The history of things

One day Jerry pointed to a shelf in the Manley house kitchen and asked, “Where did all these dishes come from?”


The question surprised me, because for the most part, Jerry regards household items as objects to use but not to notice.  He notices cars, trucks and small airplanes.


I explained the dishes.


Some baking dishes with storage lids belonged to Susy, his late wife.  A set of white plates with stylized floral design in aqua had been my mother’s everyday china.  The wooden salad bowl set I bought last year, on an impulse, at Sam’s Club in Fairbanks.  The cream and sugar set was one I have had for years, from when my kids were small.  The wine glasses, the ones etched with Christmas trees, were left in the house by the former owners, and the others I bought in Fairbanks to add to them. 


“What about the cups?” he asked. 


“That’s a funny thing,” I said.  “Some of them were here, left with the wine glasses.  The rest I brought from the island, and discovered that they match.  All plain white cups, the same shape.”


The table here in the kitchen Jerry made last year.  Its top is a simple piece of oak plywood which he finished with shiny urethane.  On it, in my line of vision, is a napkin dispenser that came from Jerry’s house in Friday Harbor (where he lived when I met him.)  It is one of those metal stand-up ones you might find in a diner.  It dispenses little wisps of useless paper napkin.  Jerry loves it.  I think it reminds him of his youth. 


He has it because Susy collected stuff dating from about 1900 to about 1950.  Everything in the Friday Harbor house was collected and coordinated to be like a museum of the early 20 th century.  Susy’s collecting was systematic, but she changed categories during the course of her life with Jerry, so that interior pictures of their houses showed widely different styles.  She always loved green.  One of her collecting categories on eBay was “green stuff.” 


The napkin dispenser was the only collected thing Jerry wanted to keep.  The rest he sold at the consignment shop of a friend.  Susy was a savvy collector and it yielded a lot of money.


Besides the napkin dispenser Jerry brought to our island house his physics books (from his days as an academic), a huge collection of tools (from his days as a builder), and more nuts, bolts, screws, hinges, knobs, and other hardware than could be used in a couple of lifetimes.  A building had to be erected to house all that.


I have 2 houses, both with out-buildings, one building lot; total acreage 7.


I thought about how all this stuff in our lives contain bits of the past.  The things in my house on the island are a kaleidoscope of my life.  There is absolutely no system to my accumulation. 


I have a lot of art on my walls.  In art school (I went to art school when I was 50) I resolved to support working artists and no longer put reproductions or posters on my walls. I have a mixture of pieces purchased from fellow art students, some pieces by me, some etchings done by my darling aunt, who was a much better artist than I, a watercolor my mother bought in China, and, of course, a couple of left over reproductions.


The furniture style in my house is random.  Some 19 th century side tables are from my grandmother.  A bookcase and a chair, both decorated with gargoyle heads, are from my uncle’s house where I lived as a child.  The sofa and chairs are from my mother, things she acquired early and late in her life in the United States (she came here in 1930 from New Zealand via England and died here 2006 at the age of 100). 


A copper table my father got in Turkey in 1938.  A brass table my mother got in Morocco in 1960.  A drop leaf desk I bought at a junk shop in Andover in 1964, and some other junk pieces I bought at an Atlanta flea market in 1984.  A teakwood sideboard I had made when I lived in Burma (1960), copied from a picture of a Danish modern piece.  And so on.  No theme, I just get attached to things and become accustomed to the fact that they don’t relate.


My only recent purchase is my dining room table.  It was made for me from alder wood by a craftsman on the island, Tom Lutz.  It is beautiful and opens up large enough to seat big portions of my family (not all, though; I have 5 children and 13 grandchildren).  I have promised it to my grandson when I die.  There are 10 solid mahogany dining chairs (made around 1900, they don’t match the table) from my uncle’s house.  I have been sitting in those chairs since I was 3 years old, and my feet still don’t reach the floor.  The chairs are really uncomfortable but they look nice.


There are ornaments, dishes, flatware, rugs.


Everything has a history.


I think of people who have lost everything, by war, flood, wind, tsunami or earthquake.  Losing things obliterates a big part of life.


In The Merchant of Venice, when Portia declares Shylock’s wealth and possessions forfeit but pardon’s his life, he says:


“Nay, take my life and all.

Pardon not that.  You take my house when you do take the prop

That doth sustain my house, you take my life

When you do take the means whereby I live”


An island acquaintance once told me that before she came to Lummi she had broken up with her partner, sold her house, and given away all her things except what she could pack in her car.  She said it was wonderfully liberating and she felt great.  I wondered.  She has settled now on the island, a couple of years later, and to me she looks happier.  She has bought a condo. 


I heard a radio interview with Jill Bolte Taylor, who wrote My Stroke of Insight.  Her stroke caused complete loss of memory of her past life.  In some ways she found this exhilarating, though of course terribly hard, because, with all her memories of the past, she lost all the baggage that goes with those memories.  She started over, and now has a satisfying new life.  On the other hand, she knows of other stroke victims who don’t find the experience of memory loss agreeable at all.  It depends on what part of the brain is affected.


I have been reading A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas.  Her husband had a brain injury which didn’t kill him but destroyed not only his memory of the past, but also his ability to build new memories.  She says she can’t imagine what kind of hell this must feel like for him.  She likens it, in a small way, to how she felt when she lost her pocketbook, with all the stuff in it, “. . . . the little bits and pieces of detritus, proof I’d been living my life.”


Possessions, encrusted with memories, can carry both pleasures and discomforts.  Things clutter life as they enrich it and compose it.  I have been a rolling stone, but I have gathered more than my share of moss.  I was born in Washington, D. C, grew up Andover, MA.  I lived in Fleetwood, NY, Evanston, IL, Tampa, FL, Wellington, NZ, Rangoon, Burma, Wilhelmshaven, Germany, Atlanta, GA, Bellingham and Lummi Island, WA, and Manley Hot Springs, AK.  I have spent time in my grandmother’s house in Italy, my aunt’s house in Peterborough, NH, my mother’s house in La Jolla, CA and my daughter’s house in an English village. I have driven many times across the United States and Canada; visited every state and most provinces.  I have traveled in Europe from Greece to Scandinavia, including through countries behind the Iron Curtain.  I have traveled in the Far East and Australia.


Everywhere I went I acquired stuff.  I came home from every trip with a suitcase heavier than the one I took.  And I have things bequeathed to my by loved ones and things “stored” at my house by my children.  There is too much.  I am 77 years old.  I must divest.


What to do?  I have started to give some valuable things to children and grandchildren.  Though that helps, I worry that they won’t take care of these precious things.  I warn them to guard against loss, theft and breakage.  I tell them to keep them in the family; promise not to sell or give away.  I haven’t relinquished control.  I keep telling myself, “That stuff isn’t yours anymore, Old Woman.”


But I can’t erase the memory.               

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6 Responses to The history of things

  1. Maggie, living in Bliss says:

    My folks passed away in the last few years, and I have their ‘stuff’. They had their parents ‘stuff’, and those people had their parents ‘stuff’. That’s a lot of stuff, and it’s precious to me.

    Of course, to the material things are added the stories of their lives, making everything that much more special.

    The whole package becomes a picture of my ancestors, and a history book for their descendents. And, like their gravestones, these things prove they were here.

    I don’t have children and I, also, think about where these things should go after I’m gone. I have nieces and nephews and some young cousins, and I worry about whether they will take good care and cherish these things.

    Deep in my heart, I know they’ll be grateful to receive these things, and to remember the stories they’ve been told throughout their lives.

    But, I’ll probably give them the same ‘warnings’ you’ve given to your children and grandchildren, and that I was given by my parents. It’s just the way it works.

  2. zuleme says:

    This is funny. I was at the grocery store today and met a good friend of mine and her daughter. Her daughter is heading to Alaska for the summer to help her boyfriend’s grandparents. She is one of the nicest young women you will ever meet. And guess where she’s going.
    Manley of course.
    I mean, I thought Alaska was a big place.
    I would think you will meet her, her name is Miranda.

  3. Jan says:

    My mother never expected to die at 51, and while she had a written document stating how she wished her things to be disbursed, it was not a legal will.

    We got very few of her things, things she’s spent years acquiring – some of those things belonged her grandparents, or were given to her by her first two husbands (our fathers). She’d been married to her third husband for a mere two years when she died, and, egged on by his brother, he tried to take her business, which my uncle owned upon her death (he was her business partner), and her house, which she’d given to my brother. When he was unsuccessful, he kept every belonging she had, with the exception of some of her clothes and a few of her paintings. None of the things he kept had any real value, beyond the sentimental value for her family, especially her children, and he kept them out of spite.

    Three months later, he had remarried and some strange woman none of us has ever seen, much less met, was sleeping in our mother’s bed, wearing her jewelry, eating off of her dishes and probably wondering why the hell he hung on to all that junk from his late wife’s life before she even met him.

  4. Ira L says:

    I use a Salad bowl that my grandma gave to my parents. Every time I use it or see it in the cupboard, it makes me think of them. I think that is why people save things like that.

  5. Tessa says:

    I think most people give the things they love to their children before they die, assuming that they do not die prematurely, like Jan’s mother. Even if what is left holds memories for their owners, that is not necessarily true for their children. Whether we like it or not, stuff just piles up around us, and we will do our children a favour by getting rid of it before we die. #1 Son is only in his 20s, but now that he’s about to make a move to another apartment, he’s in flat despair at how much he has managed to accumulate, without even trying.

  6. annie says:

    Ah. I can relate. I got rid of so many things when my huband left me and I had to move to a much smaller house. Many of the insignificant things from my grandfather and sister I left in boxes with the thought, I couldn’t throw them away and my children can deal with them when I am gone. But I got rid of many things I now wish I had made room for.

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