Things come from things

One of the first things I remember my husband, Will, saying to me when we met is, things come from things. It took me a while to understand his meaning but it was worth the wait.

As we get older it’s natural that we become less open to changes in our lives, more at ease with our routines and habits. At this stage of life we’ve tried many new things and chosen the ones we like best. I will always choose vanilla ice cream first because after tasting dozens of flavors over the years, I still like it the most.

But maybe we aren’t looking at our opportunities deeply enough. Maybe there is another layer of possibility hidden from view, a path to something greater not obvious at first glance.

My favorite example of this led to my marriage. I was helping my sister in her fledgling art gallery business and agreed to teach a children’s drawing class. Will answered an ad she placed for a children’s art teacher. We collaborated from time to time and a casual friendship developed. We were both married to other people at the time. Fast forward several months. Both now separated from our spouses, we ran into each other again and the rest is history. If we hadn’t each agreed to teach a children’s art class, we wouldn’t have found such a good friend in one another and formed the basis of our strong 15 year marriage. Things come from things.

During Will’s treatments for cancer, there were some very dark days. We were preparing ourselves for the worst and I found an outlet for my fear and grief through writing essays detailing my pain. I’ve always enjoyed writing, but it had been many years since I’d penned a word. When my friend, a newspaper editor, offered a class in non-fiction writing, I jumped at the chance to develop my skills. In addition to some much needed activity out of the house, I gained confidence in my ability and gathered the courage to begin this blog and to pursue other writing opportunities. I also made new friends. The challenge of coping with Will’s illness led me to writing again. Things come from things.

One of the friends I made in the class had a similar experience. Tasked with caring for an ill relative, she found it difficult to find resources to help her family. This inspired her to write a book about her experience and it has been a success, setting her on a new path as an award-winning author. I’m sure it never occurred to her as she dealt with the frustrating world of caregiving that this would be the result. Things come from things.

Last year I was feeling blue on Mother’s Day. It was the first one since my mother died and my only child was preparing to move away. To cheer me, Will suggested that we go for a drive and we wound up at a beautiful riverside park an hour or so away. As always, I had my smartphone with me and I took a number of photos during our outing. This led to a discussion of my love of photography and my lifelong desire to buy a good camera with which to pursue it. Over the next several months, I joined a couple of photography Facebook groups and I studied digital cameras, talked with friends about their camera preferences, and ultimately found a very nice setup in my price range on ebay. Many hours of happy (and occasionally frustrating) shooting later, I’m preparing my application to a juried photography exhibition. Things come from things.

So, my message is this: don’t reject the opportunity to do something different, or allow yourself to despair over life’s misfortunes. Sometimes the obvious is masking a great gift, perhaps a new love or a new vocation or a new friend. Embrace what life brings and stay open to the possibilities.

Things come from things.

Heirlooms: Blessing, Burden, or Bondage?

If you want to start a conversation quickly among a group of 60-year-old women, ask them how they feel about family heirlooms. I guarantee there won’t be anyone in the group without an opinion.

You can’t pick up a newspaper or magazine it seems without finding mention of Marie Kondo’s little tidying up book or the latest craze of Swedish death cleaning-the practice of disposing of your possessions before you die, to save your heirs the trouble. Minimalism is enjoying a resurgence in popularity and Ikea is bigger and better than ever. Everyone wants to show you what to do with all your extra stuff.

But I’ve not seen mention of the specific emotional turmoil felt by so many of us over family heirlooms. As a somewhat gently raised southern girl, I’m here to tell you that those wafer-thin teacups, the twenty-pound lead crystal vases and the brass candlesticks shaped like pineapples carry more emotional baggage than any inanimate object has a right to.

One of my earliest memories was seeing my grandmother go through her china cabinet and carefully place a strip of adhesive tape on the bottom of each item with the name of a granddaughter, daughter-in-law or niece on it. She was bound for a nursing home and these were her treasures, the sum total of her family wealth and she was very definite about to whom each item should go. As I grew up many of these objects resided in that same china cabinet in our home, my mother’s sacred place.

Mother added her own articles through the years, told stories about the various pieces of china and crystal, and generally let it be known that these things were priceless and precious and woe be to the one who damaged any of them.

In short, she gave the objects a value far beyond what any antique dealer might offer and created within her children a sense of family history and the responsibility of stewardship of that legacy.

Unfortunately, she also created a lifelong sense of obligation, one that has not always been easy to uphold.

I began my adult life, living away from my parents, at the age of eighteen. I accumulated the household items and furnishings necessary to life as I could afford them. I once moved to a tiny furnished apartment, from the even tinier one I had been calling home, with two trips across town in my old Ford Pinto. It was accomplished in an afternoon, including packing and unpacking. In the more than forty years since, I have continued to add possessions, with many being items I dearly love. When my mother sold her home to downsize to a senior living efficiency apartment, the full onslaught of heirlooms hit hard and now I have begun to feel that I no longer own them, but that they somehow own me.

I don’t know anyone in my age group who doesn’t wrestle in one way or another with the emotional entanglement of previous generations’ belongings. We are the children of people who experienced the Great Depression with its many scarcities and deprivations. To have held onto a grandmother’s prized soup tureen through those dark times represented an accomplishment. Often there were memories of a mother’s loving hands tenderly caring for the delicate bone china brought from the old country, or stories about the silver flatware that was once used to serve a visiting dignatary, or a battered toy that had entertained three generations of pint-sized ancestors. The objects, as well as the stories about them, become a valuable part of the accumulated family wealth.

But when added to a household already bulging with its own accumulation, emotional conflict is bound to arise. What do you do with it all?

In the days when families were large, it was a simple matter to divide things as fairly as possible and each child receive a sampling of family treasures. But for those of us without a lengthy list of heirs and an entire Swedish death cleaning to get through, it takes on a new light.

My daughter flatly stated that if she wound up with her grandmother’s sacred set of Fostoria berry bowls, she would likely feed her children in them until they had all been broken. It is clear that she holds no sentiment over the family crystal.

A dear friend who is considerably younger than me, simply boxed up all her heirlooms and took them to Goodwill, saying it was one of her finest acts of claiming freedom. Another friend lost her home to fire several years ago and was left with nothing but the clothes she was wearing. She mostly feels relieved of the burden of the heirlooms, but laments the loss of special ornaments each Christmas.

Another loved one recently sold her home just after retiring. I helped her pack. There were easily fifty or sixty boxes of heirloom china, objects d’art, silver serving vessels, and beautiful crystal that she must now find places for in her new home. A large shelf in her garage already holds many boxes of things labelled with her granddaughters’ names, to be given when the girls are established and ready for them. She vacillates between feeling deeply connected to her forebears and in bondage to their posessions. She has let go of many beautiful pieces, consigning them to an anticipated garage sale, with both relief and a large measure of guilt.

So what’s to become of it all? Our children live in a throwaway world of cheap, easily available and beautiful things. They enjoy the freedom of ordering just the lampshade or throw rug to complement their trendy decor, knowing that they can change it all easily when they tire of it.

In our mobile society, the connection to generations past is fractured, all but destroyed. There is no wonder to be experienced over a beautiful wooden bread bowl used for decades by their great-great-great-grandmother, or the crocheted bedspread made by their great-great-grandmother with love in every stitch. They have no memories of sitting at a table elegantly set with the treasured finery, and so they lack sentimentality about its disposition. So we, those of us in the last third of our life, must come to difficult and painful conclusions about what is to be done with it all.

I have made the decision that I’ll not stay in bondage to a collection of items, simply because someone who contributed 1/16 of my DNA once had it upon a shelf in their home. And I am struggling to break with the tradition of treasuring an item simply because my mother did. I plan to find new homes for these items among my nieces or perhaps the daughters of friends. It is time to allow someone else to love them, and put them to use rather than to hoard them in a cabinet and dust them once a year. As I anticipate simplifying and streamlining my life and preparing for a move to smaller quarters, it is a necessity.

But I’m keeping the bread bowl and the crocheted bedspread, and perhaps the crystal lemonade set as well. I can find a place for them, wherever I go.