The Affecting Presence of Things or How My Stuff Remembers For Me

I had pulled out a couple of old water glasses stored all the way to the back of the top kitchen cabinet. We hadn’t used them in a while but we were short a few glasses due to breakage and the rest were in the dishwasher. One of the old recuperated glasses has a band of silver around the rim and sports a big, silver “L.” It threw me back to the early days of my first marriage in the late 1970s. His name was Michael Lennahan, hence the big, silver L on the glass. It was one of four—the others long broken—and was a wedding gift from my Aunt Betty and therefore precious to me. (Aunt Bet had assumed that, upon marriage I would take my husband’s last name as had been the tradition in America for…well, I don’t have time to look that up. But it was ’76 and I was a feminist and I didn’t take his name, nor my current husband’s. [hi Charles])

How does a simple water glass acquire the ability to transport me back thirty-plus years to such lovely, vivid memories? In the parlance of one esoteric theory, the glass has an “affecting presence,” that is, its presence has an emotional impact. We have a more common expression for it: “It holds a lot of memories for me.” It happens to us all the time, but I have always loved the “affecting presence” explanation of the phenomenon.

Things become memory banks, external hard drives that hold memories for us so we don’t have to. Like extra storage. When I pull something out of storage—a sugar scoop, a piece of jewelry, an old dress—it reminds me of where and when they existed in my past.

That’s why we save stuff. Stuff shares a history with us; holds sentiments formed at the time these things came into our lives. This has always been especially true for women who, in the not so distant past, could not inherit property or status. The precious stuff they passed through generations were domestic and personal items: a family ring, a ceramic pot, a chair, a quilt. When I gaze upon my great-grandmother’s gold filigree ring with the bloodstone, I remember to remember her and her daughter, and my mother, and my sister-in-law to whom it was passed before it came to me. The hand-painted coffee pot from Silesia has unknown origins because both sides of my father’s family came from that region of Poland. But I remember seeing it at his mother’s home, my mother’s mother’s home, and our home. Its presence in my home today allows me to feel connected to my ancestresses.

Of course, some stuff is just stuff. That’s the mundane stuff George Carlin rants about: We buy bigger houses to fill with this stuff. I’m not talking about the same stuff as hoarders and mega-collectors acquire. That stuff may reflect a psycho-social disorder or an attempt to fulfill the constant demands on us to be super-consumers. Carlin comments on how our stuff makes us feel at home, implying that stuff has affective power. When we travel or when we move, we bring some of our stuff with us because the familiarity puts us at ease in unfamiliar places.

In short, things have a social life. Things acquire meaning through their relationships with people, and through their location in specific historical and cultural contexts. That’s why we hang on to them and why we grieve at their loss. It isn’t the object itself that has value; what’s of value are the affective memories those objects have become imbued with by our own actions.

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