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What We’ll Keep, by Brenda Rankin

“There are those who receive as birthright an adequate or at least unquestioned sense of self and those who set out to reinvent themselves, for survival or for satisfaction, and travel far. Some people inherit values and practices as a house they inhabit; some of us have to burn down that house, find our ground, build from scratch, even as a psychological metamorphosis.”  —Rebecca Solnit, “The Blue of Distance”


When my grandmother was moved into a retirement home a few years ago, my father encouraged me to take her cedar chest, her secretary desk, remnants from her pantry. I refused, as politely as I could. I lived in a tiny college apartment. I hardly knew my father’s mother, and all of her belongings reeked of cigarette smoke. And I never felt the same attachment to family history that my father could conjure up for every photo, spoon, or fishing hat that would link him to a previous generation of American history. Sometimes, I wonder if my dad thinks he can create the close familial bonds, ones that never really existed, if he can just possess these possibly meaningful objects with enough reverence.

In spite of his passionate pitch about my grandmother’s cedar chest being in amazing condition and the secretary desk having belonged to his grandmother, I left her condo with an old cat carrier, a box filled with a small teacup collection, and a grocery bag of extra office supplies my dad said she no longer wanted.

In taking these things, I reasoned, I had helped eliminate some of the extra clutter my dad had to deal with as her thirty-day’s notice ended. Since I had two cats and only one carrier, I felt I was practical. The office supplies I would have bought eventually, and the teacups I would have liked even if I had merely seen them in a thrift store, regardless of connection to their previous owner.

The day after our afternoon in my grandma’s old condo, my dad called to tell me he understood why I couldn’t take the furniture. My mom called, however, to tell me he was hurt that I wouldn’t make space in my apartment for his mother’s things, but he never said those words to me. He reasoned that we could think of the cedar chest and the secretary desk as being on hold until I finally had space for them: put into a storage unit my grandmother had rented for all the stuff she couldn’t take with her but didn’t want to get rid of, which was everything.

A few days later, my dad told me that my grandma had not been able to pay for the storage space, which had been cleared out by the storage company, and the things inside had been taken as payment.

After that, my dad said my grandma wanted the cat carrier back, since she needed to take her cat for walks in the hallways of her assisted living home, so I gave it to him.

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