In the age of Marie Kondo’s tidying up, stuff has lost cachet. The current trend of minimalism values experiences over things, and Millennials and Gen Xers have little interest in the colonial bedroom sets or service for 12 that their parents have left behind.
But what if your mother ran an upscale antique store filled with beautiful, irreplaceable objects? It’s one matter to purge Gone with the Wind collectibles, but a Genji screen or 19th-century quilt might give pause.
When Julia Ridley Smith’s parents pass, she’s left with a Herculean sorting that begins with thousands of her mother’s books.
And Smith, the Kenan Visiting Writer at UNC-Chapel Hill, is a passionate book lover.
The Sum of Trifles chronicles the two and a half years Smith spends with her parents’ North Carolina estate in Greensboro, beginning with her mother’s death from lung cancer and ending with a tag sale. In a series of linked essays, Smith deftly springboards between memoir and meditations on the nature of possessions. Each chapter is organized around an object bestowed one of four fates: keep, donate, toss, or sell.
Anyone who has lost a loved one has likely suffered the emotional aftermath of sifting their belongings into piles. When we do this, we’re not only parsing the stuff, but we’re parsing the grief, the detritus of our experiences.
Smith turns to philosophy, history, and literature in the attempt to distance herself, only to realize, “I want objects to have an inherent meaning.” She acknowledges that even in adulthood, part of us remains a child clinging to Blankie.
Complicating the situation: Smith was raised by a professional appraiser of objects, someone who attached great meaning to them. But when Smith realizes she’ll need a larger house to make room for the new things, she has to reckon with the forces that shape materialism.
“How had I swallowed the bougie notion that a large tastefully decorated house is the ultimate sign of a woman’s success?” she wonders.
She considers her ingrained old Southern (white) aesthetic: wood floors, antiques, Persian rugs, framed art … “all tasteful, correct, and welcoming, exuding warmth and richness,” and never nouveau riche. The cracked claw-foot tub is superior to the new Jacuzzi. In the end she must admit to an ingrained classism—that it is easy to value the old when your family has a history of living well.
Going deeper, Smith must confront the slaveholding in her family line.
“It no longer escapes me that the beautiful things that fill our homes were provided by a financial success that long depended on our moral failure and suffering of thousands of human beings.” This gets at another truth: that in this era, there is no excuse for proliferating cherished stories about expensive family heirlooms without acknowledging how that wealth was accumulated.
The challenge in writing memoir is avoiding the “and then” trap, a list of events with no sense of causality. But Smith’s use of the essay form allows for meandering and chronological leaps, all while never losing tension. At times she tests us, but the pull always snaps back.
Each chapter is broken into short sections that create an effective bread-crumb method, as readers track Smith’s memories and thoughts. At one point, she comments on the strength of space as she remembers listening to jazz with her father, but this observation could easily be applied to her own book: “A pause, a gap, an empty space signifies that beauty is on its way, but you have to wait for it.”
Recommended for anyone who has lost a parent, for lovers and wranglers of ephemera, for amateur epistemologists, and for incorrigible musers.
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