Traveling Lighter into the New Year

Dec 30th, 2008 by Diane Seymour | 0

Image by Nikki L.

Wandering through the antique shop aisles, I run my eyes over the glass cases filled with Eastern Star rings, tortoise shell hair combs, tarnished crosses, and pocket watches inscribed on the back with “Love Forever” and “Until the End of Time.” On the wall, a framed, hand-embroidered picture depicts a cozy living room with fireplace and proclaims “Happy 25th Anniversary,” with the loving stitcher’s initials in the corner and the date 1954. Around the corner, a large family Bible lies on a table between a sweet-faced Betsy McCall doll and a sad stuffed bear with sewn-on eyes. A page in the front of the Bible proclaims the birth of two children long ago. Betsy and the bear stare out at all who pass.

Who were the proud owners of these treasures? How did these most-personal items find their way to public display for strangers to pick and pry at and leave behind? Where are the sisters and brothers, the sons and daughters, the nieces and nephews of those who left it all behind? Why didn’t they want their loved ones’ precious stuff? I asked these questions every time I passed through antique stores and finally found some answers recently in a place closer to home.

“I just feel badly that nobody wants my stuff…” My mother’s voice trails off as she slips a small, flowered vase into the box labeled Salvation Army. Her house is for sale, and we’re sorting two lifetimes of memories into four chaotic piles – to move, to sell, to give away, and to trash. A second-generation pack rat, her miniature snails and boxes, decorative glass, paperback books, stuffed animals, candlesticks, photos, and miscellaneous knickknacks compete for space with an equal amount of similar stuff left behind ten years earlier by her mother. As fellow accumulators and keepers, my grandmother and mother were ever mindful of the depression years – not wanting to be without ever again.

“Why do you still have this old umbrella? It’s got a big hole in it!” During three days of sorting, we’ve found the story in everything we’ve touched. The ragged door rug? “Your brother bought that for me the year that he died.” The stained tablecloth? “Your grandma used that every holiday for years.” The glass Santa with the chipped beard? “I bought that one year at the state bowling tournament.” Now, she defends the umbrella. “It was Aunt Edna’s and mom wouldn’t part with it.” I make no comment, but bypass the to-move pile and put it in the small, but growing to-ask-again pile.

“Do you want any of my teddy bears?” my mother asks. I pick them up one by one and claim an old, dark-brown guy with floppy arms, imagining a future grandchild dragging it up the steps. My mother keeps two favorites, and I place the others in the to-sell box, trying not to look them in the eyes. “How about the dolls?” she wonders. We discuss the history of each, keeping my grandmother’s first doll, a tall, brown-haired beauty and two others with close family roots. Another doll, family tree unknown, survives the cut just because she makes us smile. The others join the bears to await their uncertain fates.

“You have at least thirty butter tubs. How many do you want to keep?” I ask, guessing at the answer. “I’ve already gotten rid of that many more; I want these for when I make soup.” I bite my tongue, putting all thirty in the to-move pile, while smiling at the unlikely image of my mother making enough soup for an entire neighborhood!

Old coins, original paintings – artists unknown, two patterns of tarnished tableware, crocheted doilies in many shapes and sizes, yellowed pillowcases – ends fancied up with colorful hand-stitched flowers, mustache cups, costume jewelry, nightstands and headboards that could tell stories if they could talk… My mother agonizes over her choices, frustrated at times at the need to choose. I try to ease her pain. “It’s not that I don’t want your stuff. I just don’t want all your stuff.” She shakes her head and continues to sort.

Stuff! We all surround ourselves with our own peculiar stuff that links us to our pasts, that brings us pleasure in the buying and the keeping, or that fills some other need, perhaps a sense of security to second guess hard times ahead. I came home from the sorting with renewed determination to downsize; to rewind our household to the days before all the stuff. Our sons will find an easier task when the time comes. My shelves, drawers, and closets are losing their clutter to free piles at the end of the driveway, to box loads for the Salvation Army, and in packages to eBay bidders still craving more stuff. And yes, someday, someone will step out the door of an antique shop, clutching one of my former treasures, ready to write a new story.

Peace and happiness to all in 2009.

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