A week ago today my husband and I had a car accident on our way to visit our daughter and her husband in Austin. It's a long story, but suffice it to say that I saw Oklahoma upside down. My husband avoided a car spinning out of control in front of us, but in doing so was forced to drive off the shoulder of I-35 and down into a ditch. We were doing pretty well until the wheel of the car hit a concrete culvert at the bottom of the ditch, the axle bent, the car spun around and rolled upside down. When we stopped moving we were hanging from our seat belts, completely unharmed. (If you want to read this as a testimonial for my 1999 Saab wagon and Thule car top carrier, go right ahead.) People were on the scene immediately and helped us out of the car. We stayed amazingly calm and I even made sure I had my purse before clambering out.
Which brings me to the point of this post—contemplating the importance of "things." As we stood by the car, waiting for EMTs, state troopers, and a wrecker to arrive, it dawned on me that the many things we had in the car were likely ruined—my daughter's childhood Eastlake dresser and her wedding dress, my sewing machine, our computers, a baby quilt I'd raced to finish so that I could stitch down the binding on vacation. The only injury occurred when Paul reached through the broken glass at the rear of the car to rescue his mandolin and cut his finger. I asked the firefighters if I could climb back into the wreck to retrieve the hat I'd been knitting at the time of the accident. (The firefighter understood my request completely. "My wife knits and quilts and all...she'd do the same.")
Our overwhelming reaction to the accident is to be so grateful for escaping intact that nothing else matters. And that's probably the most obvious lesson—everything else was replaceable, or not so very important in relation to what could have been lost. Still, there was a sick feeling as we watched the wrecker flip the car upright, hearing the crunch of objects inside as they shifted from ceiling to floor. And the stench of gasoline that filled the car made it obvious that even if things weren't broken, they smelled like a Mobil station.
I spend my days writing about people who create objects—fantastic quilts, quirky embroidered bags, needle-felted creatures—and it would be easy to feel that it's rather pointless, that losing one of those items would be nothing in the face of losing a limb or a life. But the accident reminded me too that objects are imbued with a past (the wedding dress) or a future (the stash of fabric I'd brought to stitch holiday gifts), a memory (my daughters' childhood obsession with the Roald Dahl books we had stuffed in the car top carrier), a connection (that baby quilt I wanted to finish and pass along to a newborn).
As we sorted through the mess at my daughter's house in Austin, where I was preparing to pitch the gas-fumed cover of what for years we've called "the car pillow," my daughter balked. "Couldn't you try washing it?" she asked. The terra cotta corduroy cover has been worn smooth by the heads of our family members' during countless naps taken over the years—trips to my aunt and uncle's farm, to the cabin at the lake, to college dorm rooms. Yes, objects can be replaced, but they also remind us of our time together, of who we were, of what we long to accomplish, of our place in the world.
We chose to fly home, rather than retrace our steps (and have to drive past the place where we'd veered off the road). My sewing machine, miraculously unharmed, rode under the seat on the plane. We shipped several boxes of clothing and fabric that had been aired out, washed and dried. My daughter's wedding dress is hanging in her closet and her dresser, piled with her childhood books stands in her garage. I'm writing on the same computer that rode in the car top carrier, on which the weight of the car rolled and came to rest. And today I gave baby Jack Henry the quilt I'd finally finished binding.
We have much for which to be grateful.