Material Girl

Author: Kathleen Clark ’15

I can’t lie — I have a lot of things. I feel particularly aware of the volume of my things right now, because I live alone, and I am preparing to move my things to a new apartment, which means I need to take stock of my things. So I have been spending a lot of time thinking about my things.

When I was a gawky adolescent, I watched The Quiet Man with my grandparents. I loved John Wayne’s American bravado, and chuckled at the town matchmaker’s stereotypical brogue, but most of all, I was entranced by Maureen O’Hara’s feisty femininity. She reminded me of my matriarchs, each more stubborn than the last, dedicated to their principles and willing to fight for what they want. One line has stuck with me throughout the years — Maureen O’Hara’s character yells at John Wayne that their marriage needs to be made proper with a dowry, because without a dowry she can’t have her inheritance. She proclaims “I need my things about me!” John Wayne proceeds to pay her older brother the dowry, thus releasing her belongings and allowing her to settle into married life as she envisioned, with her things about her.

I have always loved my things. As a child, I loved to stuff bags and purses with my “fings.” My mom would ask what I was doing, and I’d say, “Oh, I just need a few fings.” When we were preparing to travel to see my grandparents in California, two weeks in advance I would diligently practice packing my bag, deciding which of my things got to come with me, and then unpacking, since my things still needed to be used between now and then. When I went to sleep-away camp, my parents had to calmly explain to me that it was just two weeks and that I didn’t need four framed photos, six books, two journals, three stuffed animals and three decks of cards. I’ll leave my college move in weekend to your imagination.

Like Maureen O’Hara’s character, I like to have my things about me. Sometimes, I feel unstylish for liking things. Minimalism is in and materialism is decidedly out. Things often seem vilified as clunky relics of a bygone era — Marie Kondo asked us to keep only those things that spark joy. I loved her idea, but it did not help me downsize or minimize; it only reinforced my love for my relics, my things, each of which sparks its own brand of joy. I have not been based near my hometown since 2011. I have since learned how to live alone and away from those I love. And while I cannot prevent myself from missing loved ones, I can surround myself with things that connect me to them. Ikea furniture, for all its shiny clean lines and simple practicality, can’t do that.

My grandma had a tiny ceramic frog that sat on a cabinet on the second floor of her house. When we visited, every time I went up and down the stairs, I stopped and checked in with the frog. It now lives on my dresser. My grandpa had a richly bound copy of Hamlet that sat on his wall-to-wall bookshelf. That bookshelf, and its curator, taught me about learning, about loving to read, about seeking truth and knowledge. That copy of Hamlet now lives on my bookshelf. The kitchen table that first sat in my grandparents’ home, then in my parents’ home, now dwells in mine. I vividly remember sitting at that table in our kitchen doing my homework the day my youngest sibling was born, looking up when the phone rang, then seeing my grandmother standing with her hand on the back of the chair for balance, answering the phone, clearly repeating my dad’s message: “It’s a girl!”

The couch that sat in my childhood living room for many years, lovingly dubbed paprika sofa by my family, now makes its home in my apartment. When I sit down and throw my feet up after a long day teaching teenagers how to write topic sentences, I am 12 sitting on the luxurious couch for the first time, I am 13 opening birthday presents, I am 14 watching High School Musical 2 with friends, I am 16 with my head in my mother’s lap crying about the SAT, I am 19 and watching The West Wing on Christmas break with my family, I am 20 preparing for my father’s funeral . . . each of my things holds this power. Each of my hand-me-downs connects me to my past, to my loved ones, to the days and moments I hold dear.

And in my adventures and misadventures in adulthood, I’ve collected new things that have this power, too. These things connect me to the people and places I have loved on my own. A bottle of wine brought back for me from France that now holds silk sunflowers. A poster from the Notre Dame-Army game at Yankee Stadium that I attended with my dad. A table runner from my trip to Rwanda to visit a best friend that covers one of my bookcases. A copy of The Leftovers sent as a confusing birthday present from the boy I loved who didn’t love me back. The chicken stuffed animal that was a parting gift from my students in the California desert. The sweatshirt blanket from Ocean City, New Jersey, where my family has recovered from sorrow and made new memories. Golden Retriever bookends.

These things are not just things; they hold life. They hold memories. The lamp that’s dented on one side; the quilt that’s coming apart at the seams; the Notre Dame pennant from 1939; all of these things infuse my space with life, with ghosts, with a vibrancy that I can’t generate on my own. My things make moving no small feat, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I like to have my things about me, and when I do, I am never alone.

Kathleen Clark’s essay received an honorable mention in this magazine’s 2020 Young Alumni Essay Contest. She earned a master’s degree in English from Boston College in 2019 and currently teaches at Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida, where she lives with her golden retriever Captain.