My mother, waving a fork forlornly over her salad at a favorite spot in Issaquah where we go to lunch together every month, expresses frustration that no one in the family seems eager to receive things from her walls and shelves and cabinets, the things she has spent a lifetime collecting, by bequeathal or purchase, and now wishes to pass on to the next generation. They’re not only in her way since she and my father moved out of my childhood home in Bellevue to the smaller condo she now occupies, but they also threaten to be a burden to others (me, mostly) after she’s gone, l.m.s.l..
Finally, she’s just plain sad that no one wants to cherish these things. What will become of them — these platters and trivets and teacups and serving bowls and creamers that she has lovingly safeguarded against the ravages of time, pilferage, breakage? Her granddaughters, the ones close by here, are starting their own families now but for various reasons they don’t clamour for these objects.
One reason is that — as I keep hearing — “millennials” are not as possession-oriented to start with. Partly because they’re more nomadic, partly because the American Dream of home ownership seems to slip further beyond their grasp as the years go by, they feel neither the necessity nor the capacity to house loads of stuff that they don’t use often, exactly the kind of thing that middle-class homemakers of my mother’s generation loved to collect and display. Millennials are happy to rent flex- and zip- cars rather than deal with the insurance and maintenance and parking costs associated with what was once the first and most important status symbol in American society — owning a car. They pay for music as a service rather than buy CDs that then need to be both copied to mobile devices and stored somewhere, trusting, as I never could trust, that some server out there on the interwebs will keep track of their purchases and let them have that music again if they lose it.
Then there are style incompatibilities. My mother’s only daughter, my sister Jeni, went out of this life earlier than we expected, but Jeni was not very sentimental, and she was also blunt. There were a few things I think she had earmarked among my mother’s treasures that she would have taken had she lived longer, but for the most part she had her own style that was different. Jeni’s daughters mostly value a modern style, cleaner lines, more empty space, less clutter and less ornament, a style more suited to apartment living. One of them is a missionary in Africa, and she and her husband indeed live light on the earth.
While Mom sizes the situation up I nod sympathetically. Not empathetically but sympathetically, because I feel her pain. I’m a keeper. Despite great strides made by me in recent years in throwing things out, I still seem to find myself standing in piles of things that I can’t really use for anything but to which I am attached by a feeling that they have inherent value that is not utilitarian. The basement of my life continues to cough up useless but keepish items the way farmers’ fields grow stones. They just rise up with the freeze-thaw of life’s seasons, no matter how many wagon loads are carted away.
One such item is a tiny balsa-wood model of an electric locomotive that my Uncle Jim made from scratch and gave to his littlest brother, my dad. I don’t remember when Dad gave it to me or where he had stashed it all those years; maybe in his top dresser drawer, maybe in one of the many cluttered cabinets in his shop. I took it because he handed it to me, and because I liked the picture in my head of how delighted my dad, as a boy, would have been to have received this amazing piece of craftsmanship from his older brother. Jim was the first of six kids, and something like thirteen or fourteen years older than my dad, who was the last. Jim was the family hero; he went to sea in the Merchant Marine, and was the first to go to war. Looking at this little model, seeing the fine paint work and the individually applied rods and electric thingies and hand rails, and thinking that he made it for his kid brother Billy, just gives me a good feeling.
It sits on its own track and trestle, so it could in theory have been displayed at one time, but part of the trestle supports and many of its fine details were broken off during my dad’s tenure as its guardian, and in my own administration the whole middle section has come away from the end sections. It’s that brittle. It doesn’t do anything. It’s just a tiny, amazing piece of craft, unique in the entire universe.
And I don’t want it anymore.
But what to do with it? It has no monetary value and it’s unable to stand up in the slightest breeze. I guess the center could be glued back, but it would be a dodgy operation because the break from the tracks was not clean and all of it is so blasted delicate.
My daughters remember their Pop-Pop, my father, but Uncle Jim died long before they were born, so the thing has little inherent sentimental value for them. So there’s little reason to hang on to it for my offspring’s sake.
I was recently preparing a box to ship to my own little brother, Ben, containing one of his model railroad boxcars that somehow ended up in my stuff years ago when our parents were getting rid of the old train layout and boxing up our rolling stock for us. I’ve been meaning to send it to him for years. I boxed it up last week and included — very well padded in paper and styrofoam and several nested boxes — the little balsa model. In the little thought bubble above my head, Ben was opening it up with delight and saying “hey, this is so cool!” I had it all taped up and addressed to my brother in Alaska when the thought occurred to me, and I said aloud…”whoa, wait a sec. Am I just doing that thing?”
Angela laughed, recognizing a thing that happens in my family a lot, especially in recent years with so many people shucking the coil. She then summed the whole situation up brilliantly. “You cherish the thing, but you don’t want to be burdened with it anymore. You’d feel guilty getting rid of it, and you hope that someone else will cherish it. But you don’t want to risk asking them and having them say no. So you just send it. And then it’s their problem.”
I couldn’t believe it. I was doing that thing exactly. Even after the myriad times that Angela and I have laughed together and rolled our eyes after I’ve opened some package and found some thing returned to me that I had given (or sold) to someone decades ago — a drawing or painting, a poem or letter. “Thought you might want this back,” invariably goes the accompanying note. That’s part of our Particular Tribal Crazy. We view gifts in this bizarre way, so that when we’re done with something someone has given us we don’t feel free to just give it or throw it away. Gifts come with strings. They have to be returned to the giver when we’re done with it. But we don’t ask.
Years ago, when my Uncle Jim (the same uncle) and Aunt Evelyn downsized to a smaller house, they told me they had my painting for me to come and get when it was convenient for me. The painting was a mammoth 2-foot by 4-foot oil on canvas I’d done as a teenager, when I took painting lessons in the basement of the Ilona Rittler Gallery in Bellevue. It was a copy of one of the translucent ocean wave paintings by an artist named Galen who was known for those kinds of seascapes. My uncle and aunt had commissioned me to make a painting, a large one for their large house, and I chose this amazing Galen wave and copied it fairly faithfully. That was what we did as students; the studio had lots of full-sized prints of paintings of various kinds, and we honed our craft by copying them when we weren’t painting something from a photograph. I was proud of the technical achievement — the skill it takes to faithfully reproduce some existing work — but it was the forger’s skill, and I began to see early on that I was not an artist myself but a technician. Consequently, I did not love the idea that this behemoth, for which I had been paid the fair sum of 200 American dollars decades ago and which I considered the rightful property of Others to dispense with as they saw fit, should land on my house in one of these “keep it in the family” lateral hand-backs.
The locomotive is smaller by orders of magnitude, but I realized I was pulling a F– Family Lateral on my kid brother. So I emailed him some photos of the little model and asked if he wanted it. Turns out, no, he too has no place nor need for such a thing, as impressed as he was by its unique craftsmanship. Softy that he is, he said send it if I must, but all he would do was take it to an antique shop — there’s only one in Fairbanks that he thinks would even consider taking it. I realized that this would only be a further attempt to free both of us from guilt, as they’d probably throw it away. It can’t have any monetary worth. So I told my brother that I would not send it, that I wasn’t sure what I’d do with it but its blood would be on my hands and no one else’s.
But without the option of a Lateral, I’m not sure I can part with it. I am not psychologically sound enough. It would be cool to have the space and display cabinetry to keep all these things forever, but it would be even better to be able to keep our parents and uncles and aunts and other family members forever — because that’s what the guilt is about. To throw the object away — an object unlike any other under the sun or beyond the stars, from an age before everything that we own sprang from a plastic mould; an object that houses and symbolizes the discipline, the artistry, the effort and time dedicated; embodies the love — well, it feels like we’re saying none of it mattered.
I know all of it did matter and matters still, historically forever. And I know that the object ultimately does not matter. It isn’t cruel or callous of me to throw the little engine away. It’s just a damn shame.