Let others toss the cake

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This story originally appeared in The Globe and Mail, Facts and Arguments, on November 29, 2006.

By Jann Everard

What do you do with a 50 year old cake?

Masses of people would reply (probably with some disgust): Throw it out. I’m not so sure. How do you really differentiate between a piece of garbage, an item guaranteed to do nothing but take up space, and a piece of family history? In this age of disposable everything, what responsibility do we have to preserve certain items for no other reason than that they connect us with our past?

The 50 year old cake I refer to was found amongst my mother-in-law’s possessions when we emptied her house (after her move to a nursing home became clearly permanent). It is tea-coloured with age and its tin is rusty. My sister-in-law’s name is written in full across its rock-like surface, as well as the date of her baptism. Not a piece is missing. It’s a solid ten pounds, at least.

My sister-in-law had no interest in the cake. “Throw it out,” she insisted. Her brother brought it home to me and we had our laugh about the strange things that mothers keep.

Mothers do have a reputation for being sentimental hoarders. I, too, saved all the kindergarten artwork until a friend sanely suggested laying it out on the floor, taking a photograph, and then ditching the originals.

I just can’t seem to bring myself to do the same with this darn cake.

I know clutter can be debilitating, dispiriting, and de-motivating, I’ve read the articles in newspapers and magazines about the trend towards de-cluttering our spaces. There’s even a professional association that is dedicated to assisting those of us who have difficulty parting with things: the Professional Organizers in Canada. Friends who have used these services tell me how freed they feel once they have applied the general theory that anything unused in the last year or so should be given away or tossed.

My house would seem positively spacious if I applied this theory. So much would have to go. The silver tea set from my great-aunt for example: I haven’t used it in 20 years. And the lead-crystal decanters from my husband’s side. Out would go the tooled- leather books my mother received as school prizes (that I’ve never read) and my father-in-law’s pilot’s log and his ukulele. And the linens hand-embroidered by my grandmother.

I envy the people who feel no compunction about tossing, who sell or donate items that aren’t useful or just aren’t to their taste. These people have homes that look fresh and newly decorated because, in truth, our parents’ and our grandparents’ knick-knacks rarely make a fashion statement, even if they are genuine antiques. Old things often just look old.

But I don’t envy these people enough to become one of them. I am keenly aware of how many people arrive to this county with nothing tangible to connect them with their past, and how lucky I am to have so many “family things.” Because family things usually come with a story, even if it’s as simple as “My mother gave me this.”  And one thing that is guaranteed to trigger the sound of my mother’s voice in my head is the sight of her mother’s china.

It’s often around the holidays that the items handed down to us get their once-a-year airing. And then their true usefulness becomes apparent – not as the practical or decorative item they may be, but as the trigger for a conversation between generations – a remembrance of people and places in our families’ histories that should be retold time after time until our children (and their children) remember the story too. Because the stories are the roots on our family tree.

The value we put on family things changes throughout our lives. Children seem hard-wired to show disinterest in anything older than they are, and young adults are often too mobile to become the caretakers of the family treasures. Unfortunately we can’t always time the giving and receiving of family things to coincide with both appreciation and available storage space. The line that will be drawn between garbage and treasure will differ according to circumstances and whether anyone assumes the role of family preservationist until the time for passing along is right.

I guess that role has fallen to me.

So, strange as it is, I’ve decided that the cake should stay. Perhaps with some cleverly arranged greenery and a candle or two, it might make an interesting holiday centre-piece. For certain it will spark a conversation when the family gathers for a meal together. No doubt it will generate a laugh about the crazy things mothers save and some fond memories of the mother who saved this cake for half a century.

Reason enough to keep it, I think.

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