When my son was 12 and his sister was 9, we visited Boston to see their paternal grandmother. While we were there, we went down to the harbor to take a look at the USS Constitution, the hero frigate of the War of 1812, "Old Ironsides."
I wanted to see the ship because, when I was 9 or so, my father used to tell me about it and would end the history lesson with a recitation of Oliver Wendell Holmes's poem "Old Ironsides," which in 1830 saved the ship from the scrapheap: "The harpies of the shore shall pluck/ The eagle of the sea!"
No way. The harpies didn't get the eagle, and 100-plus years later, tourists trod the decks. It was undergoing some more restoration when we were there. I asked one of the carpenters if I could have a piece of the ship, a strip of the weathered wood they were peeling off and replacing with new wood.
Can't do it, he told me. Against the rules. Can't give away anything on the ship.
But, he winked, nodding toward a little heap of trash on the dock at the foot of the gangplank, "There's no rule that says you can't have a piece of that wood down there. It's on the dock, not the ship."
So I got a piece of Old Ironsides, a chunk of wood - oak, maybe? - with a wooden peg fitted in it. Historic. I kept it for 20 years.
Then I sold my house and began the big sift. I decided Old Ironsides could go.
But what to do with it? Members of the family declined the downright historic offer with a shrug and a "you've got to be kidding, Mom" grin. But I could not just pitch it. Forget the War of 1812; tossing it would be like throwing away my daddy reciting Oliver Wendell Holmes.
We collect such strange souvenirs, moments of our lives captured in a chunk of wood, a seashell, or a stub of pencil used to take special notes.
EVENTUALLY, I found a home for Old Ironsides with a Navy man who is a history buff, too.
But I gritted my teeth, shut my eyes, and threw away my piece of tin roof from William Faulkner's house. Not Rowan Oak, the fine house in Oxford, Miss., where Faulkner wrote books, but a dilapidated farmhouse out in the woods near New Albany, Miss., where he raised mules.
I hated parting with it - I really did. But you've got to draw the line somewhere when you get serious about sifting through years of stuff.
I found a piece of the Berlin Wall during one of my purges.
I studied it awhile.
It's nothing, really. Just a little chunk of rock. It looks pretty much like a pebble I toted home from a visit to the pyramids near Mexico City. I don't know what happened to the Pyramid of the Moon. But I turned the Berlin Wall over in my fingers and wondered, "Do I need this?" I thought of watching Leonard Bernstein on TV conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in a performance of Beethoven's Ninth the Christmas after the Wall came down.
Later, when I recounted the moment of decision, my son gasped, "You didn't throw it away, did you? You didn't throw away a piece of the Berlin Wall?"
Well, no. I've still got the Wall.
And I have no intention of parting with the big yellowed tooth my daughter found once upon a time on a little beach at the edge of Loch Ness. We recognized immediately that it was a tooth from Nessie herself.
The tooth is clearly a treasure.