Beyond Fine China and Heirloom Crystal

Yesterday, I walked through my grandmother’s house for the last time. She died in August of last year. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her. Right now, I’m missing her a lot. Not that I don’t understand that she’s with me always in spirit. But I miss the physical closeness, the chance to hear her say something, or laugh, or tell a story about when she was a girl.

We all have objects in our possession that evoke the memory of another person. As a general rule, I try not to collect a lot of stuff because I know full well I won’t take any of it with me. Besides, the really important things are carried in the heart, not tucked away in dresser drawers or china cabinets.

Still, many of the things I do have from my family have stories behind them. Of course, it’s easy to understand why someone would want the fine china or crystal or sterling silver. They’re valuable and often beautiful to look at.

But houses aren’t full of just fine china and heirloom crystal. They’re a gathering place of all the little odds and ends we accumulate over a lifetime. Sometimes, those odds and ends have more meaning than the fine china does.

Long before my grandmother died, I said that the only thing I knew that I wanted from her house was the set of heavy metal coat hangers that was always in her hall closet. First thing she said to us when we walked through her door was, “Go hang up your coat,” followed closely by, “Come sit down and have a cold drink”. When we were ready to leave and had our coats on, it was usually something like, “Now, you can’t leave without picking three things out of this bag to take with you”. Those odds and ends I talked about earlier? Well, I think my grandmother was the source of many of them, and more odds than ends.

I have those coat hangers in my own hall closet now. I love the jangly sound they make when you take something out of the closet or put it back in. It’s a sound I’ll always associated with time spent with my grandmother.

While it was bittersweet being in her house yesterday—I missed her intensely and still do—I heard stores about the house that I never would have heard otherwise.

Stories about my mother and aunts sliding down the banister of the spiral staircase, or standing up on the third floor and trying to spit on people as they walked by below (that was when there were no heat-saving panels blocking the way and there was an unobstructed path from the downstairs hall all the way up to the top of the house).

I learned about four o’clock grandpa stoves, little woodstoves that were lit, in multigenerational households, at about that time on winter afternoons so the bedrooms were warm when children came up at night. I saw the window where my mother sat and looked out at the horse barn and dreamed of having an elephant out there in the pasture. Handmade writing desks and secretaries, hurricane lamps on the marble mantelpiece, barrel chairs, commodes, my great-grandfather’s diaries and “secret” doors that connected the closets so that you could, at one time, run directly between bedrooms without bothering to use the hall … It was like being in a museum in which the entire collection has deep roots in your own family.

I could have found many other things to fill my Sunday afternoon. I could have been ruthlessly practical and said I had no need to go back there, and at some level, that’s true.

But the heart, at least my own heart, is not ruthlessly practical. It’s emotional. I can’t just flip some switch and say, “After this point, I’m done remembering my grandmother”. My kitchen is filled with things that make me think of her. When my husband and I moved into our first apartment together, she bought me two metal mixing bowls, measuring cups and spoons, and a few other baking utensils. Every time I use any of those things, she is present with me.

This is to say nothing of the composers she liked (Schubert), the phrases she said that pop out occasionally and always make me smile (“Put that in your pipe and smoke it!”.

One day, perhaps someone will be going through my house just as I went through my grandmother’s, picking things up and turning them over in their hands, remembering.

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