I would never have thought myself vulnerable to Miss Havisham’s odd syndrome. A jilted bride, Dickens’ character in GREAT EXPECTATIONS, stops all the clocks at the fateful moment: twenty minutes to nine, and lives on clad in the aging, satin wedding dress and the single, yellowed white shoe she had donned.
“And she had a long white veil dependent from her hair, and she had bridal flowers in her hair, but her hair was white. Some bright jewels sparkled on her neck and on her hands, and some other jewels lay sparkling on the table…. It was then I began to understand that everything in the room had stopped, like the watch and the clock, a long time ago.”
Thus Miss Havisham dwells in her decaying mansion among her useless possessions. She will never use what she cannot bear to throw away. Forever, she is trapped in a weird time warp.
I, on the other hand, am fully aware of the continuous passage of time. I would never stop a clock. Nor have I hoarded many relics or personal objects acquired in my own lifetime. I just am not one of those people who collect, who holds on to heirlooms.
My family was working class Hungarian Jewish immigrants. Steerage passengers, they traveled really light. My father when he left his village carried bread and a couple of shirts. His bagazh was a small bundle. I, myself, came in for mockery, when on a research trip to India with my daughter Perri for our memoir, EVERY MOTHER IS A DAUGHTER (Ballantine 2006), I carried so few clothes (particularly undergarments). Perri was vastly entertained and teased me unmercifully.
I remember when, decades ago, a suburban colleague invited me to spend the day at her home and when I arrived, she was already busy in her capacious kitchen, surrounded by the family silver. She was hard at work polishing: coffee urn, trays, teapot, platter, candlesticks. “Every Tuesday,” she explaned to me happily, “ is silver day and I devote myself to it.”
“I like to have the company of a friend.”
I nodded, fully understanding why. I was appalled.
Perhaps my forbears thought it wise always to be ready to run. Or else it could be the result of the poverty of my childhood or the later, small-apartment-in-the-city existence. Possibly it was just that I’d married a peripatetic scholar – an anthropologist – and I’d learned to go abroad on long field trips and sublet our living spaces to strangers who would not care much about our possessions. I prided myself on being the kind of person who did not own family silver.
When in 2001 my husband died suddenly, there was an incredible void in my life. I functioned mechanically but everything seemed pointless. It was hard, but I did what was absolutely necessary. I made a will. Afterward, I donated his field notes and scholarly papers to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. I knew what needed to be done, but then it took me many years and only got done with the yeoman assistance of my son-in-law, Larry, who is a scholar and appreciates the value of original research documents. We accomplished all: the sorting and filing and packing and sending. Then I went on living, thinking absently that eventually I would sort the other things and give them away
So I lived more than a decade later, still holding on to far too many things I was unable to throw out.
I moved to a smaller apartment this year and my children, whose judgment I absolutely trust, took on the infinitely difficult job of packing. They emptied my late husband’s half of the clothes closet saving the few choice neckties and belts that my son and grandsons liked.
Our bookshelves were still filled with my husband’s books, a huge and marvelously eclectic library including his extensive hoard of Judaica and his beloved P.G. Wodehouse novels – and the exhaustive collections of Robert Parker and John D. MacDonald, Bernard Cornwell and Adam Hall and the like, “men’s books” I’d never read. His dresser drawers were still meticulously stacked. He was a much more orderly person than I. The apartment’s various closets were crammed with his old cameras and slide projectors and screens, with slide collections and anthropological curiosities.
I have widowed friends whose minds and unflinching sensibilities allowed them to move on, to break free of old possessions and surroundings and to set forth anew. Florida! California! One has learned to play tennis; another is finishing college at the age of sixty. I witnessed this determination with awe. It’s not that they loved their husbands less. They are just somehow more able to let go, to move on. They are not suffering from the Miss Havisham Syndrome.
I don’t want to learn to play tennis (in fact, it’s pretty unlikely) and I am not fond of Florida – but I would like to live up to my traveling light ideal.
Alas, I recognize reality. Though there is a guilty pleasure, a comfort in keeping tokens, I do know the truth and I try to make myself face it. I tell myself that what was irreplaceable is truly gone – but I understand and sympathize with Miss Havisham!