Bookshelf: ‘Sum of Trifles’ weighs the burden and joy of family heirlooms

Julia Ridley Smith is the author of "The Sum of Trifles," an essay collection about the possessions that define us.

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Julia Ridley Smith is the author of "The Sum of Trifles," an essay collection about the possessions that define us.

Julia Ridley Smith’s essays ponder the meaning of personal possessions.

As the daughter of a corporate job hopper, I moved often as a child. Before I left for college at 17, I lived in nine homes and attended seven schools.

The responsibility for organizing all those moves always fell to my poor mother, who was a kind and gentle woman, until it came time to decamp to the next location. Then she turned into a battalion commander who ruthlessly made us four kids winnow down our possessions to just one box each. With each move, that box seemed to get smaller and smaller as I tearfully relinquished beloved stuffed animals and ‘60s era locket dolls to make room for a growing library of books.

As a result, I got the packrat beat out of me at an early age. And it’s a good thing. As an adult, I’ve always favored smallish houses that don’t have tons of storage space. Therefore, I’m not into amassing a lot of stuff, and I resist holding onto things for purely sentimental reasons. The one exception I make is books. I always have too many. When I downsized to an apartment a few years ago, I reduced my library by more than half and it was torture. Parting with dog-eared favorites and the uncracked spines of books I planned to read some day gave me new insight into those people on “Hoarders” crying over tossed empty Cool Whip tubs.

There’s a lot to be gleaned about people based on the material goods they choose to surround themselves with. That is the central theme of “The Sum of Trifles” (University of Georgia Press, $22.95), a profound and engaging meditation on personal possessions by North Carolina author Julia Ridley Smith.

Along with her brother, Smith was tasked with dispersing her parents’ things after their deaths just six months apart. Her parents were not hoarders, per se, but they were second generation antique dealers whose passion for beautiful things was reflected by their huge collection of 18th and 19th century furnishings and decorative arts. As she sorts through her parents’ belongings, making the difficult decision of what to keep, sell, donate and discard, Smith contemplates possessions — the buying and selling of them, the reasons they’re valued, the stories we tell ourselves about them — in 11 linked essays.

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Courtesy of University of Georgia Press

Credit: University of Georgia Press

Courtesy of University of Georgia Press

Credit: University of Georgia Press

Combined ShapeCaption
Courtesy of University of Georgia Press

Credit: University of Georgia Press

Credit: University of Georgia Press

This isn’t a book just about antiques, though. It’s also about prosthetic legs and shower chairs, an “ugly” midcentury modern hi-fi built by Smith’s father, a 170-year-old family quilt and a decades-long paper trail of receipts, documents, bank statements, contracts, road maps, brochures, newspaper articles and business cards.

Using these objects as her muse, Smith explores her parents’ lives and their marriage, as well as broader topics like mortality, grief, white privilege, class division, mental health and her family’s slave-holding history. Throughout her essays she weaves interesting statistics, like the fact that the average American household contains 300,000 objects, and historical context, like a survey of the trappings that accompanied funerals and mourning periods in Victorian England and the antebellum South.

Ultimately, though, “The Sum of Trifles” is a love story to Smith’s mother. A chain-smoking, straight-talking businesswoman who eschewed housework and meal preparation, Margaret Ridley Tyler Smith taught her daughter the fundamentals of interior design, old-fashioned manners and the importance of individualism. As she approached her death from lung cancer, she advises her daughter to “wring every bit of pleasure out of what you’re doing right now.” And when she’s moved into a hospice room at the end of her life, she observes, “I can’t believe I’m going to die in a room without crown molding.”

Like many white Southern protestant families, Smith and her kin appear on the surface to be stoic in the face of death. It’s only in Smith’s writing that her emotions come to the surface, especially when she’s faced with her parents’ possessions and the quandary over what to do with them.

“What will happen once I take an object to my own house and look at it outside the context in which I’ve always known it?” she writes. “Will it continue to carry the import my folks attached to it, or will its perceived value change as the object comes to seem more my possession than theirs? The things that are sold or given away — will I forget them and the memories they evoke? Will I regret their loss and yearn to have them back? More important, since I can keep only a few things to remember my parents by, which ones should I choose? How many will be enough?”

My mother was a very practical woman who purged many of her possessions long before she grew ill because she didn’t want to burden her kids with the task after she was gone. She was not a very sentimental woman, except when it came to photographs and family heirlooms. Or so I thought.

When my father moved into a retirement community a year after her death, I was helping him pack up the house when I discovered a black garbage bag in the back of a closet. Inside was every card and letter my mother had received from her children. I can just see her now, weighing her options on what to do with them. Her logical side would have told her there was no value in holding onto them, but her heart would have prevented her from parting with them. Some things, she must have thought, are best handled by one’s survivors.

I held onto the bag for another year before I figured out what to do with them. At the next holiday, when all of my siblings were present, I brought the letters with me and ceremoniously returned them to their senders. Now they can share the burden of deciding their fate.

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and consulting editor to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Contact her at svanatten@ajc.com and follow her on Twitter at @svanatten.