cast aside in a few months but returned to decades later. These things, small and simple, gave me tiny glimpses into a version of him I never met.

When my husband and I go on trips, we always do that coin thing — you know, that machine where you put a penny in and choose an image, then roll the handle? It became our thing, and now, if we don’t find a penny press on a trip it feels like we were never there. We have little stacks of pressed pennies around our house, and every once in a while I find one in a purse or my wallet and it makes me smile. The little pressed penny will take me to a really good day, a good meal, a nice walk around a strange city.

I guess maybe that’s the point, to use these things as portals to wonderful times in my past. But it scares me sometimes, to care too much. To lose myself like I fear my father has. To keep things so long the dust completely covers the shimmer. To forget there are stories to share and beauty in the objects we choose to keep.