The Unsolicited Opinions of The Alabama Housewife: Sentimental Hoarding

Words by Mary Alayne B. Long

Illustration by Eliza Bishop

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Hello. My name is Mary Alayne and I am a sentimental hoarder. Over the last twenty years, my husband and I have raised two children, four dogs, and two cats in the house we call home. Now the time has come to pack it all up and move away. As I begin to bubble wrap and box up all of the memories I hold dear, they are like a runaway freight train through my mind. The fingerprint art. The crayon-scrawled notes. The clippings from first haircuts tied with pink and blue ribbon. (From the children. Not the dogs and cats.) All of the “things” I have saved through the years seem so dear, and as I go through the children’s rooms, my sentiment grows. I see the tidbits of a life gone by, all placed lovingly into old cigar boxes and Barbie lunch boxes by small hands, and they are worth their weight in gold—to me. To some, they are simply junk that should have been tossed in the trash long ago.

In the South, we can be especially sentimental about family heirlooms that pass on from one generation to the next. We can also be rather loose with our definition of heirloom. It’s not always diamond jewelry or a set of sterling silver that was kept hidden from the yankees or the gold pocket watch that survived the Great Depression. Sometimes it is your grandmother’s cast iron skillet that is blacker than tar from countless pones of cornbread. Maybe it is a shotgun that killed many a quail in the hands of your daddy, or a pocket knife that is smooth to the touch after spending 40 years in your Pawpaw’s pocket. Maybe it is an empty champagne bottle from the night a baby was born or the night of a national championship football game. The treasured memories we tie up in bows around us are often inexplicable to others, but we know deep down inside what they mean. Even if other folks might think we are a bit touched.

When my husband’s grandfather died, they went through his things and found that his wallet was full of cash. Very full. His grandmother wrapped a rubber band around it and kept it in her purse for over twenty years. When my mother-in-law took that wallet out of her mother’s purse and put it in her own, every single bill was still in place. My own grandmother passed away a few years ago, and we found a letter my daddy had written to her as a child while he was visiting a relative. The paper was thin and the pencil marks faded, but you could still read every word. It’s now framed and hanging near my desk, and it means more to me than I can say. The things that hold special places in our hearts are rarely those found on the pages of mass produced catalogs or boutique shop shelves, but rather those that conjure up thoughts of a particular person or time in our lives. Sentiment isn’t something you can package and sell—at least not to folks like me—and trying to explain that to someone who thinks differently is a lost cause.

When our beach house burned a little over a year ago, after I knew that everybody was safe, I immediately asked about two things: my grandmother’s wicker desk and a watercolor painting my daughter made when she was about four. Thankfully they both survived. And while neither of them would fetch much in today’s market, for me they are priceless. But the truth is, had they been lost in the fire, my memories of those people and the times with them would still remain. You see, when we build up troves of things—no matter how special—we can lose sight of the ones who make them so. And while I’m not looking to toss out the sterling silver any time soon, I plan to move forward with my sights set on those I love with much less thought for the things that can clutter my view.