On the Joy of Finding Something That Was Lost

30 Jun On the Joy of Finding Something That Was Lost

First published in the NZ Woman’s Weekly 5.7.21


One of my favourite dinner party games is the one where everyone reveals a secret dream career. This is how we once found out my father would have liked to have been an architect, which explained the extraordinarily complex designs of the chook houses he’d made over the years.

You can change your secret dream career as often as you like. One of my picks is to be a file clerk in a Lost & Found office. It marries two of my passions – alphabetising (you should see my book shelves) and imagining the histories of inanimate objects. I can create complex backstories for vintage clothes (the birthday party!) and second hand ornaments (the wedding gift from the mad aunt!) so I reckon I’d have a field day with the flotsam found in the back of a cab.

Car companies report plenty of the obvious stuff left behind – the phone, keys or wallet you take out of your bag and leave on the seat in the dark, incorrectly assuming when you exit that you’ve put it back. Easily done. And we can cut some slack to musicians who, late at night after work (and after after-work drinks) might forget they put the bongos in the boot when usually they’d go in the back of Bruce’s van.

Harder to imagine, though, why you might have been in a taxi with an orthodontic plate that wasn’t in your mouth at all times, or how you didn’t miss your prosthetic leg as you clambered out (true stories). And more challenging explanations are required for leaving behind the kind of thing that was probably the central reason for the trip, as opposed to something you just happened to have on you at the time. How could you make a journey with any of the following items from an actual Lost & Found inventory: a garden chair, a dish of macaroni cheese, a large portrait of Kate Middleton, a raw chicken and a large bag of salt, or a crystal chandelier – and not have that thing top of mind once you reach your destination?

Losing things – even a raw chicken – is a ghastly feeling. That hollow feeling in your stomach, the panicked retracing of steps, the inevitable conclusion that in this instance you have been, to yourself and to others, a disappointment. It seems such a waste – you didn’t use it up or wear it out, or even break it. Instead, you simply failed to keep it safe. Often there is little consolation that someone will find it and either return it to you, or appreciate it as you did because they don’t know its story.

But crikey – break out the champagne and dance around in a circle – the joy of finding something that was lost is… I don’t know the exact maths but it is certainly bigger than the happiness you get from not losing it in the first place. This would be the very cool thing about my imaginary job in the Lost & Found department. Not just the making up of stories about abandoned royal portraits or discarded chandeliers, but the opportunity to reunite people and things. Or at least solve the mystery and put things back in their rightful place.

In my mother’s last few months when she was living in hospital care – and apropos of nothing – Donna suddenly described an earring that had been lost long before. “One of my good garnets, not the other pair, they’re still in the box.” Indeed, the ordinary garnet studs were easily found when I went home to look, plus one rather lovely one, looking lonely.

She was, she said, pretty sure the good ones had been on the bookshelf in her living room by her armchair – the shelf that had her favourite books handy, like The Oxford Guide To English Usage and her J.C. Sturm poetry. She must have taken them off one evening before bed and left them there. She suspected one of them had dropped down and found its way somehow underneath the built-in shelves. If I took out all the books and lifted the wood, I might find it there. Not now, she said, there were other, better things to be done. Later. She had no need of it, but she would like to think the pair of warm red stones set in a crown of gold would one day be reunited.

And there was a lot do to and, after she died, even the thought of the earring got lost for a time. But one day, her voice reminded me to “go and have a little look”, just to see. I pulled out all the books, felt around the carpet and the back of the shelf, then lifted the whole long plank of wood away from the frame. And there it was, just as she’d imagined. In a year of loss, it was a joy to find it.