A friend recently expressed dismay about a family member’s hoarding habits. This made me reflect on my father’s parents. My grandparents were not hoarders in the reality TV sense, as their home was always neat and clean. However, it was stuffed with various collections of objects they treasured, but rarely used.
Where they hit the hoarder mark was with their gem and mineral collection. During the Depression, they studied the rocks they picked up on desert rambles in southeastern California. It was a free hobby which suited the times.
After they were more prosperous, they attended gem and mineral shows, and purchased samples. They learned to cut and polish stones and made pieces of jewelry. Their garage filled with rough minerals and rock cutting equipment.
Grandma and Grandpa loved to walk on the beach, and collected rocks as they walked. Beach rocks filled their flower beds. The beach rocks looked nice, like the river rock people use in landscaping. Still, it was a lot of rocks in one place. When it came to rocks, my grandparents were literally weighed down by their possessions.
In the film Nomadland, Frances McDormand’s character, Fern, loses her home. Fern puts her possessions in storage, and eventually relinquishes most of them and lives in her van. There is one thing that has special meaning to her. Fern keeps a set of dishes that her father accumulated for her by shopping at garage sales.
When I saw the pattern on those dishes, I instantly recognized the dishes my mother’s mother used for every day. I was surprised that dishes like that existed outside my grandmother’s kitchen. I assumed they were unique because they were associated with my unique memories. They defined eating at Grandma’s house.
The pattern was called Autumn Leaf. It came out during the Depression, and was sold through the Jewel Tea Company. Autumn Leaf seems to have sentimental value to other people besides Fern and me. Used pieces are bought and sold on the internet.
For both my grandmothers, no day was ever special enough for the “good” china. My mother’s mother had a beautiful floral pattern that was made in Japan. My mother now eats off her mother’s good china every day, and hopes to break it up before my siblings and I have to donate the remaining pieces to a thrift shop. I have my other grandmother’s good china, which I have used less than a dozen times.
I could feel Fern’s emotional attachment to the Autumn Leaf dishes in the film because I knew exactly what my grandmother’s dishes meant to me. But I don’t need to own any of them. Grandma didn’t attach special importance to the dishes. She attached importance to being together and sharing meals. It wasn’t about the dishes. Whatever remained of her Autumn Leaf collection went to the thrift store or the landfill.
The gospels don’t praise accumulation, but I think Jesus would understand the emotions behind our keeping and collecting. He might encourage us not to define ourselves by possessions and mementoes. He might remind us that our deceased loved ones are with us in our hearts. So I think Jesus would understand how we seek a balm for sorrow in things we keep, but He would want us to look elsewhere for the kingdom of heaven.
In Chapter 10 of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus sends his twelve disciples out to preach that the kingdom of heaven is near. They are supposed to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy, and drive out demons (verse 8). He instructs them further:
Do not take along any gold or silver or copper in your belts; take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep. (NIV)
I admit this part of the gospel story makes me nervous. I can’t even imagine surviving a weekend with no bag for my journey. No extra tunic or sandals! How are people supposed to live like that?
Some early Christians were eager to try it. They became famous for their ascetic lives. They would go out into the Egyptian desert outside Alexandria and live on almost nothing. People from the city would visit them, and be inspired by their devotion.
I’m not sure how modern people might emulate these ancient saints. The fragile ecosystems of the world’s deserts should probably be left alone. I do think Jesus would tell us to look critically at how our things shape our lives.
He might say that we could focus on using our things to share with others. If you have an SUV, you can drive the neighbor kids and your own to school. If you have a fancy grill, you can invite people over for burgers. If you have a big lawn, you can host an Easter egg hunt on it. You can always ask yourself how your possessions can be part of sharing and connecting with people, because without relationships, how can there be a kingdom of heaven?