Marketta Gregory: What I keep
For several years now I’ve talked about simplifying my gift-giving, buying fewer pieces of plastic and providing more memories. And each year, I stumble and fall back into that great feeling of having piles of presents to open.
I doubt I find that perfect balance this Christmas either, but a book out by Susan Mullally has me thinking – in a new way – about the gifts I give and their meaningfulness. Mullally is an assistant professor of art at Baylor University and she spent three years photographing people who are homeless, or on the edge of homelessness, with an item they treasure, an item they’ve kept with them through life’s upsets.
There, under a bridge, stands a former plumber holding a wheat-back penny from 1945, the year his mother was born. A man with four college degrees poses with his chess and backgammon set. A retired cosmetologist proudly shows her great-grandmother’s antique 7UP bottle.
I read the book “What I Keep: Photographs of the New Face of Homelessness and Poverty” ($34.95, Baylor University Press), in one short sitting. I’d look first at the portrait and then read the short interview. With the turn of each page, I wondered what item I would have chosen for my portrait, and I wondered if I had ever given anything of real value.
Am I the kind of mother whose son will remember her birth year and treasure our relationship? Are any of the gifts I’ll be wrapping destined to be remembered years from now, or will they be donated to charity before I pull out the lights and the tinsel next year?
Usually Mullally’s photographs are printed so large that it’s as if the people in the pictures are standing next to you. I can only imagine how powerful those art exhibits are when you stand eye to eye with veterans, cancer patients, former air traffic controllers and recovering drug addicts. People who probably had lives full of stuff at one time. People who have had to make that choice of what to carry with them and what to leave behind.
I think I’ll take another look at my gift list.
Marketta Gregory is a former religion reporter who now shares her own journey of faith with readers. She lives in Rochester, N.Y., with her husband, their three young boys and one very vocal Pomeranian. To contact Gregory, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to her at P.O. Box 12923, Rochester, NY 14612. You can also visit the Simply Faithful page on Facebook and follow her on Twitter (@MarkettaGregory).