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ALISON STEWART, host:

Now, hard times, they certainly force us to prioritize and reprioritize, and in some cases, even force us to part with items we love.

Columnist Mary Schmich of The Chicago Tribune recently asked her readers what wouldn't you sell if times got so tough that you had to sell some belongings? One reader said, my tools, while another said my Harley-Davidson.

It's easy to get attached to objects - the ring your grandmother gave you or the priced first edition of a much loved author, maybe even that snakeskin clutch you saved for. Could you bring yourself to sell it to pay for rent or, even more drastically, feed your kids?

We'll hear more from Mary Schmich in a moment, but as always, we do like to hear from you. Tell us the one thing you would never ever sell no matter how hard times got and tell us why. What keeps you attached to that object?

Our number here in Washington is 1-800-989-8255. Also, you can always send us email, talk@npr.org, and join the conversation at our Web site, npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mary Schmich is now with us from the studios of Chicago Public Radio. Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION, Mary.

Ms. MARY SCHMICH (Columnist, The Chicago Tribune): Thanks for having me, Alison.

STEWART: So, what prompted you to ask this question to your readers?

Ms. SCHMICH: Well, when I was in high school and my family was in dire financial straights, my parents sold a whole lot of stuff. I'd come home from high school every day and there would be something missing. Like one day I came home and the bedroom furniture was all gone. Another day I came home, and this cool colored TV set that I had won on a radio quiz show was gone. I'm still sulking over that.

STEWART: Oh.

Ms. SCHMICH: And it just made me think that, you know, in hard times, one way people make a little money is to start selling stuff off. So, I started about thinking, okay, what would you sell? And the more I thought about what would you sell, I thought, what wouldn't you sell.

And I remember that when my parents were selling off everything, my mother would not let go of the Baldwin Baby Grand that she had grown up with. It was probably worth more than anything else they owned, but they sold the bedroom furniture, the TVs, the radios, and she would not let go of that piano.

STEWART: What was it about that piano that meant so much to her?

Ms. SCHMICH: She loved to play.

STEWART: Hmm.

Ms. SCHMICH: I think it represented creativity. It was her link to her childhood, to a different and safer time. And the truth is, when I started thinking about what I wouldn't sell, my answer was the same. I would not sell my piano. I'd sell almost everything else first.

STEWART: Have you ever found yourself in this situation as an adult?

Ms. SCHMICH: No, I have not. But, you know, when you go through something like that when you're young, you never forget it.

STEWART: Of course.

Ms. SCHMICH: And the specter of it is always hovering, especially in times like this when you hear stories of people for whom this is very real and present.

STEWART: So, as a columnist, sometimes you write a column and you throw it up there and you think, mm, I wonder if anybody will respond. How was the response?

Ms. SCHMICH: Oh, I got a ton of response. And it was so interesting to me the diversity of answers. So, you mentioned, you know, one guy who said he wouldn't sell his tools. That was really smart, you know, that's like the guy who said, I wouldn't sell my fishing pole. You know, this is something that you can work with, you could actually make a living with. But the guy who wouldn't sell his Harley Davidson, well, that's pure romance. You know, that's - it's also transportation, but it's symbolic. He went on to say it represented something romantic to him - freedom.

And then a woman who wrote in and said she wouldn't sell her, quote, unquote, "perfectly sellable bassinet" that her two children, who are now 12 and 13, had slept in when they were babies, that she had sold all the other baby stuff, but she held onto that because that to her was just redolent of those warm, sweet-smelling bodies. And then, one woman said she'd never sell her framed icon of Our Lady of Guadalupe, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHMICH: So it really ranged from very practical items that people could make a lot of money for, a lot of jewelry - people mentioned wedding rings, charms, bracelets.

STEWART: Do they have a - you mentioned the diversity of people and of items. Can you find a common denominator?

Ms. SCHMICH: That is a tough question. No, I really can't. I think there would be two camps - one which would be things that were so useful that letting them go would make it harder for you to make money, so your tools, for example, or your transportation. One guy said he wouldn't sell his bicycle because he would always want a cheap way to get around. So there was that category of stuff, the useful stuff. And then there were the sentimental items. Now, some people wrote in and they had sentimental items that, you know, they would have a tough time selling anyway.

So the fact that they didn't want to sell them didn't represent all that much. But there were people who wrote in - a guy who had a 400-year-old very valuable painting that he claims he'd never sell. Now, if he were hungry, I bet he would, but I think he would hold onto it for a long time. So, useful was one category, sentimental was the other category.

STEWART: We're speaking with Mary Schmich. She's a columnist for The Chicago Tribune. She wrote a piece that was titled "What Would You Never Sell, Though Desperate for Money?" And, well, we're just kind of taking your question today, Mary. We'll be honest about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Let's talk to Catherine(ph) from Marin County, California. Hi, Catherine.

CATHERINE (Caller): Hello.

STEWART: What would you never ever part with?

CATHERINE: I would never sell my engagement ring. I am so sentimentally attached to it. I don't ever even take it off. I know you can say that maybe if I get hungry enough I would sell it, but it would be like a part of me being ripped away.

STEWART: How were you proposed to?

CATHERINE: Well, it's the youth that's associate with it and it's the time in my life when I was young and it was the change in my life. That was the biggest change. It would be very difficult.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CATHERINE: I would just cry a lot. It's a funny thought to even think about it.

Ms. SCHMICH: I heard from quite a few people who said they'd never sell their wedding ring or the engagement ring, but I ran into a barista at a coffee house where I go to and I asked him this question. And the first thing he said, he said, I'd sell my wedding ring. I backed away in horror.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHMICH: And I said, what would your wife think about that? And he said, oh, you know, she would agree with me. There was all sorts of strange stuff attached to these wedding rings that were heirlooms of some kind. And, you know, he figured he could get maybe $1,000 on both of them. I didn't put his name in my column because I wanted to save his marriage.

STEWART: That was kind of you. Thank you, Catherine. We're going to Bob in Oklahoma. Hi, Bob.

BOB (Caller): Hello.

STEWART: Hello. So, tell us what would just be too difficult or impractical to part with.

BOB: Well, yes, my land. I don't have a lot of land, but it's all I have. It's how I'm trying to grow food, and I hope to get better at it as years go on. Even though I'm about 50 years old, I see the value of land and the connection to the land. It's where we get our food, our medicine, it's our way of life. Now, I might sell my guitar.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHMICH: I heard from a lot of people who would never sell their guitar.

BOB: I probably would not.

STEWART: Well, here's the first question. Are you a good guitar player?

BOB: I keep a tune. Well, I'm a songwriter so I use my guitar to form up my writing.

STEWART: But the land is what you're going to hold firm on.

BOB: The land I'll hold firm on right to the death.

STEWART: All right, Bob in Oklahoma, good luck.

BOB: Right on.

STEWART: Sharon from McArthur, California. Hi, Sharon.

SHARON (Caller): Yeah. Hi.

STEWART: So you have something that's family value that you wouldn't part with.

SHARON: Yeah. It's, you know, I don't know if it actually has any, you know, physical value, but it's my grandfather's steamer trunk that he brought with him when he and my mom, who was, I think, 11 years old at the time, had to leave Holland in front of the invading German army. And it sits here in our living room, and I keep all my linens at it. It's one of the old ones.

You know, it's got the oak bars and the hob nails on it. And it's fairly beat up, but it has his initials stenciled on it and the number of the birth where the whole family stayed. And, I mean, I get choked up.

Ms. SCHMICH: I can hear.

SHARON: Because it not only held their clothing, but it held their dreams. So, yeah, couldn't get rid of that.

STEWART: Okay. I think, yeah, you should hold on to that, Sharon. Hold on tight. Thank you for calling.

SHARON: Thanks.

STEWART: Mary, that is very interesting. She touched on so many different ideas with her call. It was very touching. But that sense of family history.

Ms. SCHMICH: Right. And I think that that came through in a lot of the answers that I got from people. Just a sense of connection to people from the past, to somewhere that you came from, that those would be the hardest things to give up. But it's also, I mean, it was just really interesting to me to look around my own home and think about the emotional value of various items. You know, and in the same way that you might think about the financial value of certain items that you really could make a listing of, you know, that's like $100 of emotional value or that's 20 cents of emotional value.

STEWART: Let's talk to Sarah(ph) from Twin Lakes, Wisconsin, I believe. Hi, Sarah.

SARAH (Caller): Hi. Thank you. Interesting question. I have a beautiful photograph that's approved from a professor, an artistic proof. And it shows a father and a child together in a very tender pose. And it would be the one thing that you would have to pry out of my cold dead hand in my car if I were to become homeless. I would sell everything I have but this photograph.

It just is such a powerful photograph for me, and it's one of three that the artist has out in the country. So I'm so honored to have it and I love it to death and it would travel with me if I had to live in my car, homeless shelter, whatever I had to do, it would be with me.

STEWART: What is it about this photo that speaks to you so strongly?

SARAH: It's because it shows a father with a young boy. Usually, it's a mother that's with the child, the boy or girl. But this actually has a father with a young boy in a very tender pose with a - kind of superimposed in a background, kind of way, of a statue of a woman looking down on them. And they're both almost naked-like, but in a very tender fatherly pose of a young boy. And it's just something I've never seen when looking at art things.

I'm sure there are some out there, but it just seems to me I always see the mother with the child. And it's just - was such beautifully done in such a way that it just - it's one of the things I actually had to have. I don't do that very often, but I had to have this thing. And they had to write to the artist and she was able to sell me the proof. And it's just, to me, it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. So I - it's just something that for, well, really whatever reason it just imprinted so much on me that I will have it forever.

STEWART: Sarah from Twin Lakes, thanks for calling in. Kim in Charlottesville, Virginia, is in an interesting position right now. Tell people what you're going through, Kim.

KIM (Caller): Well, we're in the process of selling our mother's house. It was the house that my sisters and I grew up in in Pennsylvania. And we put in the contract for the sale of the house that we wanted the plants that my mom had spent so much of her energy putting in. She had beautiful perennial beds that she worked at for over 40 years.

STEWART: And so the plants are going with you.

KIM: So my sisters and I are going to go to Pennsylvania. Instead of clearing out furniture, we're digging up plants.

STEWART: Well, hope you have good weather. Kim, thanks for sharing that. That's a very interesting point, Mary, that she's taking a piece of her family history with her, but there's also memory. It seems like when I listen to people, it's memories that they want to retain.

Ms. SCHMICH: Right.

STEWART: And the memories are so attached to these physical things.

Ms. SCHMICH: Yeah. The - one of my favorite notes, the one I ended one of my columns with came from a woman who said, as the child of an Auschwitz survivor who had to leave her home and was not allowed to bring any possessions, I have tried not to get too attached to objects, even though I own as many as most Americans.

Although I love my books, once I have read them, they're mine, whether or not I possess them physically. And I try to maintain that spirit with regard to anything I own. Now, I mean, it's a beautiful sentiment, but it is hard for most of us to totally detach physically. We want these tangible objects that tell us who we are or who we're connected to, where do we came from. So, what's your answer, Alison?

STEWART: Well, you know what? I've been going back and forth about this and there's two. One is - it's funny, I wouldn't sell my wedding ring. My engagement ring, maybe. My wedding ring - because I just love what it says inside and it's very important to me. The other is my grandfather's set of Harvard Classics, these leather books…

Ms. SCHMICH: Oh, I had those books, yes.

STEWART: And I, even as a little girl, used to pull them down, and I would just read them and I would just - even though I couldn't read them, I would just touch them and knew they were my grandfather's. And I think that would be the hardest thing to part with. I really, really think that would be very, very difficult. And, again, it's that parting with this wonderful memory and a sense of place and a sense of belonging. And that helps me figure out who I am in some way. What about for you?

Ms. SCHMICH: Well, for me, it would be that baby grand…

STEWART: The baby grand.

Ms. SCHMICH: My Steinway baby grand, which I bought with my own money, my own hard-earned adult money.

STEWART: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: This is interesting. We have a caller, another fellow from Oklahoma. Mark(ph), who wants to suggest that maybe somebody shouldn't give up their guitar. What's going on, Mark?

MARK (Caller): Hello. What I was thinking before your previous caller, Bob from Oklahoma called in, I thought to myself, you know, that your guest said, she wouldn't sell her piano. And my thought was, well, you know, I wouldn't sell my guitar, A, at all, as, you know, as an artist. In that sense, I feel, you know, that attachment to my instrument. And, you know, I thought maybe that's what it was, you know what I mean? But apparently, I was incorrect, disproven by Bob.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Well, you can hold onto your guitar. Thanks, Mark. And Scott from Riverton, Wyoming. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT (Caller): Hi.

STEWART: That's beautiful country. I spent a lot of time in Riverton.

SCOTT: Oh, have you really?

STEWART: Yup.

SCOTT: It's snowing right now.

STEWART: Oh, nice. So you - what would you hold onto?

SCOTT: I have a old Winchester rifle that I inherited from my father, who inherited it from his father, who inherited it from his father. And it's just the only thing that I really have that could take me that far back in our history. And my dad wasn't a hunter, my grandfather was not a hunter and my great grandfather, I have no idea. I never met him. But it's just something that's been passed on. And I'm going to pass it on to my son.

STEWART: There you go. Scott from Riverton, Wyoming, thanks so much. So Mary, as people are asking this question to their friends around the dinner table -we don't have a lot of time left - what do you think they should consider?

Ms. SCHMICH: You ask the tough questions right at the end here, Al.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SCHMICH: Just consider how sad they would be if they didn't have it.

STEWART: Mary Schmich is a columnist for The Chicago Tribune. Thanks for joining us today, Mary.

Ms. SCHMICH: Thanks, Alison.

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