If objects have the power to connect me to people who are no longer here, then maybe they really do possess a kind of magic. And if they are magic, how dare I let them go?Julia Ridley Smith – The Sum of Trifles
Sometimes I question the current status of my whereabouts. This is peculiar since I’ve lived in the same thirteen rooms for thirty five years. You might think I would know every bit and bob, every nook and cranny. Yet, when I snap to, I am stunned to surmise that the joint has taken on a museum-like quality which has little to do with my ebullient soul.
What happen to the c’est la vie me? Where is that insouciant youth who rejoiced in big time color and zany new fangled expressions of living? Bottom line – who would I be if I had been able to choose an entire room from spankin’ new scratch?
Like the yellow curling of a page, I’ve absorbed the brown furniture and bric a brac of my ancestors. Each artifact whether in service to daily living or showboating were mine to accumulate. Others of my family were comfortable to dismiss.
In the beginning, these objects of affection would jibber-jabber away as I walked past them. They took on an encouraging lilt as if consolation was their singular purpose. I found their story telling to be a crazy quilt of comfort.
Dramatically overtime, I became dependent on unsuspecting friends and relations as the audience for a retelling of each antique’s history whether witty or morbid. The glazing of their eyes would signal that old things would better serve humanity tossed upon the landfill of forgotten yesterdays.
“Take the victorian couch, please!” I pleaded with a house painter when he complimented the settee that my Grandmother Margaret Quinn long coveted, finally purchased and committed to family lore by incubating endless knitted projects while perched upon its nondescript brocade. After she died, my mother was compelled to take in the orphan couch. Hoping to flip the mood of the three seater, Mother recovered it in a perky pattern and unbeknownst to her own honor, she took a last breath many years later while reclining on it.
Turned out the house painter was a resuscitator and obliged me by relocating the couch somewhere in his own collection of rooms. The relief was bittersweet. Free from the past, our legendary sofa was allowed a rebirth and I was allowed some peace.
In its absence, a veil of heaviness rolled back to reveal the roll top desk of my Great Grandfather George Cater. Could I dissolve ties to this resident ghost? His daughter, my fraternal grandmother, saw me at age twelve as remnant keeper when she delivered maintenance instruction on the art of swirling on and off homemade polish, the tiny cubbyholes a perfect fit for my embroidery scissor-sized hands.
Mr. Cater was a diminutive man who carved a big business swath in Alabama. “Dapper,” my grandmother described him while opening the also tiny leather bound Bible which he kept for all eternity in the desk drawer. I considered his specter seated at the desk. Lamentations for the countless living wages that he did not choose to pay out to the legion of African Americans he employed.
The family Bible contained the ubiquitous family tree which was eloquently maintained in tallish brown ink lettering. The documented list of of those people (my people) appeared powerful in a manifestation of multiple generations. Alas while this branch of family loved beauty, they went with the long story of moral failure and missed the supreme point – to love thy neighbor as thy self.
I’m now distracted by the hall exhibition of oil paintings. Violets and magnolia blossoms were my Great Grandmother’s Carlene Cater Blanks favorite subjects and the bond to her through art is strong even though we spent scant time together when I was a preschooler. Her clouded blue eyes and faded red hair were mysterious. I was drawn by her enthusiasm to draw and write. Her legacy of creating a business and a church sparked my consciousness later when I needed the inspiration. She hung out a shingle upon her husband’s death on the main street of a state capital, and offered what she did best: paint, repair porcelain and frame. She motivates me when I think of her ambition and the social challenges which hovered about her.
With that, I question the maintenance of a fallen aristocracy in the shape of the silver condiment server. It sits in its often tarnished condition, one ruby red crystal cruet’s top busted into jagged disuse. My father cherished it as a main attraction to the memory of his father and grandfather who ceremoniously doled spoonfuls from each container. Tragically for him, Daddy accidentally slipped and broke it in the gifting to me. He was crestfallen, and I was sad for the brokenness of a story he couldn’t maintain, the pride of my great grandfather and the arrogance of my grandfather. Still beautiful as an objet d’art, its use now thankfully recognized by culture as unsustainable.
Smaller pieces of domestic grandeur chime in by way of the silvery chatter of a party. It comes from our kitchen shelving. Dalton’s mother Ethel would be disappointed that the sterling silver monogrammed goblets she used for Sunday dinners would find company among such everydayness. The goblets were supreme wedding gifts to her and Billy. There was never any doubt that they would be polished to a startling shine by black hands and repositioned for display for the next special occasion.
When Ethel moved on to the glittering party in the sky, D selected the goblets as his choice of heirlooms followed by a grandmother clock, a prized possession of a grandmother who never knew him. Its hourly chime enchants our home. We maintain its history by means of a local clock repairman whose passion for clocks dwells in an ever growing minority. Will its voice fade when the repairman retires?
I have gained a strong new perspective for redemptive review by observing extended family during Yom Kippur. Now I call upon the Limoges, albeit the chipped, creamer and sugar which transport me to my grandparents’ breakfast room. For decades they worked their losses, gains and redos in that room before the sun came up. The phantom breakfast table, dark aroma of coffee, jam jar and creamer and sugar fill me with persistence when the ebb and flow of life crystalizes.
The most sizable room in our house has floor to ceiling windows which at one end flank a large petticoat mirror. The treasure belonged to Mary Ann and George Quinn, my maternal great grandparents. No one ever spoke in detail of their lives even though over time it was hinted that their later years were lived out in the back bedroom of my grandparents’ house. George and Mary Ann eloped when her father Mr. Hughes forbade their union. After his first grandchild was born, Mr. Hughes sent word for them to come home for supper. His ego would allow their perceived differences to be sorted out for the sake of the child.
My earliest memory is stamped with the study of my reflection in the bottom half of Mary Ann and George’s petticoat mirror. There is value in knowing my entire reality was made possible by their disruptive coupling. Magically their insistence on domestic pride carried the mirror from generation to generation, house to house and ultimately from the elder Quinns to their now elder great granddaughter, a road sustained by love.
Just this week, I bundled up love in the shape of a lavender and green quilt. Hand stitched by friend Mary Trice, it was a gift to my fraternal grandmother Edwina. My mother rescued it from the contents of her in-laws’ estate sale. For a lifetime I was in the habit of pulling it around me for nap time as did my daughter where I found her at age forty wrapped in its tattered pieces. As I am fortunate to live among country people who still carry on with habits of thrift in the tradition of handicrafts and repair; I laid the quilt at their feet. They replaced the withered pieces, whipped stitches over the tiny holes, rebound the edges and gently cleaned. Ready for another 100 years.
Before returning the quilt to my daughter, I searched out some household scissors to clip a stray thread and it was there that my own domestic history materialized. Bailey the beagle has been gone from this earth for twenty years, yet he streaked back into view when I spied his puppy teeth marks on the scissor handle. I remembered pulling them from his mouth, a furry instrument of destruction. I stood where he once decimated a wall of wooden Venetian blinds. He challenged us everyday, but with physical prompt in hand, I am beginning to see that the tangible things which outlast us might be souvenirs of soul.
Prayer-like in its fixedness, on the surface, my daily line of vision repeats itself. Gratefully I now understand that the c’est la vie me was in need of depth. Advice from the aged-inanimate blesses with the foibles and strengths that came before. Tempered by stories, I have the chance to form a more perfect human.