Infused with Personality

I once wore a Super Bowl ring.

(Unlike Vladimir Putin, I immediately handed mine back to its owner.)

Back when I was teaching, one of the dads in our class was a Houston Texans player, and he came to school for Career Day.  His previous team had won the Super Bowl, and after his regulation NFL talk about staying in school, and achieving your dreams, he slipped off his ring and let everyone in class pass it around and try it on.

There was no grandstanding in his attitude.  This was a middle-aged man, always a second string player, at the end of his career.  You could see in his face that he had spent years dreaming of that ring, and he was sharing what meant most to him, hoping to spark a dream in some kid.

When all the kids had tried it on, he offered it to me.  I put it on, and just for a second I saw myself in the middle of the field after the game, with bright lights shining and cameras all around and confetti raining down –

– which is, of course, ridiculous.  Because they don’t hand the rings out before the game to both teams; they only create them after the game and hand them out at a big banquet.  This ring was never in the Big Game.  And if it was, could it somehow transfer that experience to me?

I thought back to that day when I was watching the science show Through the Wormhole.  A professor was telling his colleagues that he held in his hand a pen that had belonged to Einstein, and of course they all wanted to hold it.  Then he told them that he had a sweater that belonged to Jeffrey Dahmer, and people shuddered away from it.

It turns out that this is a very common attitude.  (I’m not sure I would call it a belief, because I don’t think people adopt it consciously.)   We are familiar with it from small children insisting on their blankie, and not being satisfied by another, even an identical one.  It’s  called  “essentialism”, the belief that certain objects can take on a certain essence.

I have had friends on both ends of that continuum, from a co-worker who would not get rid of his old shredded photographer’s vest (“But it has gone around the world with me!”), to a friend who would not set foot in an antiques store, because she didn’t like “dead people’s stuff.”

Watching that show, I thought, “Huh, I guess I am a little superstitious about that myself!”  We have a lot of little handed-down possessions, and for me, it’s important to know who each little dish and doily came from, and to keep it separate from any similar possessions I’ve gotten over the years.  Let’s say I’ve purchased some cool vintage buttons – I would want to keep them separate from the button tin I got from my grandmother.  “Our” buttons are more special to me.


When I analyze it, I don’t really think an object itself is any different depending on who it belonged to.  I don’t really think there is some “essence” attached to it.   And yet, I automatically assign importance to a possession as if there was.  This flow blue plate is probably about 150 years old, beautifully crafted.  The bobwhite plate is only about 50 years old, but it belonged to my family, so if I had to save only one in a fire, I would probably grab it.

old plates

These two plates are both mass-produced, but they are about 100 years old, and my grandparents owned both.  The bottom one shows the fashion of its time, though, so I rank it higher in my Mental Hierarchy of My Stuff.

This predisposition toward Essentialism has pros and cons for me.  I may keep too many things, just because they belonged to family members.  There will be a lot of stuff to pass on to my kids someday.

But on the other hand, it makes me happy just to see those old family possessions every day – to sew at my great-grandmother’s table, or cut chicken wire with the same tin snips my grandfather used to give me a haircut when I was two.  I feel close to my family every day.

game boards and boxes

I treasure old family stuff.

I think most craftspeople are “essentialists” – why else would we make quilts or crochet blankets for people in need, when we could get mass-produced ones cheaper and quicker?  Why do we “rescue” old linens from antique stores?  In the one case, we’re hoping people can feel the love and good wishes we’re putting into our creations, and in the other, we feel we are rescuing the craftsperson themselves from some oblivion.

In The American Quilt: A History of Cloth and Comfort 1750 – 1950, author Roderick Kiracofe said that every time he purchases an old quilt, he sleeps underneath it one night to get a sense of the quilter who made it.  I don’t go that far, but I do visualize the makers and try to imagine their lives, and show my respect for their work by paying it forward.

What do you think?  Do you attribute special qualities to inanimate objects?  Or do you value things more by the quality of their craftsmanship?