It started with my grandmas.

One of them gave me the birthday angels every year.  You know, these ones:


An angel for every year, with your new age and ever-increasing height. They each sent me other beautiful things that I collected and put on shelves. Glass animals, music boxes, tiny figurines; fifty white thimbles, each with a different state flower painted on. On my shelf, a green glass frog with white eyes and black dots for pupils sat next to a crystal kitten with pink-tipped ears.

My own collecting bug took hold:  a pink plastic elephant that had topped my hamburger at a roadside diner took up residence next to an exquisitely painted doll from my grandma. To me they were both beautiful; I couldn’t tell the difference.

When I was very young I somehow broke a ceramic teddy bear music box that my mother had made. I never knew what I did that broke it- I was at that age of disconnection between my thoughts and my actions where I didn’t even notice that I had caused it to fall from the top of my dresser. But my mom was mad. I saved two little blue birds from the dustpan and put them on the shelf next to a newborn baby doll with a bisque glass face I had bought with my birthday money. It played Brahm’s lullabye when you turned a key in its back and I thought the blue birds looked nice against its white gown.

There were other collections. Most of the girls I knew collected cosmetic samples and miniature soaps. The tiny tubes of fragrance were the most coveted, and god forbid the girl that actually used a sample. She would never live it down.

I collected books, which probably could have gone without saying. And records. Later, I saved every issue of Guitar Player and Guitar for the Practicing Musician that I ever bought.

I hauled everything I owned, including my collections, with me when I moved out of my mom’s house.

When the time came for me to move to Dallas for an internship, I’d been living with a boyfriend for a while. He couldn’t decide if he was going to come with me to Dallas or not. I lived in this stressful state of limbo for months, unable to make plans because getting an apartment with another person is a completely different thing than affording an apartment all by yourself.

Until I finally realized that I wasn’t willing to put my life on hold for anyone.

I set up an apartment sight unseen, over the phone. I mailed my deposit. I bought a map.

I ended up leaving with just what I could fit into my car, which wasn’t a whole lot, being that it was a Dodge Dynasty. He promised that no matter what, he’d bring me all the rest of my stuff, soon.

And that’s the story of how I let go of every sentimental keepsake and collection that I owned up until age 24. Every yearbook, each baby book, all the birthday dolls, the clear green glass frog with the black and white eyes, my journals, a biography of Zappa that I was only halfway though, my winter clothes.

It’s also the story of how I realized that stuff is just stuff. Though it took a while to come to this point, I know my burden is far lighter with all of that gone and I am even grateful for it.  The only thing I am genuinely sorry I lost is the white ceramic Nativity set that my mom had made and that she gave to me after I moved out.

Which is why, after all of that so many years ago, I find myself baffled to be compulsively collecting my used train tickets.


On New Jersey Transit when the conductor takes your ticket, they punch it, and at certain stations (like mine) they give your ticket back to you because you have to put it in the turnstile to exit the station.

I started noticing that the holes weren’t the same every time. They’re like clouds; I’m always trying to figure out what they are. I’ll smack CC on the arm and go, Hey look! It’s a rabbit! {smack} Hey look! It’s Stonehenge! One of the conductors told me they’re issued their own specific hole punch and it’s like their ID. Everything can be traced through the shape of their punch.


I found myself digging them out of the wastebasket in my bedroom if I accidentally threw them away. They got their own box. Then they outgrew their box.

That’s when I was all like, why the hell am I keeping my used train tickets?

Today I’m letting them go. No matter how many I keep, they won’t ever magically transform into my mom’s nativity set. But I’m still going to be looking at the punches each night on the way home from work, guessing what they are. Maybe one day I’ll get a hole punch that looks like the Virgin Mary. I mean , it’s no Jesus in a tortilla but, hey.

Do you collect anything weird? Ever found yourself collecting something without realizing you were doing it?


14 thoughts on “Collecting

  1. I have every. single. note. I ever wrote my friends starting from grade school up through today. It’s a compulsion, but I love seeing how I’ve changed over the years!

  2. Thank you. That took me back. I collected owls. Little figurines of all shapes and sizes, guiding me towards the Wisdom of Athena…. Maybe about ten in my collection (that moved to the barn, then a friend’s basement, then gone…). But my one little collection (and my husband’s commitment to never grow out of toys) made me so indulgent of my son, who after completing his first collection at four or five (all the Bob the Builder toys), started collecting collections, I realize in hindsight. Now there is a basement full of fun stuff that he doesn’t care about but I can’t throw out: All the Nemo bath toys from Burger King. Seven train sets. Bionicles galore (complete sets of several waves.) Spiderman tchotchkes. Matchbox cars. Still upstairs at age 15: bottle caps, Legos, and a book of those pennies you get squished on vacations.

    Clever of you to take pix before dumping your train tix… but I would have suggested papering the bathroom with them.

    1. I love hearing about other collections. Hey, maybe at some point he’ll stop caring enough and you can sell it on eBay. Put it in his college fund. Or go get a mani-pedi! I wish I had thought of papering the bathroom with them. It would be an improvement over the wallpaper I have now.

  3. I love this column! I used to collect salt & pepper shakers (old vintage ones) and I’ve got a whole shelf of them but I don’t really care about them anymore and would happily ditch them. I buy artwork in places I love and have tons of paintings at this point, but again — we’ll probably never live in a house this big again — so what will I do with them?? I wrote a blog about STUFF when I realized I own 5 full length sofas — and that is a serious cry for help. Hopefully our four grown kids will start taking stuff soon but I’m not counting on it. BTW … I hate your boyfriend who never brought your stuff to you, and am quite sure that karma is gonna get him!! xooxxo b

    1. You have no idea how badly I need a full length sofa. 🙂 I bet your salt & pepper collection is FAB! And I can only imagine the art you have, given the amazing places you get to go with Heifer. Maybe you could open place to display your art and a fill-in-the-blank (local artist show case, or coffee shop, or blogger hangout). Thank you so much for hating my ex boyfriend since I can’t anymore.

  4. In an earlier life, I traveled to Sedona, AZ with my roommate who stayed to long at the bar then departed said bar with unknown man. I was at my brother’s house (in Sedona) when he got a call that our oldest brother had been injured in an accident in Phoenix. I returned to the bar to try to locate said friend but she was nowhere to be found. (Lonnng before the days of cellphones). I described her to the bartender and explained my situation. I made the trip back down the mountain to Phoenix. Some hours later, she appears at my brother’s house, furious, demanding to know where I have gone. When I returned to our house in Phoenix, I was met at the front door with a loaded gun. I was escorted in courtesy of the Phoenix Police Department and retrieved what I could. I left behind lots of old “stuff” yearbooks, cookbooks, my dad’s flight suit, sentimental stuff. As my first spiritual advisor says, “It’s just “stuff & thangs,” but it was a hard lesson to learn. I continue on my journey of decluttering/paring down, but that siren song of the killer deal at Goodwill is always calling to me! Another great post, Julie!

    1. These stories of losing our STUFF are kind of common among us, aren’t they? Dad’s flight suit though, damn. That’s a tough one. And man, I love a great Goodwill deal too- though I have better luck at the Salvation Army, go figure.

  5. Wow – that’s huge. That you were able to come to terms with losing those keepsakes, especially during such a transition that was probably scary and emotional (new city, single life). I’m not a hoarder and actually love tossing stuff, but my sentimental side gets the better of me sometimes. And I often feel trapped by how much I DO have. I save movie stubs. For some reason I actually think I’ll want to look at them when I’m 90. (Ha. Like I’ll hold out that long.)

    HOW did I not know that about hole punches? That is amazing. I can’t wait to take the train again now!

    1. I can see you making some rad art project out of your movie stubs. I save those because I write them off. You probably didn’t know about the hole punches because unless you’re transferring or getting off at a transfer station, they don’t really give you your ticket back. But sometimes you see those little shapes of the punched-out bits all over the floors. . .

  6. The story about the hole punches is amazing! I love that you say, and believe, that stuff is just stuff. I’m yet to reach that point.

    I collect, amongst other things, tickets from journeys and events, earrings, physical tokens of the past and random interesting stuff sold on the streets. However, I’m beginning to fantasize about being able to move my life in one suitcase, so most of this will have to go, one day.

    Great post!

    1. You can always keep one box of keepsakes and send it away somewhere, if you have a someone to keep it for you. I’ll keep it for you- I have an attic now! Though I do have a history of trees landing on my attic. . . I firmly believe that the only way to come to accept that “stuff is just stuff”, is to lose your stuff. There’s always something we will miss, and it’s a joy to run across a little memento from a time you want to remember. But we can’t take it with us when we die anyway. I still think about my Dynamite Do-It-Yourself Pen Pal Kit that I am pretty sure my mom threw away when I was 8.

Comment. It gives me a reason not to clean my house.

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