I’m not a pack rat. It’s just that I think twice, or more, before throwing things out. I’ve been vindicated often enough that I stand by my method. Besides, my house isn’t messy, and even my junk drawers are fairly well-organized.
And I think I’m honest with myself about what might or might not be useful in the future. I threw out the apple corer when I was certain that using one would never be easier than just cutting the core out with a knife. But I kept both muddlers, because although it hasn’t happened yet I can imagine someday having a party where drinks get mixed in two different rooms, and won’t all my drunken guests be glad they have the luxury of crushing mint leaves no matter where they are?
I pretty much never get rid of books, because I did once, seven years ago, and I still regret it. (“I’ll never read this again,” I said to myself about a book that I immediately desperately needed to read again. I eventually went back to the bookstore where I’d sold the books and bought back all the ones that they still had–the one I wanted so much, though, was already gone.)
I do have one drawer, though, that serves zero purpose but that I can’t bring myself to empty. It’s filled with tiny pieces of junk, most of them gifts from children but some of them souvenirs, and at least a few are totally unidentifiable junk.
Almost all of them fit inside a giant coffee mug that a colleague of mine received as a gift from a student she didn’t like. She brought it into the teacher’s lounge and said something disparaging about the poor kid–fear not, gentle reader, for she was a consummate professional and never let the kid know how much she disliked him, because despite herself she actually liked him a lot–and then started a pile of rejected gifts for other teachers to add to. The pile got pretty big. I remember claiming a bunch of rejected chocolates and tea, and for reasons long forgotten I also took home the oversized coffee mug.
The drawer full of little things already existed then. The collection had begun a few years earlier, when I bought a cute little wooden jewelry box in Prague to give as a birthday present to a young cousin of mine. I didn’t make it to her birthday, though, and thus never gave it to her, or figured out who else to give it to. It’s a perfectly lovely little thing, although too small and cheap to be valued by anyone over the age of about seven. It went into a drawer, and although I’ve moved at least a dozen times since then, it always gets packed up, moved, unpacked, and stuffed back into a drawer.
Also there is a little rubber bouncy ball, a semi-translucent thing that holds what looks like a rabbit in the middle, given to me by a neighbor child who may have fallen in love with me. A friend of mine while bored folded a couple of dollar bills into origami hearts, and I kept those, too, even though there were plenty of times where I could have kept the money. These things went into the coffee mug, which eventually joined the jewelry box in a drawer.
There’s a keychain from Niagara Falls, which I’ve never visited, and a bottle of eau de toilette that claims to smell like cigar smoke. A bunch of friendship bracelets, not one of which I have any memory of receiving.
Mostly, though, they are small things from my students, who I taught when they were eight and nine years old, the youngest of whom are now starting college next fall. There’s no rhyme or reason behind which gifts ended up in the drawer. If somewhere along the way they fell into the giant coffee mug, then they probably survived. There’s a plastic horse head in a miniature shopping bag, a scarab beetle made of blue clay, and a trio of tiny paper cranes made by a Korean exchange student.
Kids give weird gifts. Partly because they have no money and can’t go shopping on their own, but mostly because their worlds are very small and their imaginations very big, and the gap between the two leaves a lot of room for weirdness. One year a student took a dozen gold safety pins and put three beads on each one and handed them out to his favorite teachers. I’m actually sad that I lost mine. It was such a specific little craft that there must have been some thought behind it. I wish I knew what it was. He was so pleased with himself that it felt impolite to ask.
I tried once to sort through the drawer. Would I ever look at or touch these things again? Would I ever want to smell like cigar smoke? Probably not. Definitely not. I wasn’t friends with any of the kids who gave me friendship bracelets–I was their teacher, after all, not a peer, and haven’t seen any of them since they left my classroom. What would I ever do with three paper cranes, and when would I ever drink a liter of coffee in a single pour? And the little wooden jewelry box: it’s still pretty, and it’s still useless.
If I start making value judgments about the things in and around the coffee mug, the only result will be that everything gets thrown away. There is a line between the rabbit-entombing bouncy ball, which comes with a sweet little memory, and the horse head in a bag, which does not, but I’m not able to draw that line. So I either keep the entire drawer as it is, or I throw the whole thing out.
It occurs to me that the drawer itself–its existence, and its inscrutable contents–is not a collection of odd objects but an odd object in itself, a warm and fuzzy if bizarre memory that encapsulates my years as a teacher, my travels from one end of the world to the other, the various stages in my life that have come and gone, and the moments when it seemed perfectly natural to give a plastic horse head in a miniature shopping bag. I don’t know which of the pieces in there give the drawer its value. I do know from the lost gold safety pin that whatever I get rid of may, one day, be missed, and the very fact that I keep packing it and unpacking it tells me that for some reason I value having this drawer of oddities.
Someday, I hope, it yields its mysteries to me and I understand why. In the meantime, though, I keep lugging it around. Like I said, I’m not a hoarder or anything. I’m just very cautious.