Norman Mailer’s sixth wife died a few days ago. I knew nothing about her but I heard a segment of an interview on public radio when she was publicizing her memoir, A Ticket to the Circus. Scott Simon asked her why she didn’t leave Mailer when she’d caught him philandering, as all his wives eventually did. “Oh, Scott, you know, you don’t—there’s times you leave somebody for something like this, but there’s—it’s not so easy to just—you don’t leave a person, you leave your whole life. You leave a family. You leave thousands of little habits….” She went on to talk about their children, of course, but what struck me was her description of what comes with a relationship. Not just a person or people, but “habits.”
She could also have mentioned “things.” Our lives are tapestries of relationships with everything from the rose we planted, watered, pruned and gloried in; to the ritual of brushing our teeth side by side with someone else; to the CDs on our shelves (or tunes on our I-pods). Lately, I’m told, there’s an epidemic of hoarders—people who fill their houses with stuff until they can only move with difficulty and most of what they have is lost under ever-accumulating piles of new merchandise. I wonder if some of that collecting happens because they’re looking for a context, for a network of relationships that locates them in this world.
Of course, it also has to do with that wonderful feeling that can come over you when you buy something new. Santa Claus gives us make-overs.
Collecting things helps us form our identities; you can triangulate from them and find yourself. There are people who collect turtles—not the real thing, usually—and others who accumulate bottle tops, tractors, statuary. I have a friend who collects things that relate to her family, today and for one or two generations past. Old books, quilts, a table, a rocker. I have some dishes that belonged to my grandparents many decades ago. They’re sweet but, I gather they were quite ordinary in their time. Still, there’s no way I could ever give them up. It would be like cutting a link between my grandparents and myself and that, it seems to me, would make me less than I am now.
All of us, even those who are most penurious, are surrounded by things and habits, as well as idiosyncrasies, that help identify us to ourselves and others. We have favorite smells, some we don’t even notice but would miss terribly. We have habitual smiles and habitual frowns. Some of us like No. 2 pencils and others can’t do without ballpoints. All of the small details of our lives are worth their weight in gold. They help us locate ourselves on this very bumpy road.
The time will come when we’ll have no choice but to give up some of it, and eventually all. But in the meantime, as Norris Church Mailer concluded, “To leave an entire life—to go to what? … to go to nothing, to start over again?”