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We have been working on completing our personal property inventory for our insurance claim. It has taken a long time to do because of the complexity of our heavy-on-the antiques personal property and because of the complexity of how we feel about our personal property.

It just down right hurts sometimes when you come face to face with the fact that something you truly loved is no longer here. Most of the time you don’t think about it but when you do it is not happy-making. For the first month after the fire we walked around thinking we were coping and in fact we were but what it means to cope for the first month after you loose everything familiar from your cereal bowl to your pillow is not the same as being fine. The next couple of months were transitional for us. We were up and down like the stock market. Each new thing seemed to be drama, either sorrow that we had to have this new one because the old one was gone or happy because we had replaced something we had with something that was just like it.  At the ripe old age of 5 months post-fire, things in the personal property department have slowed down. Not so much buying. Not so much bumping into the fact that something you loved is gone.

Getting down to the final details of the inventory, and submitting it, certifying that everything that was you in this world other than relationships cost this much, is a strange thing. Because of our knowledge of antiques and the fact that we spend time following the markets on the types of antiques that we collect, we have a pretty good sense of the worth of things–that is in dollars. Still, sometimes we got shocked.

Most of our shocks came in the musical instruments department. My old guitar that I had when we meet nearly 40 years ago really was special. My poor spouse had to offer a quarter century apology for not admiring it sufficiently well. I had to do the same for his old 12-string. It was a righteous moment for us both and we shared a smile and the camaraderie that that only long-time companions can share.

My spouse completed the musical instruments section of our inventory and I transcribed it into the larger whole. When I came upon his figures for my two good quality but far from top-drawer professional soprano recorders I thought it was a typo. I went and looked for myself and in fact they were that much.  I even went to ebay to see what used ones sold for and yep, they cost that much. I had a concert quality tenor recorder and I expected it to cost much but not that much. I have not played in years so I did not have a sense of how much concert and near concert quality recorders cost. Their emotional value is rather modest these days.

When I was in college, I played in a recorder ensemble group and the emotional value was high. The monetary value was high too. I had to have two recorders to make it through one concert because we lived in a very humid area and not much air conditioning back then. Cold or damp wood does not hold pitch well. So, regardless of how careful I was with my breathing (e.g. don’t spit into your recorder like kids do), I still had to have two which took a lot of money for a college kid. The emotional value was higher yet. The guy who played tenor was pretty good looking and I think I might have played just to be looking. Of course, after all these years I don’t even remember his name or what he looked like. The recorders are not that emotionally valuable but they had a surprisingly high monetary value.

Other things that are precious to us do not have commercial value. Nothing could replace the salt cellar that was my great grandmothers. It was beautifully hand cut crystal. It had nicks in it from 120 years of use. For a long time I set it on a shelf then I found out that every one’s great grandmother had one and they were all for sale on ebay for ten bucks. I got mine off the shelf and used it. I am glad now that I did. I had the pleasure of bringing generations to my table before it the salt cellar, and my table, was conscripted by the fire.

So, how do you value the material culture part of your life? On the one hand we are taught that things don’t matter, people do. On the other hand, we have things and we usually want more things. There is a gap between they don’t matter and I want them. Therein lies the difference between monetary and emotional value.

When the “I want them” is a shared value, that is many people want them, the monetary value is higher. It can be particularly high for items like some of our antiques because they are rare. If there are many of something and no one is interested in having them, the monetary value is low. As I type this I can imagine my economist friends peering over my shoulder nodding wisely thinking I had finally caught on to the fact that everything is supply and demand.

I think they may be right in the context of monetary value. It helps me live with the fact that some things I wanted to be more valuable in dollars are not. “They really are that valuable,” I say to myself, adding, “but others are really only willing to pay this much so you can get them for less.” It is a convoluted way of thinking you got a great deal: Something is worth a lot more to you than you have to pay because it is not worth much to others. Your thing is not worth less, you were just able to get a great price on the replacement item.

Of course, that does not fully address the situation. Nothing can do that. It does not take a fire to reveal the struggle of emotional value of items. Losing your favorite cheap pen is hard. It cost less than a dollar but it was the one you liked. It is not just any pen, it is that pen.

It is not any life, it is our life that we now have to report in monetary value and live with in emotional value. When we have completed the inventory and toted up the figures for the final time we will have a dollar value on the physical content that was our life. We cannot tote up the emotional value so neatly.

photo with a large number of cut glass pieces on it lined up as they are unpacked

A set of cut glass my grandmother had. The emotional value was low for me on these but my spouse really fell in love with the tumblers. I fussed that he would break one using it like a jelly glass. Like the salt cellar, I am glad he used them and did not listen to me natter about it.