Treasured possessions

One of the recent Plinky prompts was “What’s your most treasured possession?”

Common answers were:

  • Jesus
  • life
  • family photos
  • laptop or smartphone

I’ve always found that a difficult question to answer. When I was in high school, our French teacher asked it in terms of “If there were a fire in your house and you took time to save one thing, what would it be?” At the time, I answer “my Bible” because it seemed like what I should say based on the way people at church talked about how precious their Bibles were – plus it seemed like a way to share my faith (in a tiny way) with my classmates in public high school.

At least one other student also said she would take her Bible, but our French teacher (who was conducting the conversation in English, as she preferred to get us to have meaningful discussions than to speak French when it limited us to superficial comments) pointed out that Bibles could be easily replaced. She would want to rescue photo albums, because photos generally cannot be replaced. (Back then you needed the negatives to make new prints; these days you might have them all in digital form on the computer, which is one reason some people say a computer is their most treasured possession.)

At the time, I didn’t have any photo albums, nor any photos that were particularly meaningful to me. Photos are about the past; as a teenager I was full of dreams for the future. I did not have a close-knit family; I was looking forward to leaving home for college and then starting my life’s work, whatever that was going to be.

(I’m not sure if at that point I had yet committed myself to becoming a missionary; at the time I did, I thought that a lack of people I was close to and would have trouble leaving was an advantage. Years later I realized that someone who has trouble developing close ties to people will have few of the sort of relationships in which faith in Christ is meaningfully shared.)

Several years later, when I did leave home for good (to become a Spanish teacher), I came across a framed photograph of our family from when I was about seven. It was taken for the church directory, and shows my grandfather, my parents, my older sister, and me. My mother is laughing because the photographer told us to say “Stinker” instead of “Cheese” – it was the sort of thumbing one’s nose at convention that she particularly liked. My grandfather is also either laughing or smiling – the only photo I have of him that shows a broad smile.

My father and I are smiling, whether at the photographer’s comment or because you’re supposed to smile for the camera. My sister, however, does not look very happy. I used to think she looked unhappy in that picture – whether because she didn’t find the photographer’s instruction – or our mother’s reaction to it – very pleasing, or because she simply resented being part of our family.

(A couple of years later, someone told our mother that our family was considered weird by the whole town – with the exception of me. My sister thought that if there were an exception it should be her, since I went along with our parents’ ideas and activities for the most part while she rebelled against them.)

Looking at the picture now, I wonder if perhaps that was her attempt at a smile. I can remember many times being told to “Smile!” and being surprised, because I didn’t think I looked unhappy. Sometimes I feel content, though far from ecstatic, and don’t realize that the mild contentment doesn’t show on my face. I doubt my sister felt she had much to be happy about at that point in her life (I think she was in junior high).

Today that picture hangs on my “picture wall,” along with a variety of other pictures of family – both my husband’s and mine, at various ages, plus our sons and their cousins. If there were a fire, I would be more interested in practical matters than saving pictures – people first, the dog if I could safely get her out, then my purse because it would help to have money, ID, and my cell phone. The purse sits on a shoe rack, so I’d grab a pair of shoes if I weren’t already wearing them.

As it happens, that photo of my family hangs right above the shoe rack, so I’d grab it too if I had the chance. It’s small enough that it wouldn’t encumber me in getting out of the house.  It’s also the only photo I have that includes both my parents and my grandfather. (I’m sure I could get photos of my sister, my husband, and sons, from other relatives, if I had none left of my own.)

I have trouble calling it a “treasured” possession, however. It’s a reminder of where I came from, and I think it’s important not to cut ties with family, despite my having once wanted to do just that. I haven’t felt close to my family, though, since sometime not many years after that picture was taken (probably by the time I was the age my sister was when the picture was taken). So I don’t have warm sentimental feelings about the photo, just a sense of rightness about keeping it.

When I was a young adult, my choice of one item to save might have been a plaque Barb Loach gave to me when I graduated from college. Barb was my Spanish professor, academic advisor, roommate during a six-week stay in Spain (she was assistant leader for a study abroad program which I participated in), and friend. The plaque has a picture of mountains, and a Bible verse.

“For the mountains may be removed and the hills may shake,
But My lovingkindness will not be removed from you,
And My covenant of peace will not be shaken,”
Says the LORD who has compassion on you.
Isaiah 54:10

That fall, a colleague at the school where I was teaching (high school French and Spanish) loaned me a cassette tape of the St. Louis Jesuits’ Earthen Vessels. I promptly went out and bought my own copy so that I could listen to it over and over and over, especially the song “Though the Mountains May Fall,” which is based on Isaiah 54:10 (and other verses from Isaiah).

When I went to Spain again the following year, I made sure to take that tape and a portable cassette player, so that I could listen to those songs for encouragement when I felt lonely or discouraged. I found comfort in remember that, no matter how much mountain-shaking there might seem to be in my life, I was loved and protected. I haven’t listened to the cassette recently (it’s been a while since I’ve owned a car with a cassette player), but I still have Barb’s plaque on the wall of my bedroom.

It’s the verse itself, though, as well as my memories of Barb, that make the plaque special. I’d still have those even if I didn’t have the plaque. I tried to think what possessions I have about which I have special feelings for the objects themselves. There is the nativity set I painted during the first few years of our marriage. I’m proud of how well it turned out, and I just plain like the look of it better than a lot of the nativity sets sold in stores (which is why I made that one).

Sculpture by Al

But if I were going for something that is special for who made it, I’d probably want something made by one of my sons rather than by me.

Since I can’t think of one specially treasured possession, I could answer the question the way some people do, by saying “Life.” To me, that doesn’t seem to really answer the question, though. The question “What is your most treasured possession?” indicates an interest in what special things you own and why they are special to you. Someone interested in whether you value more your material possessions, or immaterial things such as life and faith, would ask the question in a different way.

There is certainly a sense in which life is everyone’s most valuable possession, of course. It is one thing that is yours, by definition, and cannot be mislaid or misappropriated (someone can try to control your life, but ultimately another person cannot control your choices, only make the consequences for certain choices extremely unpleasant). It is more malleable than any other possession, as you determine its shape as you live it. It is also, in a sense, the most ephemeral, as you cannot be sure of its continuance beyond the current moment.

Another immaterial possession – and one that in a way continues to belong to a person after death (unlike material possessions which go to the next of kin or designated beneficiaries) – is one’s reputation. It has long been considered one’s most valuable possession.

The purest treasure mortal times afford is spotless reputation;
that away, men are but gilded loam or painted clay.
(William Shakespeare, Richard II, Act I scene I)

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls:
Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him
And makes me poor indeed.
(William Shakespeare, Othello, Act 3 scene 3)

There are also people who point to family and friends as their most treasured possession. I can’t see calling any person a “possession” but I would have to agree that close relationships are what I would most hate to lose.

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