I recently came across this personal essay written twenty-five years ago (I have about two hundred essays that need to be re-read, then tossed or kept in a "keeper" folder). I enjoyed it, and hope you will too. And now my readers can easily appreciate how much I need to get rid of before I move to a smaller place, including the written word by yours truly. sg
There’s no getting out from under the mass of things I inherited. We still use old-fashioned lace-edged linens on our bureaus, a phenomenon that my husband comments about whenever I change them twice a year for a freshly laundered-and-ironed set. “Can you even get dresser scarves any more?”
“I doubt it—if they’re new, anyway. Only in a vintage or antique store.”
The napkins we use for celebratory dinners are almost as big as pillowcases. They were handmade from damask, given as wedding gifts seventy years ago to my mother. At Thanksgiving I iron what I need, but that is the only time I use them in an entire calendar year. For fifty-one weeks they hibernate in my ironing bag, waiting for their moment in the world—like the patients in the movie, Awakenings, who come to life on drugs. These are old geezer napkins—yellowed from time and frayed around the edges, and getting thin, too.
Sometimes I playfully think of my hand-me-downs as elderly in-laws. Although I didn’t know them originally, they have ingratiated themselves over the years as they live under my roof and abide by my rules.
Sometimes I am tickled to be part of this ancestral chain of merchandise. With pride I dig out the silver candelabra, hoist down the porcelain cups, and unwrap the soup tureen. I boast about my heirloom dining-room table handmade for the family two hundred years ago, and point out with pride my cherished console table belonging to a great-grandmother. I can tick off stories about family stuff in every room—couch, chairs, paintings, figurines—each with a family connection.
Other times I feel sorry for myself. How in the hell did I get saddled with so many hand-me-downs? Wouldn’t it be fun to throw everything away and buy all new items? How thrilling it would be to go on an Ikea spree, or even one at Target. Cheap, bright, maybe poorly made—but new! Not to use anyone else’s anything! My grown kids have all furnished their homes with things they have selected. How liberated they seem. Would I even know how to shop for furniture?
Just like us oldsters who require more maintenance work on our teeth and bodies now than when we were young, caring for antiques can add responsibility to our lives, too. I was shocked recently to see the trouble my sister takes with her heirloom sterling flatware. She literally washes and dries each individual fork tine and lets the forks sit out on her counter for twenty-four hours so they are thoroughly and completely dry. I refuse to pamper my possessions. I wash, dry and toss my flatware back into its silver-clothed wooden box and slam the lid down until the next time I scrounge for what I need. I polish it rarely.
Maybe I’m careless with my things to show them who has the upper hand. I have to admit that a part of me is secretly happy when I see things wearing out. A pillowcase springs a hole. Do I try to mend it? No! Just because my grandmother hemstitched it is no reason to be sad. Instead, I rip it up to make new dust cloths, congratulating myself for not being nostalgic. As the backing of my oriental rug appears with wear (giving the appearance of lint flecks needing to be vacuumed), I get out an array of deep rose, purple, and green magic markers and color in the threadbare places. Sure, my rug is valuable, but I am so sick of it! I have never lived in a house where it wasn’t lurking in one of the rooms. I fantasize sometimes how much fun it would be to roll it up and push it down my hillside driveway, then watch it roll away like the runaway gingerbread man. Only I wouldn’t chase it.
My husband loves to remind me that “Nothing lasts forever.” There’s a positive side effect of attrition through moldering. I will probably never need new things, but at least, eventually, I will have fewer things to care for. And, if there’s any justice at all, my aging household goods will wear out just about the time that I do. I hope my kids can just take the furniture to the second-hand-store and never look back . . . except for the dining room table, the hand carved chairs, the linens woven by appointment to the queen, the old tiffany forks, the . . .