I love antiques, I love mementos, old photos, old letters, baby books, keepsakes—the whole works—but, just don’t give me anymore. I closed up shop a few years ago.
My first memory of wanting an antique was in third or fourth grade. I was born with red hair, and it was the result of my grandmother having had red hair. I have no memories of that grandmother—she died several years after I was born. Yet, this grandmother was a presence in my life like few other people. Hardly a day went by when I would not be asked by an adult, “Where did you get that red hair?” I was programmed from birth to say, “From my grandmother.” She had the shortest presence in my life, but in this way felt like a daily companion. Who was this person who looked like me? Was she like me?
Like most mysteries of our family, the answer would be in the attic. It took up the entire third story of the house, had a beautiful hardwood floor with lots of windows that allowed a glorious view of the cemetery across the street, the dairy farm next to it, and the backyards of almost the entire neighborhood. Most of the time, that beautiful floor was filled with dead flies, though, and once when my brother tried to camp out up there with a buddy, it had only been dark for 20 minutes before they both came running down the stairs screaming that there were bats flying around up there.
It was in our tale-of-two-cities attic, where I found an old, white, jewelry box with a black border, and inside it were pins, earrings, bracelets and a necklace or two. They were all bright with green, red, purple and dark blue rhinestones. I asked my mom many, many times what the value of all the jewels must be, and she patiently explained again and again what a rhinestone is. The earrings were not the kind that my older sisters had begun wearing, which fit through a hole in the ear that their friends had created by using ice as a numbing agent and a needle that had been held under a flame (for safety). These earrings had clips that must have put my grandmother in a great deal of pain—they clasped tightly onto my tiny ears, leaving bright red marks for the next few hours.
These had been on the ears of my grandmother with the red hair, and I wanted to put them on my ears and feel like we were together. I asked my mother for them, and she let me play with them and as I got older, I wore some to school and tried to look like Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink.
Once my siblings and I were all out of the house, my mom started a process that has ended up encompassing the span of a decade. With no more children a home, she began clearing out that attic. Despite all of us kids having moved out, the attic’s contents had grown. My other grandmother, the one who visited at Thanksgiving, and who sent us birthday cards with dollar bills tucked into them, and who came to our graduations, and who made quilts for each of us, only to be distributed on the occasion of our marriage—that grandma—she had moved into a nursing home, and her house was put up for sale.
This is how life works.
Many of the contents of my grandmother’s house were dragged across the state line by my mother in her car, back to her house, so they could join the other grandmother’s belongings in that big attic. There were stacks of old Life magazines, sets of china, sewing supplies, books, photos, a silver-plated hairbrush, and on and on. The majority of her things—antique or not—were sold for a dollar, or less, at an estate sale. An advertisement was placed in the local newspaper and signs were posted, but the auctioneer explained to us that bad weather had kept people away that day, and he had to drop prices.
I wanted to save all of it, but I couldn’t. By then, I was living my own life on the other side of the country, and I had my own children and their belongings to store. And I didn’t have the large attic with the hardwood floors, and the wonderful views, and the dead flies, and the bats that could scare the life out of two brave boys.
“Come up in the attic,” my mother said one summer when I came to visit. Once up there, I saw many of my grandparents’ belongings laid out in rows on a blanket on the floor. “Take what you want,” she said.
I wanted to take it all, but I couldn’t. What was the point, anyway, I thought. Eventually it will all end up in a yard, on a day that somebody will be hoping is sunny, being sold for a dollar or less, to strangers. I could only fit a few things in my suitcase, and I only had space for a few things in my home. More importantly, I could actually remember these grandparents. I didn’t need their belongings as tools to imagine them with. I could remember them well—even my grandfather who passed away 15 years before grandmother. Their presence had been real.
And so, I picked five or six things: a grammar book, Pop-Pop’s old sunglasses, an assortment of old bottles, including a bottle marked Anti-Pain Oil, and the Motorola clock radio that I used on many occasions to wake up with when I slept in their musty, pitch-dark basement with no windows.
My kids look at these items a lot. They know not to touch them, that the items are special to me, but they ask about them occasionally, trying to unravel some information, using that familiar voice, the one I recognize from asking about the jewels and what a rhinestone is. I use my own mother’s voice back to them, trying to explain the items and the people who once used them. They’ve taken a particular liking to looking at the Anti-Pain Oil and wondering whether it could take away any of their aches and pains–thank goodness, all minor at this point. They like to hear me read the label on the bottle, since it says it can be used for “Flatulent Colic due to gas.” They giggle, and I giggle, and then we move out of the room with the antiques and begin a meal or homework or the business of getting baths. This is how life works.