Old stuff and memories

We went to get some things from Bert’s house at Roch Harbor. It was, as always, a long day, starting at 6:40 am for the 7 o’clock ferry from our island then the hour drive to Anacrotes, then the hour and a half ferry to Friday Harbor, then a long conference with lawyers and then the half hour drive to Bert’s place. The poodles in the back seat were longing to get out of the car and run and pee.

Because Friday Harbor exists for tourists there is no good place to eat. We had a bad lunch (bowl of soup each and a beer for Jerry — $20) at an eatery where the service was slow and we were pressed for time to catch the 4:15 ferry back to Anacortes. We ate dinner on the way home at the Out Back Steak House in Burlington. There service was also slow and the food was poor. Since I had thought in the past that the food there was eatable (if not wonderful) later I Googled the business to find out what had changed. I learned that it is being saved from failure (or not) by Bain Capital. We caught the 9 pm ferry back to the island.

It is sad to go through Bert’s things. His house is dark and dirty and most of his stuff is junky. Everything he owned he bought cheap. Mostly he got his possessions at yard sales. We wanted to take away¬† stacks of old vinyl records because our friends Russ and Cathy are interested in them and I wanted to save Jerry’s mother’s lovely old treadle Singer Sewing machine.

Helen's Singer sewing maching

Jerry told me that she made clothes for him and Bert when they were children. While we were there we found many old photos of Bert’s, almost all pictures of buildings he built (in progress and completed), airplanes and other equipment. A few pictures of cows and a few pictures of Bert himself. He did not take pictures of people but there were some old family pictures and a few letters.

Bert and Jerry

There was a birthday card from his mother (she died about 20 years ago) with a 20 dollar bill still in it. There was a box with ammunition and another box with some loose bullets. Jerry showed me one bullet — a hollow point — of the same caliber that Bert killed himself with.

My friend Tammy who cleans my house for me every other Saturday left 2 demi-tasse cups in the sink last Saturday. I was puzzled because we hadn’t used them for many months (perhaps years). Then I got the point; it was a hint. The shelf they were on was full of dusty things and some silver items that needed to be polished, so yesterday, as a sort of delaying tactic to avoid tasks I didn’t feel like doing (laundry, etc) I polished a bit of silver.

There was a little set of silver cordial stems.

Silver cordials

They came from my aunt’s house in Andover, the house I grew up in. They have the initial R on them. Nobody knows who R was. A forgotten ancestor, long dead. Then there were 2 silver plated serving dishes that belonged to my great grandmother. The silver is wearing off in some places, but when I investigated having them re-plated I was told doing that would ruin their antique value.

silver serving dishes with covers

I didn’t know my great grandmother. The dishes came to me through my father’s mother, an elegant lady who taught me many things when I was a child. She taught me table manners. She told me that it was most important to be polite to one’s servants. She lived a different kind of life in a different time from mine. I only had servants once in my life during the brief months (50 years ago) that I lived in Burma.

Another item I polished was a silver plated toast rack. I bought that toast rack myself when I was 14 years old in New Zealand. I had never seen a toast rack before I went to New Zealand and I thought it a strange exotic object. The first one I saw was in my grandmother’s house in Auckland. One morning I said to my grandmother, “Doesn’t your toast get cold in that thing?” She looked at me, puzzled, and asked “Well, how do you cool your toast?”

toast rack

I have never actually put toast in that toast rack. Jerry and I don’t use delicate china cups and silver things at breakfast, and anyhow the toast would get cold in the rack. It remains a reminder of an unexplained impulse of my youth.

My New Zealand grandmother (who was an immigrant to New Zealand from England) was not sophisticated and elegant like my father’s mother but in many ways, some small, some more significant, she too lived a different life in a different time. Supermarkets did not exist at that time in New Zealand and my grandmother did all her grocery shopping at small shops that sold one kind of thing: the butcher, the green grocer, the baker, etc. She told my mother that she passed up the nearest green grocer to go several blocks farther because the closer green grocer was Indian. The house she lived in was just below One Tree Hill. (One Tree Hill no longer has even one tree on it because an angry Maori chopped the tree down as some sort of protest.) The house had an indoor bathtub but the toilet was in an outhouse in the back yard reached by a wooden walkway from the house.There was a high fence along the walkway and my grandmother had a line above the fence which she kept hung with tea towels and other bits of cloth to block the view from the next garden. She said she didn’t want the man next door to know when she went to the toilet.

When Jerry unpacked the truck from our trip to Bert’s house he put the records and his mother’s sewing machine in the studio where stacks of my old photographs are stored. While he was looking at Bert’s vinyl records I started looking through my own old photos. There was a picture of my father as a teen age lad taken in 1920.

My father, Julian Wadleigh, at 17

There were pictures of me in art school when I was in my early 50’s. How young I looked. And there were pictures of Ben’s wedding. Ben, my youngest son who becomes 40 tomorrow, is now getting divorced. The whole family, 4 generations, was at his wedding. My then husband, Hugh now dead, my mother (she died six years ago) alive, dancing with my daughter,

At Ben's wedding

the bride radiant and slim (she is now obese). The scene was full of life and love. Many of the participants are now estranged. The children are grown. I put the pictures aside, buried my face in Jerry’s shirt front, and began to weep, softly at first, then sobbing. He held me quietly. After a while I stopped, washed my face and watered the flowers.

All this stuff we keep — objects, pictures, old letters — stuff stuffed with memories. It can make you wonder and weep. It can fool you into thinking things were better in the past.

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19 Responses to Old stuff and memories

  1. Marja-Leena says:

    What a heart rending post, and so much I can identify with. It makes me wonder again why we hang on to so much old stuff, and not just because we don’t want to be wasteful. Things and memories. My husband and his sister are going through his late mother’s belongings in preparation to sell her house. That Singer looks like hers! So many lovely things but the younger generation including us and later have no more room nor need for more ‘stuff’, including sterling and fine china and Persian carpets. So sad when no one wants it. We are trying to go through a lot of our old ‘stuff’ so that we don’t leave such a burden for our daughters one day, not easy in today’s time when we have too much.

    I love the photo of Jerry and Bert – they look very Finnish – happier days? Photos are a keepsake for sure. Take care, dear Anne.

    • Anne says:

      Yes, happier times perhaps. I suppose childhood is at least without the nagging concerns of adult life. Everything is new. Ordinary things are exciting discoveries. Jerry and I were talking about steam energy last night, and he told me that he and Bert used to jump on their bikes and race down to the railroad station when they heard a train so they could see the big steam engines.

  2. I love that sewing machine even though I don’t know how to sew! Yes, old stuff and photos do fool us into thinking the past was better … but it wasn’t, it was just the past. I have to remind myself of that too … my past can make me feel very melancholy also.

    • Anne says:

      I actually have another old Singer, my mother’s, but it is electrified. I have 3 daughters but only one of them sews. I’ll have to find out which ones want old Singers.

  3. Tabor says:

    Things…they all carry such sweet and sad memories. Time passing by is only captured when looking back at faded photographs. Sorry for this transition. I have a very few things from my husbands mother and I think I should take them down and use them on a regular basis. Why save stuff?

    • Anne says:

      I try to use things if I can, and if I can’t give them to children or grandchildren. It seems good to keep things in the family.

  4. Annie says:

    Oh Anne, your post hits a nerve for a lot of us. Our memories and keepsakes of the past seem so poignant. Somehow the stresses and frustrations of the present seem more vivid than those of the past, it seems easy to paint the past in a rosy glow. You blog about the most fundamental things, I love how you mix stunning photos and paintings of beautiful things with clear and direct accounts of painful moments.

    • Anne says:

      Thanks, Annie. When I look back at the past I tend to forget the troubles, or at least forget the feelings that went with the troubles — kind of like forgetting the pain of childbirth.

  5. wisewebwoman says:

    I love this post. You voice so well our little concerns. The R on the silver that means nothing now. How will our little treasures fare down through the years when we have long left it?
    Your photos are precious. I too have wept at ‘happy’ times, coloured so well with our indistinct memories. Wanting a Walton’s Mountain somewhere in the past.
    Thank you Anne.
    XO
    WWW

    • Anne says:

      Photos are treasures, aren’t they? Jerry was just about the cutest kid ever, and my father looks just like what he was all his life, intense, innocent and clueless.

  6. Jean says:

    I’m sorry life is feeling so hard just now. New pain and sadness tends to evoke all the past pain and sadness, doesn’t it, and the older you are the more there is to evoke – all that great accumulation of sadness and happiness and living, hard sometimes to wear lightly. I hope your ability to write so well about these things is helpful to you as well as moving to others. You know, I have no family photos or keepsakes, or contacts, and this is a desolation so far beyond tears…

    • Anne says:

      Oh, Jean, I know others have so many things to grieve over. I have really been fortunate in my life. You have such a marvelous talent for seeing beauty and recording your vision with your camera. Those pictures are a real source of pleasure to your readers — and viewers.

  7. Friko says:

    Dear Anne, I think what we really cry for is the realisation that we ourselves are old and that that world we see in memories no longer exists. We cry for our lost childhood and youth, we cry for what was, what might have been and now never will be. Those moments of nostalgia come unbidden, but luckily, if we are sensible, they also go again and we make use of what we have now.

    I yearn for ‘home’, wherever and whatever that may be, yet I know full well, that ‘home’ has vanished long ago and that even the people who made ‘home’ are no longer.

    PS: Benno is a little better now that it’s cool but he has his problems.

    • Anne says:

      The place where I grew up is changed, not beyond recognition, but no longer the home I knew until I was well into my 30’s. It is now the town of rich people. I couldn’t possibly afford to live there now.

      I’m glad Benno is feeling better and is having a comfortable old age.

  8. Once bought a toast holder similar to yours and have used it once in a while to hold papers. Though there is no connection to its use in my history, something about it is compelling. And the Singer sewing machine! Now that is a major American artifact that holds reams of stories about women’s lives both native-born and immigrant, the industrial revolution, and craft.

    Is it a sad time or is it our own aging? Your sharing tears is good for people like myself who step away from such openness–thanks so much.

  9. Anne says:

    What a good idea! Finally a use for that toast rack.

    I have always had a tendency to tell all and interpret everything with a literalness that my family finds sometimes funny, sometimes annoying. I think that characteristic came from my father and I have passed it on to at least one of my grandchildren.

  10. Pauline says:

    Some tears are necessary, I think, both to cleanse and to ease the ache. We yearn and often don’t know what for exactly. That ache can reduce me to tears, too. I love coming here to read. You say simple things in such an articulate way.

    I had an old Singer treadle machine when I was younger and living in the log cabin we built (we had no electricity). Now I am sewing on a brand new 30 stitch Brother. Daughter’s wedding dress is almost finished and I am loving every constructive moment.

  11. Ernestine says:

    I love your sharing
    and can relate to so much you share.
    Most in my cottage has a memory attached to it.
    Will my children appreciate these items like I have.
    I know they have eached said remarked they will shine
    no silver pieces like the special pieces in our family.
    Also, they say the clocks are too noisy when they visit.
    Each one has a story from my greatgrandmother, grandmother, mother and
    special trips that their father and I took years ago.
    Boxes of old pictures they sometimes go through and I share their stories.
    I really do not want any of this stuff….
    They can do with it what they please
    when I am gone….

  12. Tessa says:

    I searched high and low, after I came to Canada, trying to find a toast rack. Eventually, I had to ask my sister to bring me one from Ireland. You see, Anne, the purpose of a toast rack is not to keep the toast hot, but to keep it dry! (Or, as Frasier’s father so memorably put it in one episode, to prevent “toast sweat!”) If there is one thing I cannot bear, it is soft, damp toast.

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