Ryan Taylor Many treasures from the past


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By Ryan Taylor

"Susan is connected to her grandmother and reminded of her daily by the small embroidery scissors that her adored grandmother used for crocheting tablecloths."

This sentence, taken from Treasures: the Stories Women Tell About the Things They Keep, by Kathleen V. Cairns and Eliane Leslau Silverman ($29.95), will probably evoke another image for most of us. It will remind us of something we ourselves keep to bring back someone from our past.

There are two kinds of people in the world: the ones who keep things and the ones who throw things away. The first are called pack-rats and the second feel very righteous about the tidiness of their houses.

But in reality, everyone keeps something. It might only be photos from our childhood or our children's youth, but we want to be reminded of happy times and happy people.

Cairns and Silverman interviewed women because they wanted to know how they 'support their own development as individuals and as members of a women's culture.' Some of the women had trouble deciding which item from their collection they would describe. Others, such as Susan, knew immediately which memory was the one they wanted to share.

Some of the collected materials were on display every day. Others were kept shut up in boxes, to be taken out and pondered in reflective moments. Some women were glad for other people to see their collections, while some made them visible only for themselves.

The materials kept varied widely. There were letters, bookmarks, tiny boxes. Some were tied physically to another person, such as a brooch worn by a favourite aunt.

Things that people made are important, too-quilts, clothing, crocheted table mats or edged pillowcases.

Like the diplomas on a lawyer's wall, many of the treasures are kept because they make a statement about the person who lives with them. 'This is who I am' they say, 'This is what I have done.'

Mothers speak of the importance of these boxes of treasures when their children were growing up. On rainy days, they could make hot chocolate and ceremonially unpack the box, telling the stories of the items as each made its appearance. These days provided links between mother and child, but also taught the child the history of her own family's past.

Not all the memories brought on by the treasures are happy. Illness and death, divorce and quarrels, all are part of our lives too. There will be letters, pictures, books which remind us how we grew through these experiences.

One woman shows a children's book, a version of Cinderella, which in her disjointed family gave her comfort, and helped her come to terms with her own nature.

From the stories of these women and their treasures, it is a short distance to thinking about our own lives and the things we have around us. The people who like to throw things out must have days when they regret what they no longer have. The pack-rats may have too much clutter, but they will always be able to lay their hand upon the past. They find joy in it.

The idea of Treasures is so simple, it seems funny that no one thought of it before. Cairns and Silverman say that little has been written about this aspect of women's lives. Their little book (and it is in the new small size which is becoming fashionable for non-fiction books) is worth reading for the glimpses into others' lives it provides. It will surely also prod you to reconsider your own treasures.

Treasures is published by the University of Calgary Press and can be bought in most bookshops.

Posted February 9, 2005
Column copyright © 2005 Ryan Taylor

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