Even as a youngster I was always interested in going to antique shops and what we called junk shops back then. My friend Adele and I would go through old deserted houses with her mom to see what was left behind. In the darkness of an old house we would go from room to room to see what was left of the family that used to inhabit the place. It was kind of scary and I remember one time going up a flight of stairs and in the hallway of the second floor was a floor to ceiling mirror. As we got to the landing with Adele ahead of me, she saw her reflection in the mirror, jumped and screamed thinking she saw a ghost! We were able to laugh about it later but that night we ran out and sat in the car. I can even remember the smell of the antique shops and vacant abandoned houses and getting comfort from them. I remember rummaging through things at a favorite shop and if I found a piece of furniture that I liked I would close my eyes and try to imagine where this night stand, or whatever, was located in the owner’s house and tried to imagine the family that used it. I would imagine the members of the family and give them names and I imagined them using the night stand in their lives. I always had a very active imagination that way. Even created stories about the family- what the father did for a living and where the kids went to school and had this whole scenario of these people. I felt at ease in these places and among the old treasures I discovered. The only thing that would interrupt my pleasure in such a situation would be a box of old photographs of people’s weddings, or family photos of little kids. I find it incredibly sad and invasive into the privacy of people’s lives that all these prized family mementos are just dumped in a box for total strangers to view until eventually they are disposed of in the trash. Very sad! I think it must be some kind of sentimentality that I suffer from and explains a lot about my entire life.
As a senior citizen who is currently the oldest living member of his family I treasure such things as those photos of my family but also I have coveted certain family objects and pieces of furniture that I love and could never part with. My home is furnished with many family heirlooms and many antiques I have purchased over the years. On my twelfth birthday my Italian grandmother gave me a Miraculous Medal to wear on a chain around my neck. She was a devout Catholic, purchased the medal and had it blessed by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. He was a patient of the doctor my dad worked for and a good friend of my dad. We all had to sit around the tv and watch his show, One Life to Live, every week. Anyway, to this day I still wear that medal around my neck and have never taken it off except once, 6 years ago when I had to have my carotid artery scraped. Even then I held it tightly in my fist while I was being roto rootered! I remember my dad always carried a money clip for his paper bills. He had probably gotten it as a promotion from Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. when he opened an account with them sometime in the 1950’s. It isn’t very valuable, probably made of tin with the bank’s name on it but he always carried it. He never put his bills in his wallet, always in the money clip. When he passed in 1975, I searched through his belongings purposely looking for that clip. I found it and have used it to hold my bills ever since. It has to do with continuance. By my using these items I am acknowledging and continuing the existence of the people who meant everything to me. My mom was a graduate of Bellevue Nursing School in 1933 and worked there from her graduation til 1951 when we moved from Manhattan to Flushing. She was incredibly proud of what she had achieved and I have a cameo pendant from Bellevue that she always wore on her uniform and the distinctive Bellevue nursing cap which was part of her uniform. Back then each nursing school had a distinctive cap that was worn wherever the nurse worked as part of her uniform. It identified the school that she attended. She treasured both items. When she passed in 1986 I knew I had to retrieve them both. I gathered them up and brought them home and kept them safely tucked away until my daughter graduated from college. I knew she would want them and now she has them to remember her grandmother by. Those are cherished items from my family that are constant reminders of where I came from. I also have collected a few items of my own that I also cherish.
When I got married, my brother gave us an original water color painting from a Long Island artist and that started a love affair with original paintings. I wound up purchasing another 10 original paintings by the same artist. My brother gave my mom a painting by the same artist for her birthday one year that she absolutely loved and I also have that painting in my collection as well. I started reaching out in search of original water colors, attending local art fairs and galleries and amassing quite a collection of over 100 original paintings. I made it a point to try and meet every artist whose work I owned and succeeded with the exception of original artwork I purchased in Europe during several trips there. These paintings bring me sheer joy. When I see a painting I like, I squint and if I can imagine myself in the painting, I have to buy it. I was telling that to an artist one time at our inn in Vermont, and I told him how I imagined myself in the painting and he was so impressed and had never heard anything like that, that he gave me a huge discount. I said I couldn’t ask him to do that because i understand the work and love that goes into the artistic expression of an idea and he said , “You didn’t ask, and I would rather the painting be with someone who loved it than to sit in a gallery for weeks.” That day, I purchased 4 beautiful paintings of his. The walls in my house are literally covered with artwork and when I enter each room I am reminded of the artists who created all this beauty and the circumstances that led to their purchase.
One more thing I want to mention in my charm bracelet of memories- an 1864 Welch and Spring Co. Perpetual Calendar Clock. It was left in the attic of the house we moved into in Flushing by the previous owners. It sat in the attic leaning against the eaves for 14 years from the time we moved until the day we moved out. My dad would refer to it every now and then with a great deal of respect saying he was going to get it fixed and hang it in the living room, but he never did. When they moved to the new house in 1964, after I went away to college, I came home for Thanksgiving and discovered my dad brought the clock with him and of course he was going to get it fixed and hang it. Well, when I graduated 4 years later the clock sat in the same place on the sun porch. I brought it to my new home. I had a friend from college whose dad worked on old clocks. He fixed it in no time and said it was a pleasure to work on such a beautiful instrument. I absolutely love that clock which tells the time, the month, the date, the day of the week and even knows when leap year is and adjusts accordingly. I haven’t found the exact right place for it yet but I will. At least I got it fixed!
I can’t explain why I am so attached to all of these “things” but I confess I am. I love all of them, enjoy having them on display or on my person to give me daily reminders of who I am, what is important to me, and where I came from. They are silent pleasures that I love being surrounded by. There is that old biblical saying….ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I wonder what will become of all my prize possessions. I know my daughter wants a few things and my son has his name on a couple of things but neither has expressed much interest in my paintings so I guess they will find their way into odd antique shops and random yard sales sometime in the future. That is how the life cycle works and in the scheme of things perhaps it is how it is supposed to work. As the artist at the inn said, I would rather the paintings be hanging in the homes of people who love them than stored and stacked somewhere in a basement. There are a few other things that could be listed on my attachment list – the thousands of dollars of model railroad equipment boxed and stored in my basement, and of course, my 2018, 4 door Jeep Wrangler…………but that is for another time.
In an earlier post, In Defense of Magpies, I detailed why I’m a devout collector even in this season of minimalism. It’s not about compulsion, hoarding, or simple greed. It’s not about material insecurity and fear of being without. It is about remembrance and esteem, when objects become markers for honoring people you admire and love. It is as though part of their essence is attached to a particular object. When you handle that object, it rekindles the memory of a significant time or individual.
Do you recall that in the movie, The Quiet Man, Mary Kate tries to explain to her husband why her ‘fortune’ (her dowry, which is being withheld by her brother) is so important to her? She says:
” Haven’t I been tryin’ to tell ya? – …that until you have my dowry, you haven’t got any bit of me – me, myself. I’ll still be dreamin’ amongst the things that are my own as if I had never met you. There’s three hundred years of happy dreamin’ in those things of mine and I want them. I want my dream. I’ll have it and I know it. I’ll say no other word to you.”
Three hundred years of happy dreamin’– George hits it on the head when he talks of ‘continuance’. After all, what is there to a life, if there’s no shared memory of what preceded the current moment? Sometimes, an artifact is a bridge to those that went before you. Even your own objects from a younger vintage make a connection to important times: markers along a sentimental journey that led to the place where you are now standing.
One might say that objects are not necessary to remember and honor important people – and I won’t say they are wrong. But the memories are richer when you have your father’s money clip or the miraculous medal gifted by your grandmother. Among my prized possessions are my grandfather’s well-worn fedora, my dad’s tobacco pouch, my mom’s high school art medal, and my brother’s small, unfinished sailboat model – they have no practical use, but I wouldn’t be without them and the memories they evoke through touch, sight, smell or feel.
Now, I don’t for a minute believe that all these items will have the same meaning for my children – or their children. Nor do I wish to saddle my kids with the obligation of unwanted objects. However, I do believe that it’s up to me to pass along the stories associated with the objects around me and to help them curate those items which hold some significance. They no doubt will preserve a few, as well as select new ones as markers on their journey – and to enjoy for many years of happy dreamin’.
Essentials – Oskar Leonard
In comfortable life, one might
find artifacts, of a kind,
spreading upon dusted surfaces:
amassing an army over the years.
Not incredibly valuable, on their own—
a half-used candle, half-full stapler,
nearly empty Christmas deodorant
and three unused money banks—
but they bring thought to one’s mind,
soft memories, tinged with kindness,
a bright, youthful joy, and therein
lies their true value, these essentials.
In this piece George reflects on his relationship with antiques and their importance to him. He also talks about the notion of continuance and what it means to him and what it might mean for his children.
Like George and Wal, I have a few articles that remind me of my mom. However, one stands out from the rest. When my mother died, my sister took pieces of her unused sewing fabrics as well as some of her dresses and had quilts made from them for each of us and our children. In each one, there was a cup of coffee, a thimble, flowers, and music notes. Each represented the things in life that brought her joy and contentment. With the simple act of brewing and enjoying a small cup of coffee with a splash of cream, each morning she began her day with peace and calm. A replica of her tiny one-cup percolator sits on a shelf in my cupboard. I remember how she gently lifted her cup of freshly brewed coffee with her hand leaving her pinky finger outstretched as she savored the flavor of each sip through closed eyes. The thimble stood for her sewing and quilting prowess, her patience, and her devotion to detail and excellence. The flowers remind us of the beauty she brought into our home from homegrown fresh cut flowers to the most gorgeous and tasty vegetables. Her connection to plants and her love of nature and gardening live on in me. The musical notes symbolize her love of classical music and her extraordinary talent and passion for the piano. Writing about this quilt reminds me to be sure to tell (or retell) these stories to my grandchildren so, in time, they will be able to pass along a piece of their family history.
What is not in the quilt but is significant to me is a symbol from the kitchen. My mom’s rolling pin resides in my kitchen cabinet. It reminds me of how extraordinary she was at baking and cooking. And although I rarely use it, this is the item that brings me closest to my memory of her. The smell of her cooking and delicious meals were a daily occurrence when I was a child and the cakes and pies she baked were so good that I still can’t find the right words to describe the overall experience.
I don’t know what items I have that might remind my children and grandchildren of me. But what I do have are stories. When I lived four hours from my grandchildren I would often pick them up and bring them to my house for a long visit. Before we got to the end of her street Kylie, my granddaughter, would ask me to tell her a story. Sure, she enjoyed my made up stories or stories from books we had read, but her favorites were those from my life. I remember wishing I could understand what she was thinking as I glanced at her expressions though the rearview mirror while I told and retold adventures from my childhood through present day experiences. What I do know is that she absorbed them and through thoughtful questions gained an understanding of who I was and what I learned. Both Kylie and Ben are engaging, entertaining, and humorous storytellers. I suspect that if they choose to have children, they will continue their knowledge of our family through the stories they tell them.
Each of us, it seems, will remember those who have gone before us in our own way. While I will continue to tell my family stories when the opportunity presents itself and I will have this blog of personal beliefs, stories, and reflections to leave them, I suspect they will pull from their time with me what they decide was important to them and how and what they feel will be worthy of passing along to future generations.
“Good bye may seem forever. Farewell is like the end, but in my heart is the memory and there you will always be.“
– Walt Disney