I recently talked about a visit to a beach denuded of tourists. I was spending part of a week in a place not my home, a condo not a hotel. Fantastic view. Very nice inside in an antiseptic modern way. Perfectly pleasant. Relatively new and shiny, not falling to pieces little by little like my own Castle Rackrent, but…
Yes, but what? Why the strange feeling, the reservations? After some consideration, I concluded the place felt odd, even surreal, because it wasn’t my place. It was posing as a home, but was not my home. It was nobody’s home. It was without individuality featureless, faceless. There was nothing about it that was mine.
This isn’t about stuff exactly, or at least not about stuff as a store of value. It was about stuff as a store of memory — my stuff, the collected detritus and ephemera of a particular life. Stuff arranged to suit me. Pictures on the wall that meant something or reminded me of some person, place or time.
I realized in my home, your home, anybody’s home, the stuff one uses daily occupies its accustomed place. Bric-a-brac, gewgaws, curios that look like trash to anyone else have been bought on trips or handed down and come freighted with significance apparent to no one else. All of which adds up to my nest, or yours, my habitat. Individual, not generic. This condo was generic.
Who knew this would matter so much, but it did. I missed not just rugs on the floor, but my rugs, my bedside salver where the wallet and keys spend the night, the shelves of books I can grab when needed without thinking. The kitchen drawer where the can opener lives, the shelf for the glasses and that for the plates.
I sit now in the room that is most my own in a maple easy chair with wide flat arms that, besides a King James Bible, is all I have of Marie, my father’s mother. On the wall are two polite, framed thank-you notes I got when I wrote little pieces decades ago about William F. Buckley and Dr. Albert Sabin.
Also on the walls are old family photos, on one wall of my father’s family, on the other of my mother’s along with maps showing the paths my forebears and those of my wife took over the centuries in New England, New Jersey, the Carolinas and Ohio. A print is by an illustrator named Charles Allan Gilbert and dates from around 1910. It is of a stately girl in the Lily Langtry mode popular then, with diaphanous clothing and a Phrygian liberty cap on curly locks.
The elegant book shelves that run down one wall and fill the closet were crafted and installed by Bill Ralegh who I met 40 years ago, I think playing co-ed softball. On them are books from high school, college, graduate school and the years since. Like tree rings they chart my changing interests over the years and also describe the places I have visited or someday might.
Atop the shelves are keepsakes of various kinds, few valuable but many priceless to me. There are Art Deco bookends, each with nude naiad lolling on a rock, and an Art Deco Iron Fireman ashtray. The company had a factory near the Sears where my mom shopped when I was a toddler. It had the same metal man logo on the roof. Another ashtray from the early 1900s is an Art Nouveau crescent man-in-the-moon face made by Glauber Brass Manufacturing of Kinsmen, Ohio less than 20 miles from where my maternal grandmother was born. Several generations of ancestors probably shortened their lives flicking cigarette ash in those.
From the same grandmother is a crystal ball on a pedestal that fascinated me as a child and a baby bowl with Campbell Soup kids inside and ABCs around the rim. It was made by Buffalo Pottery in 1918 when my mother was three and her brother one-year-old. All these remind us there was a time when our everyday objects were not just attractive but were made just down the road, not halfway around the world. There’s also a metal miniature of the Trylon and Perisphere, a souvenir of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and three cast iron Amish children, one swinging from a cast iron tree and two siting on a cast iron bench.
A few other trinkets are far older. I collected most of those. A clay oil lamp embossed with gladiator from Roman Tunisia c. 600 AD, a miniature red figure wine vessel from 5th century BC Greece, an iron Hittite ax head c. 2000 BC, and the chef d’oeuvre, perhaps 5000,000 years old, the molar of a mastodon that a farmer from Sandusky, Ohio unearthed when I was a kid and gave to my mother for me.
This is my life, as the old TV show used to say. The beach condo was built in 2007 and is decorated in generic modern beige austerity. My room is in a house that dates from 1948 and the furnishings are as old, maybe older. It is as comfy as the tattered old slippers I wear in it. And surrounded with familiar stuff, I am comfy there. When I go, I suppose my stuff will go too. It will mean little to anyone else.The next inhabitants will bring their own stuff, freighted with its own history and meaning. As usual, the poets know best.
“They change to a high new house,
He, she, all of them—aye,
Clocks and carpets and chairs
On the lawn all day,
And brightest things that are theirs. . . .
Ah, no; the years, the years;
Down their carved names the rain-drop ploughs.”