Big Eyes, Bigger Guilt
Not soon after my parents divorced almost 10 years ago, they sold their house--the house where I had spent my high school years and came home to every summer in college. Of course, this meant that before the new owners could move in, I had to come back to the old homestead and empty out my room. Most of it was thrown out or yardsaled (I did, after all, have a full set of bedroom furniture in the place I was actually living), but there was a selection of things I was eager to hang on to.
As I was going through everything and boxing up the things worth saving, I put an old Precious Moments bible that I don't remember receiving, but with an inscription from my mother in it, in the "trash" pile. If you are not familiar, Precious Moments is a line of sometimes religious and always maudlin tchotchkes featuring illustrations of children with big eyes and even bigger heads (or sometimes adults drawn in the same mode, which is some how even creepier), with tritely inspirational captions like "it's the friends we meet along the way that help us appreciate the journey."
My mom saw it in the trash pile a few minutes later, and in her best saddened and guilt inspiring tone (though I know it wasn't intentional) said "oh no, don't throw that away! It's so dear, and I gave it to you when you were 8."
Mind you, I had graduated from college and moved out several years ago by now and this item was still in my mother's house gathering dust. And, if I had wanted to actually read it (a dicey prospect in and of itself, though my mom didn't know that at the time), I had at least two copies at my disposal in different translations in my actual house.
But my mom was going through a rough time, and even in the best of seasons she's prone to emotional fragility, so I quietly moved it from the trash pile and into one of the boxes I was packing up to take with me.
I think that bible lasted through at least three moves, as I mechanically packed it and unpacked it and repacked it, always finding a place for it to live in the back of my nightstand. Though I couldn't have told you why, by keeping it, I think I was trying to honor my mom's efforts at parenting once upon a time, incomplete as they may have been.
The last time I moved was almost a year ago now, and for the first time I was transitioning from a larger apartment with a roommate to a studio on my own--which meant downsizing, smaller furniture, and more creative storage solutions for those things I did keep. As I packed up once again and came across the bible, I thought for a moment and made the decision to compromise: I tore the pages with my mother's inscription out of the front, put them in a folder with some other papers I was saving, and consigned the rest to the recycle bin.
I Got Plenty ... of Not Very Much of Value at All
My home is filled with things that, for me, are filled with sentimental value and that I enjoy seeing and having, so many, in fact, that I think a spreadsheet might be a better way to record them than a text file.
Still, that’s not what I was asked to do.
When thinking of what object to write about, I ran into another problem: I don’t think I own anything that could be described as an heirloom or even a keepsake. After my parents both died and the family home was being cleaned out and sold, I either let my sisters have the things that were found or else told that mom or dad had told them they could have “that thing” when they were dead.
I was okay with that, honestly, and not least because I was the only child who had no kids to pass anything onto, something both of my sisters did. If anything was to stay in the family and passed down from generation to generation, giving it to me would ensure that that never happened.
When I’m gone, I expect a bulldozer to level my place and have everything carted off to the dump. No one in my family has expressed the slightest interest in taking over my property or even visiting it, and they should know the junk I have.
Which isn’t to say that it isn’t full of things for which I have deep and long feelings. One of the older things I have is the bracelet that was around my wrist when I was born. It’s necessarily small, and is beaded with a series of blue beads (I was born a boy!) that read “L Kremer boy,” the L being the first letter of my mom’s first name.
It never had a clasp, so was cut, probably soon after I was brought home. I think the first time I saw it was when my mom presented it to my ex, soon after we were married. Soon after the marriage was over, Stefania gave it back to me.
Another thing that’s older than I am is something I’ve decided belonged to my mother’s youth. Around the time I was ten my mom told me that she didn’t like ice cream because she’d had her fill of it when she was young and working at an ice cream shop or a fountain or something. What I have, and what I remember from all the years of my life, is a solid aluminum ice cream scoop. It’s “industrial strength” and I really wish I knew someone who’d want it. It still works (obviously) and it would be a shame for it to be buried along with all my books and junk. Not only does it work now, there are no moving parts and no reason to doubt it won’t work for another hundred years at least.
Most of things that make me sigh to look at are memories of my marriage, but they make me sound pathetic, so I won’t mention how much I like the hat she gave me one year and how much it means to me.
Where do I put it all?
I am the only child of two only children, so I have inherited a ton of "stuff". My mother is still living so I anticipate there is more to come, much of it with the warnings that it must stay in the family. Well, I am the only "family" left so it may be time to invest in a large storage unit.
Some things truly do have sentimental value; my great grandmother's dishes are nearly a complete set of 12, and are dainty and sweet. I have used them for Thanksgiving nearly every year I have been married. The set of 12 will be easy to divvy up for my own boys when the time comes. I cannot fathom an instance in my life when I would use all the pieces -- not only is it service for 12, but there are 6 different sized plates, soup bowls, coffee cups and demitasse cups as well as serving pieces. I believe my great grandparents loved to entertain, even though he was an Episcopal priest. The set is far from ornate; no gilding at all, but rather a simple dainty painted flower design on Spode.
Other things I hold onto out of fear; I have two wooden busts, about the size of bookends, and remember my grandmother telling me she'd spend eternity haunting me if I were to ever separate them or part with them. I don't know if she was serious or not, but I'd rather not test the theory.
Some things are just wicked cool. My great-great-grandfather was a ship's captain, and his route was San Francisco to China or Japan. He brought back many of the immigrants who helped build the railroad. He also, from what I have heard in family lore, brought back a good deal of opium. This, more so than his captainship, would explain the wealth he created for himself. I have an opium pipe from him. Not that I would ever use it, but how many people have an antique opium pipe?
Some of the things are truly valuable. I have a small Tiffany clock that was in the den of my house growing up. I didn't know the story of the clock when I was small, but I loved the color (soft greenish-sage stained glass) and the chime. I could probably fund a year of college for my son (after his scholarships and loans, mind you, but still...) if I were to sell it, but I love how it looks on the mantel, and I love that it has been with me my whole life.
But the pieces that mean the most to me are pieces of furniture my father made for me. In the last third of his life, my father discovered a passion and talent for woodworking. Retirement did not suit him well after a lifetime of a career and incredibly strong work ethic, so he needed something to do to pass the time and ensure my mother didn't kill him. I remember her saying "I married him in sickness and in health, but they said nothing about LUNCH!" So he and his best friend took a wood working class together and started making replicas of antique pieces they either had around the house or saw in a magazine.
I have night stands, a hope-chest, a hutch, a desk and a corner cabinet that he made. Every piece he made was made with both an amazing eye for detail and only the best materials. I've moved a few times, and every time I do, the movers comment on how solid and heavy the pieces are. "Solid" is another way of saying heavier than hell, I believe!
The hope chest is my favorite because it was the first thing he made for me, and he made it just as I was getting engaged. We chose the wood together and decided on how it was to be stained. Most of the pieces he made, he signed on the bottom or the backside where it would not be seen, but this piece, he signed on the back side-wall with my maiden name and the date he finished it, which was about 3 months before my wedding. I love that he wanted to put my maiden name - his name - somewhere it would be visible as if it would ever be possible for me to forget him. But that strategy ensured that anyone who opened it knew HIS name as well. Long after he passed away, his name is still etched into something I use every single day.
Time Enough at Last
My parents are both packrats so, I tend to fight the urge to hold on to objects for fear of becoming them. The things that I keep are very deliberate, and whenever I can think of a way to condense or eliminate things, I’m always delighted.
Everything I own, more or less, serves a function. My wardrobe gets pared down quite frequently so I’m never in possession of more than about 30-40 articles of clothing that are all things I currently wear. Transferring my CDs and DVDs from their individual cases to large binders was an oddly satisfying exercise. I read “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” when it came out, but there was nothing life-changing about it—I had been living that way since I moved out of my parent’s house.
The indulgences I allow myself are books and art. But even that I have had a changing relationship with. I used to think that I would keep all the books I loved or enjoyed reading, but then I realized there was a strange selfishness to it. There are so many things to read that I doubt that I would likely revisit a novel, even if I loved it, and if I did it probably wouldn’t be for several years. So why not let someone else enjoy it instead of having it collect dust on my shelf? About six years ago, I pared down my book collection to books I would need to reference, books I hadn’t yet read, and books that were, of course, rare or valuable.
As to art, I used to collect pieces that I liked aesthetically, and my walls would get filled up pretty fully, in a funky, pictures-crammed-floor-to-ceiling, art-gallery kind of way. When I moved into my most recent apartment, however, I decided that liking a piece visually wasn’t enough to put it on my wall—it had to have meaning for me beyond that.
I now have only a select few pieces and each one is hung for a specific purpose: things that were created by close friends, things that I myself created, things that belonged to my grandparents, things that fit in with the “theme” of my apartment, etc.
That is my longwinded way of getting to the object I want to describe. It’s the most important work of art in my apartment and it is painted on a 2”-by-2” canvas that sits on a tiny easel in the middle of the center bookcase in my wall of bookcases. (Yes, even my completely bare-bones, condensed book collection takes up a full wall).
The piece is painted in shades of gray and it depicts a broken pair of glasses on a step next to a fallen-open book. Painted by a local artist, it’s called “Time Enough at Last,” and it is a recreation of one of the final images of the “Twilight Zone” episode of the same name.
The famous one in which Burgess Meredith plays a bank clerk who loves books, but never has the time to read. He happens to be in the bank’s vault when some type of explosion goes off that wipes out most of the world and the people in it, but the library is miraculously still intact. After laying out the next 10 years of reading for himself, he trips on a staircase and (spoiler alert), breaks his reading glasses.
I realize the episode is a rather dark one, but when I was setting up my apartment, I was coming out of one of the darker times of my life. I had just left a job that had required me to work insane hours doing things I didn’t really care about. I had spent the past four years in a difficult relationship, and was moving out on my own again, after living with someone who had consumed a huge amount of my time and energy.
When I designed my current apartment, I knew the theme was going to be time—I had a new job and being newly single, I really felt I had time enough at last. I did a search on Etsy for “Time Enough at Last” to see if anyone had created anything that I could put in the apartment to remind me of how valuable my time was. The only result that came up was that one two-by-two-inch painting with its accompanying easel. It was perfect.
It still sits on the middle of the shelf in the dead center of my wall of books, and I installed a tiny puck light above it, which I leave on most of the time, like a nightlight. I look at it quite frequently, and I feel grateful for how much time I have for myself and the people and the things in my life that I care about.
Bear From A Bygone Era
He sits in the bedroom staring blankly into space with small, black cross-stitches for eyes, and a thin, black thread mouth, trying to smile. He looks like Winnie the Pooh, but he’s not portly and his color is faded light beige. He is the stuffed animal of my mother’s childhood, and mine too. His name is “Booby,” what she named him as a child.
A teddy bear from another era, he is 1920’s America, a simple animal without the adornment or realistic features of modern toys. No plastic, realistic eyes to move in his head, no sewn-on red tongue or rubber teeth. With his blunt limbs, Booby looks more human than bear. But he does have an animal muzzle with a nose that juts out above his mouth giving his round head a third dimension. And he has large, stiff, round ears that stick straight up in the air. To me, as a little boy, he is my first pal and I see him often in pictures of me as a tot. My mother has patched him up in places, and each of his arms and legs end in a soft piece of satin.
Now an antique toy, Booby reminds me of my mother and her rural farm life as a child in the 1920’s and 30’s, listening to radio, playing outdoors and taking care of her animals. She tells us stories about her pets, and she fills our house with animals as well, mostly dogs and cats. We love the parakeet named Pretty Boy whom my mother teaches to say “Pretty Boy.” She cannot recreate the farm in our suburban setting, but we kids live as if we’re in the country and she lets us keep and care for anything we catch, including grass snakes and turtles.
Sometimes when I glance at Booby, I think about her and picture her as a little girl around the farmhouse. I see her childhood, not mine.
I have a baseball, of sorts, in my office. It isn't a real baseball, but a brass one that is about half the size of a real baseball. It's brass. And it opens up like a clamshell, splitting in half to reveal a travel alarm clock.
I'm going to go get it.
It'd be the perfect size for a baseball if your hands were my size, which is to say much smaller than the size of an actual pitcher's hands. It's gotten quite a patina on it over the years, and it looks much darker now than when it was given to me.
Inside is a regular analog clock that must be wound. I think that the hands and numbers are painted with some kind of paint that suggests they should glow in the dark, but they don't any more. Maybe they need to be exposed to the sunlight. Maybe they were radioactive and their half life has passed and passed and passed again.
There are a few things worth noting about this baseball alarm clock. On is that in the interior of this non-clock side is a picture of a woman, though it is more of a realistic illustration, like from a book or magazine. The woman is blonde and wearing a red scarf over her head and appears to be wearing red lipstick. When I first discovered this little item in my paternal grandparents' house, I sincerely asked who this was a picture of. It looked vaguely like my other grandmother, but why would my paternal grandparents have a picture of my maternal grandmother in a red scarf?
My grandmother laughed when I asked this. Because apparently everyone knew that this was a picture of the Virgin Mary.
Now I've spend some time in church in these last five years, and I have never come across the Virgin Mary in red. Also, there are various virgins painted on buildings all over Los Angeles. And here's what I can tell you: In popular iconography, the Virgin Mary wears blue. A Google search tells me that red is the color of divinity, where blue and green are the colors of humanity. So maybe this is St. Mary after her role for humanity is over.
The second interesting thing is on the bottom of the clock, where it reads, "GERMANY US ZONE." I guess that dates it pretty clearly between the end of WWII and 1949. And maybe explains the very Germanic looking Virgin.
I've somehow always imagined that this clock had a connection to my grandfather's service during WWII, though he got sick and never shipped out overseas with his army unit. Indeed, it was probably just a novelty item made of excess brass, part of the recovery effort of the Marshall Plan to put little German clockmakers back to work.
I've had this little clock all my adult life. I have never used it as a travel alarm. And I have no one to give it to.
"Rinkterrine Diddy." At least that is what I think is written at the top of the first index card in the dark brown wooden box crammed with index cards and pieces of paper folded to fit inside. "2 cans Tomato soup. 1 lb. N.Y. cheese. 1 or 2 eggs." The recipe goes on, but I don't cook so I don't keep reading because I don't know even what this might turn out to be, a soup or a casserole. I know only that it's my grandmother's handwriting.
Stuffed awkwardly in the back of the box is a folded-up envelope with a red US Airmail stamp sent before we went to ZIP codes. My grandmother has used the blank spaces on either side to write a recipe for chuck roast.
The box is crammed with index cards, scraps of paper, envelopes and a card from the American Contract Bridge League with notes for taco salad scribbled on the back. All are neatly separated by blue cards with the letters of the alphabet jutting above the collection to separate Fudge from Oysters Benedict ("Need: English muffins & 6--8 not-too-thick & not-too-thin slices of broiled or sauteed ham; not cooked dry...").
Wait, that can't be right: OK, at some point she stopped trying to alphabetize. (Indeed, artichoke is back with the R's.)
The old box has, in black antique lettering on the front, Yawman And Erbe Mfg Co Rochester, New York, USA.
I do not know why I keep this box but I also cannot imagine throwing it or its innards away. I don't remember seeing it when I was growing up, but when I moved my parents in 1999 from their house, the one in which I grew up, to a smaller house, I found it stuck with my mother's own recipes. The box was pretty, then I saw it was stuffed with these cards and my grandmother's menus and often apparent plans for the days spelled out in recipes:
Dinner for Jenny and Schwabs
sweet potatoes with bacon
Spring ring with creamed mushrooms center, and beets around
ice cream with chocolate sauce and cakes
What's puzzling is the different handwritings I find scattered throughout. Is that my mother's handwriting, when she was a teen ("University of Alabama Home Ec" written in the upper right)? And there... that recipe for chicken liver mushrooms is certainly my sister's note. "Mongol Soup": the writing on that card I don't recognize at all and I cannot imagine when a dish would have that name. It's like an archaeological dig and anthropological lesson combined.
It's not exactly a family heirloom so I can't imagine passing it along to my niece or nephew. I'm not obligated to keep it; no one even knows I have it.
I keep it because, for now, the box sparks joy (a newfangled concept that would puzzle my grandmother). One day I might go through it, honor each index card, then throw them in a fire but keep the box. It's still pretty.