We are in one of those cycles where everything we own is breaking down. In just the last few weeks we’ve had a repairman out to replace the heating element in our oven and even as I write this we are replacing our nineteen year old air conditioning system. What’s truly funny is that most of the houses on my block were built in the same year and now I watch the various trucks bringing specialists to repair or replace items similar to those with which we have also had problems. All things wear out. It is inevitable.
I went to Catholic schools and I recall the nuns telling us that we should not love inanimate objects. It was supposedly bad grammar to imply that we felt an emotional attachment to stuff. Instead we were instructed to simply say that we liked things or enjoyed owning them. I don’t know why I’ve always remembered that admonition. It causes me to think a bit more intently about becoming attached to possessions. In the final analysis they do not define who we are and we most certainly can’t bring any of them with us when we die unless we choose to build burial chambers like the ancient Egyptians. Even then none of our belongings do anything other than just sit until some archeologist digs them up. Perhaps the nuns were right to correct our thinking by requiring us to use words indicative of giving objects less value than people.
During a recent trip to the Texas Hill Country I walked through a number of antique shops with my daughter and grandchildren. We enjoy perusing the aisles of things that once belonged to strangers. I often find myself wondering what their stories were and why they eventually ended up being sold rather than treasured. Perhaps there was just too much left behind when some soul died. Now they sit in dusty warehouses bearing price tags and waiting for someone to find enough interest in them to take them to a new home. There is something a bit dreary about that, and yet I also see folks smiling with delight if they find an item that tickles them. I suppose that recycling yesterday’s treasures can be a good thing.
My own home is filled with objects that once belonged to a departed family member. I have become a kind of curator for the history of the family. I inherited that task from my mother-in-law who was able to tell a story about most of the items that she owned. Now I am the keeper of the tales. My grandchildren have suggested that I take photos and attach comments or create a video that will alert them to the personal value of the various items that fill my rooms. I suppose that means that they too would like to keep some of the more special things, not so much for value but as reminders of the journey of our family over time. With my two daughters and seven grandchildren I would like to think that the most important of the pieces will find a new resting place once I am gone. Perhaps my nieces and nephews might enjoy a trinket or two as well.
The things are not the people, but they nonetheless tell a story of them. Through the various objects I get a glimpse of the times in which they lived and the colors and styles that they liked. I can run my fingers over a table top or hold a dish and feel a connection to the past in knowing that my ancestors once used them. I find a kind of spirituality in the scratches and wear and tear. It is as though a tiny part of the people who used them lingers.
I now have the oak table on which my mother-in-law served me tea on so many Sundays. She imparted her loving wisdom over steaming cups of Earl Grey. She taught me so many valuable life lessons as we sat together. She outlined the history of her life and that of her family, a group that was adventurous and hardy. Her aunt had owned the table before her, and prior to that it had belonged to a lady who sold her house and all of its furniture so that she might go live with her daughter. That table has had a great run and even now I use it for big family gatherings and my own little tea parties. It is so much more than just a hunk of wood.
My mother and father were married at a little church in College Station, Texas near the campus of Texas A&M University. They had no guests or receptions. It was just the two of them pledging their love to one another. They moved into an upstairs bedroom that they rented from one of the professors and began their lives together with little more than a wing and a prayer. My father began to purchase silver place settings for my mother one piece at a time according to what he was able to afford. He chose a pattern called “First Love” for her and little by little presented her with enough to use for a nice gathering. The very last thing that he bought for my mother before he died was a set of ice tea spoons that he was going to present to her on their eleventh wedding anniversary. I remember that my mom and I both cried when she opened the lovely box wrapped in silver paper. To me that silver speaks volumes of my father’s love for my mother and the thoughtfulness that was so much a part of his character. The set is one of my most precious treasures and it gives me great joy to share it at special dinners with family and friends.
I have a small collection of enamel ware that came from my Slovakian grandmother. She used the bowls each Christmas Eve to hold oranges and nuts for our annual party at her house. When she died my mother and her siblings allowed me to choose a few items from her home. I took a couple of books that had belonged to my grandfather and those enamel bowls and coffee cups that will forever remind me of her.
So while I agree that we should not love things, I also know that some of them are incredible keepsakes that have far more meaning than might be apparent. I genuinely hope that the most wonderful among them will never be relegated to a dreary antique store waiting to be enjoyed once again. I’d like to believe that their stories will live on in the homes of my children, grandchildren and maybe even my great grandchildren. They were once rather profoundly used in moments of great love by the people who came before me, and that is what makes them pricelessly meaningful.