Object Lessons by Carol Smith

Winner, 2015 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction

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dead trees with mt. st. helen's in background


I had the dream again last night. I am in my bed and feel the floors begin to slope, the whole house sliding — furniture, books, shelves, skittering, and plunging from their moorings — while I cling to the ceiling. I wake up sweating and lie there as the adrenaline ebbs, running through what I would take, if I had to leave. The mental cataloging starts: what I have lost already; what I have yet to lose; an inventory of what matters.

I had to do this once – throw a few things in a car and flee. In 1993, a firestorm raged through Southern California, more than two dozen fires consuming vast swaths of tinder from just north of San Diego to just south of Santa Barbara in the span of 10 days. I lived right in the middle. By the time the fires reached the foothills of the Angeles National Forest a few miles from my house, fire crews were already in heavy battle mode on bigger fires all around us. I remember how eerie the quiet was. I listened for choppers bearing water bombs, or smoke jumpers. None came. I watched on the news as street after street a few miles from us was ordered to evacuate. Then panicked. I strapped my son, who was six at the time, into the car, grabbed an armload of clothes (mostly dirty, it turned out), some photos in frames scraped from dresser tops, and drove away. The man I was living with at the time called later to ask if I’d saved his CDs.

But what do you take if you’re about to lose everything and have no more than a few minutes to decide? Practical things – flashlight and sturdy shoes? Or valuable ones – birth certificate and heirloom ring? Or things that have value only to you?


The dilemma is an ancient one. The residents of Pompeii were found in the ash of Mount Vesuvius, entombed with the same sorts of things, grabbed in haste: lamps and lanterns, coins and jewelry. And beside one young girl, an ancient charm bracelet filled with tokens from around the Roman Empire.

The dream is usually triggered by a crisis, borne into the house by the anchors on the evening news; stand-ups from piles of rubble and shots of victims sifting through the debris fields of their lives.

I know the drill. I, too, am in the news business. When a storm hits, or a plane goes down, the routine unfolds — the chasing down of victims’ names and relatives, the stories of survival, the schadenfreude of near misses.  And always, always, a tally of the losses.

A kind of ritual purging always follows the dream, the most primitive form of magical thinking. I comb through my house the next day, as though ridding myself of things will somehow protect me: books I’ve read and clothes I don’t wear, that set of dishes I’ve never used, proffered to Goodwill like ceremonial offerings to appease the gods of destruction.

I go to put a vase of pebbles from many rivers in the donate box and take it out again. And put it back and take it out. There are things I cannot throw away: My high-school dictionary with its margin notes, a recording of my father singing, my salt-stained sailing hat.


I’ve had this fear of losing things as long as I can remember.


I grew up in the era of nuclear drills, in the heart of earthquake country. Other children played “duck, duck, goose.” We played “duck, cover and hold.” We were always, in some sense, prepping for disasters, real and imagined. My father is a geophysicist. I remember visits to his lab at Caltech when I was a child. I would watch the drum of the seismometer turn, tracing the EKG of the earth. I learned early that what seems rock solid is only an illusion. And the transient nature of things.

Every few years, the foothills above our house in Altadena would burn, bellowed by the hot Santa Ana winds that scoured the Los Angeles basin every fall. Neighbors would huddle in edgy groups in the streets below to watch. I’d stand outside, wrapped in my mother’s arms, while fathers in the neighborhood hosed down their roofs and kept watch for wind shifts.

We moved north to the relative safety of Seattle when I turned 12. But the year I got married, Mount St. Helens blew up. Layers of ash settled over the city for months. It took with it a young graduate student I had worked with one summer. He was setting instruments on the peak that day. And then he vaporized.


The marriage, christened in ash, would implode years later, but I did not know that then.


It would be years before I could appreciate something my grandmother used to say: “Three moves are as good as a fire,” for getting rid of things and starting over. I have a few pieces of her luster ware. They survived the “World Series” earthquake that collapsed a double-deck stretch of Oakland freeway onto itself. I have a delicate Chinese plate, its fret work painstakingly pieced back together, the glue, yellowing now, tracing a pattern as fine as lace. I have the gold beads her mother gave her when she graduated high school in1909, a few years before she joined the Army as a nurse and left for WWI in France.

These are things that have survived many years and many moves.

Still, what we can touch will always disappear.


Transitional objects

They are, of course, only things. But our personal archaeology, the relationship we have with our stuff is complicated – a language of symbols that isn’t easily dismissed or deciphered.

There is a vogue now for telling histories in artifacts. The British Museum’s “History of the World in 100 Objects” exhibit spawned a subset of similar efforts, histories of New York, or football, or bird watching — to name a few — told through the narrative of objects.

The same impulse for curating drives our fascination with time capsules, from the cookie tin stuffed with childhood treasures and hidden in a closet wall, to the more ambitious Crypt of Civilization, billed as a “record for any future inhabitants” when it was buried under Georgia’s Oglethorpe University in 1940. Among its many hermetically sealed treasures, the original script for Gone with the Wind.

And it’s fueled some eloquent, wishful projects: the Voyager’s Golden Record, with Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No, 2 and sounds of surf and thunder, has since left our solar system. Nearly four decades later, we have the “Last Pictures,” 100 photographs micro-etched on silicon and hitched to Echostar XVI for its rendezvous with space.


But this is the puzzle – the thing as synecdoche. What objects encode your own story?

What is my personal Rosetta Stone?


If you had walked through my house 25 years ago, you would have seen a different set of artifacts: Things related to having a husband and young son, two cats, a dog and a job, a fixer-upper on our hands. You would have seen a young woman trying to decorate her way into the life she imagined she would have: Cuisinart food processor; stack of Martha Stewart magazines; lawn mower; paint brushes; table saw; matching dishes; changing table.

Thirty years later, there is little left of that. My son died when he was seven after a long illness. The husband is now on his third marriage. The house sold. Newspaper where I worked, shut down.

And yet, I still have objects that link me to that life. Tucked in my top drawer are some dog-eared, unused Band Aids with dinosaurs on them, my son’s favorites. They are clipped to his library card from the year he learned to read. There is a picture he took of me on a swing, from his eye level, a photo of him framed in Popsicle sticks.

My mother has the box containing his ashes in her dresser drawer. I cannot bear to have them with me. But I cannot let them go.

I may have gotten this from my mother, this tendency to hold onto things. Starting during my childhood and well into her later years, she would mention periodically how sorry she was that a certain sewing rocker had disappeared. Her memory is fading now, sabotaged by dementia. But she mentioned the rocker again recently during one of her “good days.”

I wish we hadn’t given it away,” she said. It was a simple, armless rocker, intended, as implied, for people doing something that required their arms to be free. My mother didn’t sew in it. She nursed her three children. There is a picture of me sitting on it when I’m about three, feet straight out, cradling a doll exactly as she would have cradled me.

We are perhaps hard-wired to invest objects with significance, starting with our first possessions – the thread-bare blanket, or well-loved teddy bear. We freight them with the power to protect us from harm and lend us comfort. Psychologists call them “transitional objects.”

When my son was little, he used to take my watch and hide it when I would prepare to go out for the evening. I would find it later, tucked into the pocket compartment on the back of his little Fisher Price chair, like a talisman to guarantee my return.

Not long ago, I discovered my own mother’s watch, given to her by my father after a business trip to Switzerland back in the 60s. It was in the back of a drawer, and hadn’t run for many years. I took it for repair, a wish against time.

My mother had taken a detour through a care center, after doctors tried putting a shunt in her brain to relieve pressure they thought might be causing her dementia. While she was gone, my father and I cleaned and organized her closet, which over the years had become nearly impassable, and a source of contention.

She came home a few months later. She did not seem to notice the changes in the closet, until one day, a few weeks later, when she pointedly told my dad, “I assume my things are somewhere else in the house.”

But then she disappeared into herself again. It hasn’t come up again since.I have some of those things –the charm bracelet with its Texan theme for her home state, a tiny bronze owl she said reminded her of her college alma mater, and her high school tennis medal, of which she was very proud. I hold them sometimes, in lieu of crying.


Object Permanence

But still, what to take?

Once in a management training class, we were asked to turn to the person next to us and describe something we always kept with us. The stories tumbled out – the woman who wore her first wedding ring on her right hand and her second on her left, “to remind myself it’s possible to find happiness again;” the man with a pocket knife because his father always said it would come in handy one day. I retrieved a heart-shaped stone from the bottom of my purse, found in the Kenai River in Alaska the year I lost my job but learned to fly-fish.

Sometimes, though, the choice of what to take, or keep, is not up to us.

Even the humblest of object acquires a certain sanctity for its mere survival. After a mountain slid down on a town near me, burying 43 people in an instant, crews spent weeks digging through tons of mud for evidence of the lives they had lived there.

There is a tall clock that stands in my parents’ living room. Several generations back, the clock was thrown out a second-story window to save it from a fire. Its face, painted with a sailing ship and stars, transfixed me as a child. My dad would wind the weights and set the pendulum swinging, using the occasion for some of my earliest instruction in physics. The clock has been handed down from oldest son to oldest son, but I will inherit its story.


And it’s the story of the thing that matters. The thing is the string woven into the nest of memory.


Wandering through an antique mall recently, I startled when I saw a refrigerator bottle on a back shelf. It was dark emerald green, rectangular in shape, with raised dots spelling water on one side, juice on the other.  I ran my finger over the bumps, like Braille.  Instantly, I’m back in Houston as a child in the ‘60s, visiting my mother’s family. We would go in summer when the moist heat was exotic, and exhausting. We’d run around on the grass, glossy blue-green, and spiky under our bare feet, until we collapsed. I remember how the green jar would start to sweat as soon as my grandmother took it out of the fridge to serve us lemonade. I can see my grandmother with her cat’s eye glasses, a couple of crystals missing at the temples, and hear her low throaty chuckle from years of casual smoking. She would pour the cool drink, and admonish us not to bang the screen door near where my grandfather napped in his recliner.

Sometimes my grandfather would wake anyway, light a cigar and pretend to pull a nickel from his ear, or ours. Magic. The green bottle does the same trick, conjuring me back in time.

There remains a universe of such objects that exist in our imagination. Sifting flea markets and garage sales, looking through other people’ stuff is in some sense a search for the key to the wardrobe of memory, a ticket to the other side of time:

Look — there’s an octopus doll made from braided yarn with dime-store googly eyes. I used to make those with my Great-aunt Nora to sell at the local hospital guild during muggy Milwaukee summers. There’s a card table, like one where we spent evenings playing Hearts, eating the meringue cookies she called ‘forget ’ems’ because she’d leave them to bake in a turned-off oven.

Psychologists have a term for another stage children pass through with regard to the things around them. It’s called “object permanence.” It refers to the idea that an object, hidden from view, hasn’t really disappeared.

It’s what cues an infant to look for a toy in the last place she saw it. It is also the foundational skill of memory.


And later in life, it is a survival skill — the root of navigation, a way to map our lives.


There’s a centuries-old trick called the “Method of Loci” –now known more popularly as a ‘memory palace’ – that allows us to use spatial memory to recall far more than we might imagine. Legend has it that the ancient Greek poet Simonides used this method to rediscover the location of victims after gods burned down the palace where he had been singing.

More recently, it’s a device that ultra-memory champions use to remember, in one sitting, the contents of a phone book or multiple decks of shuffled cards. It works like this: To recall a complicated series, whether numbers, or lines of a speech, you remember a building you’re familiar with, then associate each item on the list with an object you’ve placed in that building. The crazier the object, the stronger the association, the easier to remember.

But this is what I’ve found. The method of loci works backwards, too. Picturing the things I’ve lived with, things I’ve loved, and lost. This is how I build the palace of my memory.

So in the waking hours, after the dream comes, I lie there and sort the contents of my house, and houses past and houses of others I have loved. I pick each item up, hold it in my mind’s eye.

I walk through my palace, my life. And I realize, everything I will need to take, I already have with me.

carol_smithCarol Smith is a Seattle writer whose work led the anthology “The Best Creative Nonfiction” (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007). Her poetry and fiction has appeared, or is forthcoming, in the literary journals Signs of Life, Mississippi Review, Pooled Ink, The New Guard, and Oberon Poetry. She was selected as a finalist for the 2015 Prime Number Magazine Awards for Creative Nonfiction and for the 2015 Arts & Letters fiction prize.




STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/SJ Cary

  9 comments for “Object Lessons by Carol Smith

  1. This was the worst one among the 2015 winners, yet it won the first place. Why? I couldn’t help questioning this while reading much better essays without any monetery reimbursement whatsoever. You see, Hippocampus Magazine, this is troubling. It really takes from the credibility of the award. I hope you’ll be more mindful in the coming years. I wasn’t even going to keep on reading after this one turning out really meh; but thank god, I carried on. The others were spectacular. Too bad they didn’t get the treatment and exposure they deserved. Please be fair.

  2. As a HM reader, it is wonderful to put a name and face to a piece that utterly enthralled me. Congratulations, Carol, I was a BIG fan of this essay. This is one of the strongest endings I’ve read in our queue: “So in the waking hours, after the dream comes, I lie there and sort the contents of my house, and houses past and houses of others I have loved. I pick each item up, hold it in my mind’s eye.

    I walk through my palace, my life. And I realize, everything I will need to take, I already have with me.”–spot-on elegant!

  3. I am the keeper of my family’s history. Thousands of pages of letters and diaries plus documents from the old country and Chicago past. I’ve read them all and have two blogs capturing my discoveries and insights of family and history (lindagartz.com). Some people would have just tossed all this old paper. What good is it? To melt cheese upon? Carol’s essay resonated with me on every level. It’s not living in the past to keep certain things. It’s bringing the past to life. Because my grandparents and parents refused to relegate their history to the trash heap of time, it will eventual reside in Chicago’s renowned research institution, The Newberry Library for future generations to follow a family throughout the twentieth Century and learn about the past–perhaps inform their future. Thank you for this poignant essay, capturing so much of the author’s being, losses, and memories she holds onto.

  4. A beautiful treatise on how our ‘things’ are woven through with emotion and memory, until it’s difficult to tell the difference between them sometimes. Until, as your dreams remind you, you are forced to. What an eloquent piece, Carol, and a well-deserved accolade. Congratulations!

  5. As someone who doesn’t keep much– my daughter claims my motto could be “throw it out or melt cheese on it”– I loved the construction of the house of memory, the palace of life. Lovely, lovely essay.

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