I’ve recently gotten back into listening to podcasts. I’ve discovered some brilliant ones but my favourite is Radiolab, produced by WNYC. The show is about, among other things, curiosity. No two shows are alike and they’re always interesting. The first show I listened to, titled “Things”, aired earlier this month and, as I listened to it while I cooked dinner last Thursday, I had no idea how appropriate it would be the next evening.
In the “Things” episode, the Radiolab crew discussed all things, well, things! These are things that mean something–things that hold you and captivate you, personal things, big things, small things… any things, really. And they also talked about whether it’s better to hold on to things or to let them go. In some cases, there’s no real choice; sometimes you’re forced to let go through no action of your own. Sometimes letting go is a forced choice.
N’s mum has this plate. This plate was one of a set that belonged to her mother who passed away several years ago on Bonfire Night (5 November). Over the years, pieces of the set broke, were lost and so on until it was just this one plate left. This plate never left home, it was never used to transport food elsewhere and it was only ever used for one dish—Spanish omelette.
If you don’t already know, N’s mum’s side of the family is Spanish and food is a big thing for them. Spanish omelette is one of her specialties and basically consists of just potato, egg and onion made into sort of a tortilla. It’s amazing, delicious and one of the first things she ever cooked for me. N and I love it so much we call it ‘Mom-lette.’
This particular plate was the perfect omelette plate. She’d told me that numerous times and even told N she had no idea how she’d ever make an omelette without it. It was the perfect size for flipping the omelette (always the trickiest part) and always made her think of her own mum.
N and I were planning a picnic dinner in a local park. N was going to make a Spanish omelette and, after asking his mum how to make one, she offered to make one for us. Not ones to turn down free (and delicious food), we happily said yes. N was in North London on the Friday and made arrangements to pick it up from his mum who lived locally. He would then take the Tube home with the omelette, we’d pack up and be on our way.
His mum made the omelette and, without thinking, left it on the special plate. She wrapped the whole thing up in foil, stuck it in a shopping bag and handed it over to N. He got on the Tube and put the bag next to his leg on one side and on the other side he sat his laptop bag down.
I think you know where this is going.
At some point along the line, a dodgy guy got on. N said he just didn’t look right and he consciously checked his wallet and laptop bag and made sure they were secure. What he didn’t check was the shopping bag with the omelette inside. A few stops later the guy got off, hooked his fingers around the carrier bag handles and walked off with the omelette.
N’s heart sank… and that was before he even knew about the plate. He got off the train, notified transport police and so on but, let’s be honest, they’re not going to go gonzo for an omelette, are they? Then N called his mum and his heart dropped even further as she told him about the plate which he hadn’t realised had been in the bag. It was horribly sad and awful that this thing that she’d kept safe for so many years and had been so careful with for so long was gone in the blink of an eye—all because some dishonest person thought he was getting lucky with my husband’s shopping bag. He had no idea just how irreplaceable the contents of that bag were. To him, it was just food—fodder for the bin. To N’s family, it meant so much more.
As I sat on the couch and cried (yes, I too knew how much the plate meant) I couldn’t help but think back to the Radiolab “Things” episode that I’d listened to the night before. It seemed almost serendipitous. Why do we latch on to objects that, other than the memories we associate with them, actually have no meaning at all? Why does a lost plate bring my mother in law to tears even now, a week later? Why do I still have plane tickets from my first ever trip to visit N in London? Why have I carried a letter from my Memom since it was sent to me in 2005?
The simple answer is… I don’t know. Maybe these things, these objects are a tangible way of accessing those memories that we associate with them. Maybe they’re talismans of our past, keeping us physically in touch with those that are no longer around or with feelings that have long since changed.
Do you have any ‘things’ that you hang on to? What are they? Why do you think you hold on to them?
I highly recommend giving Radiolab a listen. It’s smart, funny, immersive and the writing is superb. Check out their website for more info on how to donate to the program, download/stream episodes or subscribe to their podcast feed.