It was Father’s Day and the men were playing “golf” in the back yard (drinking beer, hitting balls at tree stumps). Catherine and I raided our mother-in-law’s numerous jewelry boxes. Actually, they were her mother’s jewelry boxes. I don’t know why she asked us to pull them out. She was either nostalgic or bored. I have a better guess as to how she was feeling by the time we were finished.
Catherine and I returned home with a collection of earrings, necklaces and broaches from the 40s, 50s and 60s. Not only are they stylish and one-of-a-kind, many of them once belonged to Peggy Sanders Atchison. When I first met her, I was 18 and her grandson’s girlfriend. I had been told she was a Democrat and thus I would like her.
How wonderful to inherit someone else’s things. The china cabinet in my dining room belonged to my great-grandmother. The glassware in it belonged to my great aunt. My grandmother tells the story of the needlework ship hanging above her sofa. Her favorite aunt – the reckless one who died alone in New Orleans – crafted it in wool, by hand. It hung in her parents’ house, where she admired it for years. One day, she went to help after her father suffered a heart attack. When she left, she found the painting in her trunk.
When it comes to vintage jewelry or heirloom furniture, it’s not so much the style that we adore. I once wrinkled my nose at the straight-lined, low-slung, avocado-painted bedroom suite in the “green room” at my grandparents’ house. I see it differently now. Maybe it’s the influence of Mad Men (the sets and clothes are as thoughtful as the writing), or maybe it’s because I’ve learned it was their furniture when they first married. He’s gone now, and after 12 years I still miss him.
We live in a highly immediate and virtual culture, where if you have money or resourcefulness, you can pretty much have whatever you want, whenever and wherever you want it. It’s creepy, but you can basically be whomever you want, too. It’s no wonder so many of us are staking claim on our grandparents’ furniture and scouring vintage shops for their old clothes. Of course, they all did the same thing – no? Tangible mementos of what’s come before us have always been elegant and wise. The piano in my mom’s house has a cigarette burn on one ivory key. The clock on her mother’s fireplace mantle was made by a Confederate veteran.
I wonder – what will we save, and does it really matter? Will those who follow think it’s worth holding onto no matter what it is?