Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Possessions & Place

  Top of a nineteenth-century mirror which belonged to my husband's
grandmother; Currier & Ives' Home for Thanksgiving

There’s a poem that I love, Souvenirs, by Jane Cooper.  She was a longtime professor and poet in residence at Sarah Lawrence College.  It starts:

Anyway we are always waking
in bedrooms of the dead, smelling
musk of their winter jackets, tracking
prints of their heels across our blurred carpets.

So why hang onto a particular postcard?
If a child’s lock of hair brings back
the look of that child, shall I
nevertheless not let it blow away?*

Why hang onto a particular postcard?

Very soon my husband and I will start to pack up, getting ready to leave our house in the Atlanta neighborhood of Druid Hills where we lived for ten years.

Like most people, we carry with us not only the relics of our own lives but those of our parents and grandparents. Some of it is just stuff – and some not at all.

Over time, the collections have been winnowed ruthlessly. But many letters, books, photographs, paintings, and all kinds of objects have made the cut repeatedly. Each time they open up to us, there is a story. They have to come along.  

Atlanta garden, spring 2010

As meaningful as these possessions may be, the places that we humans inhabit matter equally.

Each place where we live will echo the first place we knew, as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard has written. He argued that we are always returning to that first place, a “house of memories . . . psychologically complex.”

We refer to it emotionally, unconsciously, throughout our lives.

In fact, that first space is “physically inscribed in us. It is a group of organic habits,” Bachelard wrote.

“Like a forgotten fire, childhood can always flare up again within us.”

As children we develop ways of doing things, ways of feeling that stay with us lifelong. Many of them originate in that first place we know.

Habit.  Inhabit.  Two words that appear not to share etymology yet are intimately connected.

Nantucket box, a present from my childhood friend Ellen

*”Souvenirs” by Jane Cooper, from New and Selected Poems (1984).


  1. What did Lillian Hellman call it? Pentimento. Yes.

  2. I love this poetry you have quoted as well as your musings. Where to next? NYC?


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