I don’t understand some people’s fascination with collecting, and this goes for pretty much anything—dolls, spoons, seashells, snow globes, and so forth. This could be due to the fact that I find no purpose, no sense to most collections. Or perhaps my issue goes deeper than that, the result of a rather traumatic childhood experience.
I used to collect white rocks from the beach every summer as a child. I had beach pails full of them and was always on the hunt for a new white rock to add to my collection. It was a simple collection to maintain. The rocks were fairly easy to obtain and just as easy to find, the white among all the brown and gray. But then one day my older brother, who, like most older siblings, was prone to spontaneous acts of malice, buried all my rocks in our backyard. And not just in one place. No, he laid them to rest throughout the entire yard. He covered his tracks well, too, leaving no evidence of the burial sites. Such premeditation, such commitment of time and resources from a kid whose report cards often included the observation, “not living up to potential.” I guess he just needed the right motivation, which in this case was watching me, crying and heartbroken, digging for hours in random locations searching for my treasured rocks in the vast landscape that was our backyard. Sadly, most of my rocks were never recovered. And clearly, neither have I.
Stamps and coins, I can get behind a collection like that, one with an investment in play, a way to get back, if you so choose, some of the money you put into it. Me, I collect Wallace Nutting photographs, mostly because my grandmother did, and she instilled within me an appreciation for their beauty and history. Plus, they continue to increase in value every year (something my sons track as they like to occasionally make a mental review of their paltry inheritance). But no one’s going to pay you for your salt-and-pepper shaker collection or the gargantuan ball of rubber bands you started collecting in first grade. So I ask, what’s the point?
The other problem with some collections is where to display them. And what if you have multiple collections, like an elderly neighbor who collected Hummels and music boxes and miniature trees made of gemstones. Scores of these objects were displayed on shelves and tables and bookcases throughout her home. Nice, but…maybe a plant or photograph to break things up, intersperse some variety? Then there’s my aunt with a large collection of dolls. Her house is overtaken with enormous glass cases devoted to them, two in the living room, one in a bathroom of all places, and the largest, and most disturbing, in the dining room. I doubt she’s aware that some of her dinner guests (well, one of whom I’m certain) find it unsettling to have these steely-eyed, mini-adults staring at them over roast pork in a creepy Toddlers-and-Tiaras sort of way. As far as the bathroom display and the feelings evoked there, let’s just say I’ve learned to limit my consumption of liquids whenever I’m at her home.
Another aunt collects spoons from every place she travels. Could there be a more pitiful collection? Something that actually has a purpose as a utensil but, alas, never lives to see its potential realized? All those miniature spoons get to do is sit there, looking at you looking at them. And then there’s the matter of building the spoon collection. When this aunt came to visit me on Cape Cod, we toured several popular attractions. Valuable time, however, was devoted not to sightseeing as much as scouring gift shops and kiosks for just the right spoon to add to her display case back home. “Do I buy one in Provincetown, or wait till we get to Plymouth Plantation and buy one there?” Sigh. “Why not buy two?” I suggested, yawning and checking my watch. “Oh, no; only one spoon per trip.” I don’t know why the harsh limit; after all, it was her rule; she was free to amend it. But this is the obsessive nature of some collections, I suspect. Something else I don’t understand. I don’t scour antique shops, flea markets, or estate sales for a Wallace Nutting. If I happen to come across one that I like and can afford, I make the purchase. Simple and easy, just the way a collection should be.I suppose my lack of understanding of the nature of collections in general is part of my overall problem, feeling that everything must make sense, have a purpose. There is likely much I am missing out on if I thought about it, which I don’t. What I do think about, though, is that what we collect probably says something about us. My Wallace Nutting collection probably says something about my sentimentality, since they’re really a way for me to keep some ethereal connection to a woman I dearly loved. For my relative with the creepy dolls, this probably speaks to her innocent, child-like spirit. And my aunt with the spoons, I’m sure she looks upon them not as useless objects but as mementos that hold fond memories of places and people visited.
And then there are collections that are probably best just accepted and left unexamined, such as the one kept by the roommate of a guy I dated in college. He collected his toenail clippings and kept (displayed?) them in a Fred Flintstone jelly jar in the bathroom. Just what this sort of collection says about a person is, well, probably best left a mystery.