The question: What is something special about you?
The answer: I used to have a yellow boy.
It’s my ten-year high school reunion this summer. I was looking for a class photo from grade school to re-acquaint myself with who’s married, who’s reproduced, who has a felony now, when I came across an assignment from first grade.
It’s not a surprise my mom kept the paper. She keeps everything. I thought for a moment about what my six-year-old self was trying to convey with that answer. I wasn’t special because I was a twin, or that I’m the only one in my family that’s left-handed, or that I could fit a pretzel stick between the gap of my front teeth. To me, at that time, the biggest personality factor that mattered on my homework that I had once owned a Fisher Price Loving Family doll that wore yellow overalls, and at some point, I had lost him.
Guilt is the supreme motivator in my family. And there’s reason to believe it starts early in our childhoods. Mostly to do with belongings—sacred things meant for us that we’ve ruined due to carelessness or impulsivity.
“I left my doll outside. It started to rain, and by the time I found her, her face had melted off,” was my grandma’s cautionary tale.
“I only had one Barbie, and I cut her hair,” my mom confessed. We found the doll in the back of a closet, sporting a distressing pixie cut. Someone had also pressed a thumbtack into the middle of the doll’s breasts at one point, to create a void where nipples ought to be. Mom denies that act. “Probably one of my sisters.”
The shame makes sense in these two cases of family lore. Toys were treasures. You got one and had to take care of it. I remember getting lots of the accompanying playsets that supplemented the Fisher Price Loving Family main unit. I even think I had two little boys in plastic overalls.
The ’90s were a time of uninhibited, over-encouraged collection. All cereal boxes had FREE-something-INSIDE! and my sisters and I would consume Cocoa Krispies for every meal until we had obtained the complete set of color-changing spoons. Grandma would deliver Beanie Babies regularly—grocery bags full of them. The marketing message was clear, and we were more than happy to accept the challenge. Gotta catch ’em all, indeed.
Grandma lived through the Great Depression. My parents were married shortly after the oil boom of 1980s western North Dakota went bust. We don’t throw away tin foil. Stale bread makes decent french toast. Keep everything just in case and store it in cases below the stairs.
The stairs leading down into the basement are covered in frayed carpet in the exact spot 50 years of feet have touched them. Alternating blue and green duct-tape covers these empty patches (except where my feet land; I always lead with my left foot—this is something special about me). Of note, also in the stairwell, is the beginning of my dad’s beer can collection. There are several shelves with rusted containers; cans once containing beer made for local centennials and celebrations. The occasional flat top. The most eye-catching label depicted a woman named Penny scandalously draped. Penny in the Morning and Penny in the Evening. All of the cans are empty; it’s not what’s on the inside that counts in the collection-community. And whoever designed the Penny series decided to make the outside something pretty special. During slumber parties, we’d sit in the stairwell and point at Penny and giggle.
The basement served as my introduction to keeping. During tornado warnings, my mom would herd my sisters and me downstairs where we’d play with our Barbies underneath the piano. Dad would rearrange some cans that lined the walls. He gave up on collecting for a brief period once he discovered the Internet and online backgammon games. He’s since found eBay.
“So this one has the same label as these two, but look on the side. That was brewed in Minnesota. It’s different!”
The family computer is ancient and he has two alarms set once auctions for the beer cans begin to near their close. One to start the internet and give it a fifteen-minute warm-up so by the second alarm he can submit his final bid without the whole thing crashing.
I lived in the basement through college and for a brief time before and after grad school. North Dakota was once again in the middle of an oil boom, and I couldn’t afford rent. It wasn’t the stereotype of a Millennial living in their parents’ basement that bothered as much as it was being surrounded by my childhood playthings.
“How does that feel,” a boyfriend at the time cooed to me. I feigned enthusiasm as he continued to bite my ear, somehow unaware that a plastic tub full of Barbies had their plastic faces shmooshed up right next to my bed. At least fourteen sets of meticulously blue-eyeshadowed eyes were witnessing this intimate moment. In the corner, the Fisher Price Happy Family still mourned the loss of their missing son.
At some point, my generation got sick of our parents pestering us to stop by and get the Skip-Its out of the shed and Bop Its! out of the now-guest room closet (the Furby’s batteries had died a decade ago, and it remained safe underneath a bed somewhere).
“I’m considering embracing minimalism as a lifestyle,” a friend told me shortly after we completed our undergrad studies. I thought it was a new form of Zumba, which was currently trending, and I told her that seemed reasonable. Some of the hip variations people were trying were damn near impossible. Let’s keep it simple.
She moved to Australia to work as an au pair, and suddenly her blog posts highlighted a life lived sparsely, beyond the need of objects. It seemed a little at odds with her profession—sure she had reduced her belongings to one suitcase, but she had gained two toddlers in the process.
Meanwhile I had returned from grad school abroad with two massive suitcases full of books and collected memorabilia with another couple boxes sent home ahead of time. As more and more of my peers heralded the freedom of letting go across social media, I became convinced I also belonged with those who shirked belongings.
I was a minimalist in spirit, I knew it. I preferred sans serif fonts! Grilled cheese is my favorite meal! I just happen to indulge in flea market paraphernalia every couple weeks or so.
My generation had evolved. We had taught ourselves to recognize and mock McMansions, and we wanted none of it. It was the reign of tiny houses now.
“I can just see you in one of these little houses,” my mom said during one HGTV binge, “You’ve always like to be cozy.”
“She’ll just need two spare houses for her books,” my dad said from the other room, off to coax the computer from its sleep just in time to get some Hamm’s matchbooks.
Who am I to deny my fate? I was raised by these people, one whom has two large drawers simply dedicated to leftover yarn and the other who once stopped the car on the way to school because he saw someone in the vehicle ahead of us throw a screwdriver out the window and “it looked like a decent screwdriver.” It may very well be evidence, but we’ll never know, because it ended up in his toolbox.
In our house there was the living room, the dining room, the Wizard of Oz room, and the Teaching room. Both of these last two were once bedrooms, but now house my mom’s collective pursuits. The first describes exactly what it is. The Teaching room is where we store anything crafty/bulky/non-L. Frank Baum or beer can related with nowhere else to go. Before Pinterest, teachers stockpiled toilet paper tubes and empty film canisters and used them in complex bartering processes with other teachers who needed craft supplies.
The Teaching room is contained hoarding. It means we can convince ourselves we could live in a tiny house or a loft in Barcelona with ease because we can still get the door shut if we try hard enough.
Coziness is certainly a factor in my ineptitude to fully embrace minimalism. So when the next big thing became hygge—the Danish concept whose entirety focuses on comfort—I was happy to discover the movement that celebrated me for doing exactly nothing. Besides, North Dakota hosts the largest Scandinavian festival in North America, and I had almost applied to be Miss Norsk Hostfest, so this was definitely my thing.
But clutter doesn’t seem to be a part of hygge-ness. Of course, I have a cozy knit throw draped just so on my couch. But I also have four ratty baby blankets hidden in my bedside drawer (that’s where embarrassing things live, right?). Except embarrassing things are everywhere in my apartment.
“What is that?” my sister asked, pointing to my kitchen floor.
“That is a big leaf I found this morning.”
“Why is it here?”
“I was seeing if it was bigger than my foot. It is.”
I’m always lugging outside things in. “What was that sound?” I imagine my neighbors ask, “It sounds like someone tripped over a large bag filled with pinecones.”
And, without any surprise at all, I'm becoming my father. I now own three vintage paperback copies of Steinbeck’s The Pearl because of small differences in cover design. The same with A Clockwork Orange and To Kill a Mockingbird. There’s a 1975 version of The Princess Bride I’ve been searching for for years—I’m holding out on finding a copy in the wild, preferably at a garage sale tucked under a pile of Nora Roberts paperbacks.
There’s a thrill in finding things and tucking them away in some small corner where I can admire them. My house has all the charm of a hobbit hole while my spirit is that of Gollum. None of these rings fit, but I’m keeping them. No, I will not throw away my 101 Dalmatians clip-on earrings even though one of them is broken and there’s no social situation in which a decapitated puppy head is considered appropriate jewelry. I’ve been collecting records for years, and finally I got a turntable for my last birthday. Persistence in hoarding does pay off. What happens when a minimalist needs a safety pin, or some tissue paper, or a Wicked Witch of the West costume?
As I was applying for renter’s insurance, the agent asked me about my assets. A TV? Nope. But I do own nearly 100 DVDs, because I worked at a video store in college and the discount was pretty decent since the industry was dying. I tried to save it. Physical media went the way of the Beanie Baby. I don’t have a DVD player either. But it could happen someday.
Any jewelry worth money? See aforementioned Dalmatian earrings and throw in a unicorn necklace that I bought at Reptile Gardens during a family road trip to South Dakota when I was eight. It was my first investment based on allowance money.
I told him that some of my vintage paperbacks were worth almost eight dollars on Etsy before shipping and handling, but he didn’t share my enthusiasm and declared that most of my possessions are worth pretty much nothing. Oh ye of little faith.
I was meant to keep these things forever. They’re a part of my story, the personal museum that guests have to squeeze past if they want to take a look at the leaf on my kitchen floor. This decorative ceramic chicken was destined to live on a stack of unread magazines. That tube of paint is just fine if I add a little water and motivation.
Hoarding is hopeful. It’s all about someday. It’s about the tangible things that connect us to the past. It’s about having a perpetual opportunity for show-and-tell. There’s also probably some mental health issues happening, but unfortunately, all that’s packed away somewhere I can’t reach it.
I used to have a boy. His overalls were popcorn butter yellow. He had tiny creepy blue eyes. I lost him somewhere along the way. If you see him, we’d like to be reunited. Just make sure to give me enough time to get the computer up and running.
Kayla Schmidt earned her M.A. in Creative Nonfiction at the University of East Anglia. She currently resides in North Dakota where garage sales and self-deprecation can be found in abundance. Connect with her on Twitter (@thisissassycat).