a peek inside the fishbowl

16 Jul, 2018

The things we keep

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Misc. life

I’ve been thinking a lot about collections and the act of collecting. It’s such a personal thing, isn’t it? One person’s collection is another person’s garbage pile or bad dream. (Imagine, for example, inheriting a clown collection!)

I went to an estate sale down the street the other day. This was only the second time I’d seen the entire contents of someone’s house up for grabs. It’s an odd experience. The first estate sale was also in Westboro and it was like stepping back in time. This one was a little more low-key, with less stuff filling up the rooms.

Perhaps I’m sentimental, but I can’t help but wonder about the former occupants. It doesn’t take long before a picture starts to form in my mind based on the things they left behind.

In this case, someone must have had an interest in sewing and needlework. There were buttons, balls of yarn, heaps of fabric, patterns, and countless projects in various degrees of completion.

Unfinished projects

The unfinished projects made me sadder than anything… all those hours, and for what? I hope, at least, the act of stitching/sewing/hooking was an enjoyable task for the individual who held the needle or crochet hook in her hand.

There were toy cars in a cardboard box, brooches in a basket, egg cups and tea cups spread across the dining room table, and they were all for sale.

BIts and bobs at the estate sale

A box of buttons

teacups for sale

I bought a key for a couple of dollars. This was to become part of my own collection of old keys.

My friends on Instagram have already seen this:

Did you know that the word souvenir comes from the French word that means “to remember”? In Latin, subvenire means “occur to the mind.” I like that.

I like to think that this key was a souvenir from a romantic holiday. Maybe there was a proposal in cabin number 9? Perhaps a child was conceived? Maybe it was just a very memorable trip and someone thought it’d be a nice keepsake, something more than just a postcard.

My collection of keys is slowly increasing. That being said, obtaining more keys is not a priority. I don’t seek out keys, I just let them find me. It’s a gradual process and I’m ok with this.

I am attracted to keys like a magpie to a shiny coin. Keys are very mysterious, with properties that are almost magical. If only keys could tell a story. Who kept them? What did the keys hide? What did they reveal? It sounds like a child’s fantasty but I can’t help but wonder if my old keys unlock a treasure that has yet to be found.

I also have a collection of old books. In the past, I’ve collected postage stamps and vintage valentines, wind-up toys, old cameras, marbles, paper beer coasters, and old maps. None of these has much monetary value, but that’s not why I collected them in the first place.

What is the point of a collection? It makes us happy in a way, but is it the hunting and obtaining – the amassing – that makes us happiest? And is there a point of collecting if that collection is not visible? For a time I was collecting vintage salt and pepper shakers, but since I had nowhere to display them they ended up in the basement. I don’t collect them any more. Out of sight, out of mind.

Why do we collect the things we do? Why do I clamour for keys and not license plates? Why stamps but not matchbooks?

Perhaps the act of collecting gives us something to hold on to in a world that is frequently upsetting and topsy-turvy. Perhaps it makes us feel like children again, with our collections of seashells and marbles. Somehow, collecting gives us a project, a purpose that gradually unfolds over time.

One thing I have learned about myself is that collections boosted with a purchase of another whole collection is meaningless to me, and even detracts or diminishes my excitement and perceived emotional value of that collection. Part of the joy of collecting is found in the act of obtaining these items one at a time. For example, I have a penchant for pretty stones. I have a collection on our bedroom windowsill, arranged just so. Other pretty stones – collected during summer holidays or camping trips – are set up outdoors. Some of you will remember that most of these shiny stones and marbles were stolen by squirrels and buried all over the yard. Well, the other day I was walking the dog when I saw that one of my neighbours had put a large collection of polished stones out on the curb. (This means, “take me” if you’re not familiar with the unspoken rules of Giving Things Away in Your Neighbourhood.) The stones were in plastic flowerpots and in one long rectangular planter.

What a find! I knew exactly what I was going to do with them. I took four flowerpots full in two trips and used them to
line the overflow of the “sump pump dump” in our backyard. During sustained rain showers, the sump pump deposits water here. I placed an old bird bath dish in front of it and the birds have learned to use it for drinking and bathing. In the summer I keep it filled with water, even if the sump isn’t pumping.

backyard rock collection

So my new super-expanded rock collection was placed here, and you know what? It hasn’t made me any happier. In fact, I’m rather lukewarm about it, even though I’m pleased that the birds and critters now have a stylish yet natural place to hydrate themselves.

To be fair, it’s not like I filled those flower pots full of stones thinking that they’d make me a happier person. I didn’t really think that a 1000% increase in my rock collection would lead to an equal increase to my happiness quotient, but it is still surprising how I feel about it.

It’s quite possible that part of the deflated feeling comes from the stones’ lack of history. There is no personal connection. They weren’t gathered with my family on a fun trip or tucked in my pocket during a scenic hike. For all I know, they were bought by the bushel at a garden centre or a craft store. I see polished stones at the dollar store and I’ve never stooped to buy them here.

This all reminds me of an idea for a collection I really like but never undertook. Somewhere I once read about a person who collected and labelled pretty little jars full of sand from every beach they visited. What a cool idea! But imagine being given 100 jars of sand from beaches you never stepped foot upon. It’s not quite the same, is it?

It’s clear, at least for me, that the joy is in the journey. Because my collections aren’t about resale value, I now know the most happiness and satisfaction can be found in slow accumulation, not an unexpected windfall, even though the opposite could be true. In this case, more is not better. Maybe there’s something to be learned from this.

1 Response to "The things we keep"

1 | Claudette

July 18th, 2018 at 7:21 am


I see signs for estate sales on my way to various baseball diamonds for the kids and always wonder what it would be like to go to one.

Haven’t seen one in the neighbourhood here, yet.

My mom is helping a friend of hers to clear his house. Her friend, his wife, died, and there is some estrangement with the adult kids, so the stories she shares about their personal stuff is kind of similar at your stories here.

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The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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