The Value of Things
A short time ago, I received in the mail an inventory booklet from my home insurance agent. It was, of course, blank and asking to be filled in, something I’d avoided too long. Start small, I thought. It will be easier. Take measure of the little things first, the seemingly insignificant, the ordinary. Progress toward larger stuff and keep a tally along the way. In the end, when the counting is finished and the books have been totaled, there will be a sum and the value of things will be known, ordered. Or so it seemed. As I looked around the house I realized it would be difficult to discern the junk from the treasure. Measuring the value of things is a tricky business, I found, even when their cost is known.
From my vantage point on the steps of the landing I could see most of the area we live in--the living room, my office, the kitchen, and Madison’s bedroom. Upon the wall in my office is one of the many photographs my wife has taken of our daughter. It is an 8 by 10 of Madison standing in the drive in front of the house, newly fallen snow upon the ground, a grin upon her face. It was Madison’ s first day in the snow. Her first ride in a sled. Her first snowball.
The dots of pigment and the glossy photo paper are, for me, linked to the memories that make the photo worth displaying. The photograph does not record the excitement in her voice, or the light in her eyes at experiencing all of it. The photograph records a moment. But it cannot tell the story. By telling the story, I can relive the event, and once again become part of it. I can experience it and pass along the magic that cannot be captured in a thousand rolls of Kodachrome. I can make it real again.
The photo cost next to nothing and the frame more than doubled the total, though it still does not add up to an item that makes the inventory cut. To measure the things below its surface would take a lifetime, outside of the realm of a simple household inventory, and beyond any insurance policy guarantees.
Laying on the back of the sofa in the living room was a creature that has lived in our house for nearly two years. It is brightly colored, patches of bright orange and royal blue, a stream of lime green that runs from its forehead down its back. The creature’s name is Patches. He is a simple hand puppet, the head of a giraffe. Patches was at the time--and still is--kept in a plastic freezer-lock bag in a cedar chest of keepsakes my wife is storing away for Madison. My wife does not want him to wear any more than he already has. The corners of his mouth are torn and he is stained from the times Madison has tried to feed him. His color has faded, and the pocket on his back is stretched from Madison’s playful tugs. His voice, a high, throaty pitch, is supplied by me. His personality is part mine, part Madison’s, and some creation that is greater than the sum of our parts. To Madison, Patches is. And that is a good measure of his magic.
Occasionally, my daughter will ask where he is, as if he were a long lost friend she has missed. When she is not looking, I will pull Patches out of storage and watch her face light up at his reappearance. There is a magic to Patches, as there is to any friendship that is meaningful, and the energy level of the entire house rises with his presence. After Madison and I have played with him and then moved on to other projects, my wife will carefully slip Patches into his bag and place him in the cedar chest, preserving for the future his appearance and our memories of him.
Patches would not make an inventory list, at least not as far as the insurance company is concerned. I purchased him for $5.99 off the bargain rack at a local toy store. The plastic bag he is stored in costs less than a nickel. There is no way to measure his magic.
Other things were within my sight that could have been counted and placed on the list. Other memories came and went, most lacked the force necessary to stir an emotional response. In the hallway was the baby-jogger Madison’s mother uses to run and walk with her in the mornings and occasionally in the evenings. It has large bicycle tires to easily navigate the dirt roads around our home. Madison has experienced all kinds of weather from her seat. She has felt the crisp cold of winter. On occasion, she has tasted the sweetness of a summer shower. She has also met a herd of elk and the neighbors from down the road. The elk quietly munch on the grass and barely pay attention to her comments. The neighbors ask her questions and smile at her answers.
The baby-jogger cost over $200. I’m certain Madison would value it considerably higher, if she could. In the end, when the counting is finished and the books have been totaled, there will be a sum and the cost of the baby-jogger, among other things, will be known, but its value, like Patches’ and the photograph’s, would not fit on the list.
Before the baby-jogger was bought and just before Madison was born, we purchased some beautiful furniture from a family a few miles away. The furniture is all white and fits perfectly into Madison’s room, which was just behind me. The set came with a crib, a bed, and chest of drawers with a changing table built into the top. Madison is the third child who will one day outgrow it.
The changing table has served as a type of measuring stick for the last two years. When she was a newborn, she barely took up enough space to cover half of it. One day, her mother discovered that she had grown to cover its entire length. Now, Madison’s long tanned legs flop over the end as she tells stories about the whales and porpoises swimming above her head. (A poster hangs above the table.)
Like the changing table, the crib has also been outgrown, though we haven’t yet relented to this reality. Madison has turned it into a trampoline and jungle gym. Early in the mornings she can be heard singing her a-b-c’s while bouncing up and down. When she is angry and doesn’t want to nap, she’s been known to climb out of it. The crib and other bedroom furniture, like the baby-jogger, would make the inventory list, but the stories and jumping and climbing would not.
Some things screamed about their importance, their worth. In the kitchen, on the stove, was the frying pan that my wife uses to make pancakes, Madison’s favorite breakfast. The pan itself would barely bring in a few dollars at a garage sale. But the new owner would be surprised to learn of the conversations that pan has heard, if they could be imparted.
The frying pan is a conduit. Heat passes through it and turns batter into pancakes, simple conversations into friendship. Since she was a year old Madison has sat on the countertop and watched her mother cooking. She has asked questions and listened to the answers, tried to understand. Their morning ritual has been a bonding process that goes beyond batter and heat and syrup. What they’ve shared has been time, something that cannot be inventoried. But time is what matters. It creates the magic and gives the stories a chance to play themselves out. It is a measure of the value of things. Of all the important things in our home, time is the one ingredient essential to all of them.
I looked around the house at the many items that needed to be inventoried. Starting small would never do, and the artwork and furniture could not hold my interest. The booklet had to wait for a day when an accurate count could be made, for a day when I could quiet the stories and distill the magic and get on with the business of counting insignificant things.