When I was serving a mission for my church in The Netherlands I visited Palais Het Loo, a former palace of the Dutch royal family. The palace sits on acres and acres of forested land with elaborate gardens, stables, and palace rooms with displays of how the royal family lived. The possessions of the royal family were meticulously catalogued and displayed throughout the palace: dresses on dress stands, a silver handled brush, white gloves with satin buttons, a wooden rocking horse, and rows of automobiles. There were paintings and rich tapestries, elegant place settings at empty tables—the possessions of people who are no longer living.
I wonder how our possessions shape us. What our purchases tell about the kind of people we are and what we value.
I think about the few possession of my mother that I now own: a pair of Pyrex mixing bowls, a spatula, and the quiet book she made so we’d behave during church. I wonder where other things of hers went. What happened to the small silver jewelry box lined with red velvet that she let me use as a couch when I was duplicating the home of “The Borrowers” inside a shoebox for a book report? What about the homemade advent calendar that we used to count down the days until Christmas? The music she played on the piano? Her wedding ring that had been missing its diamond since I was a little girl? She had few valuable possessions, maybe none. We don’t mourn the loss of her things. We mourn her. We miss her and the experiences we could have if she were still here.
I think of the lives of people that pass through this earth forgotten and undocumented. I think of the Holocaust. Those images we’ve seen of roomfuls of shoes and eyeglasses that were kept while the lives of people who owned them were cast away, contemptuously. How many people live and die without the careful documentation of their existence, while we catalogue the hairbrushes and gloves and dresses and rocking horses of only the wealthy and important?
We all have possessions and there isn’t anything wrong with that. Humans have always had items they kept for useful purposes, emotional reasons, or for their aesthetic beauty. But let us also remember people and what shared experiences and relationships can give us. I believe that people are more important than things. Always.