A couple of years ago, I received a small vase of porcelain flowers from the mother of a friend. My friend and I grew up in the same neighborhood; their house was on the next street over on Murdock Road. I spent lots of time there, and I can still picture it vividly, even thirty years after the last time I set foot in it. As a surrogate member of their family, I developed a special friendship with their mother, Anne Leavitt, who was very prim and proper, but also loving, strong and outspoken. We shared a taste for the English aesthetic. I adored how she decorated her home with rubbings from Westminster Abbey, crewel pillowcases, and beautiful old furniture. I admired a small item that decorated a table in their living room: an Aynsley vase of porcelain flowers. When Anne moved into an assisted living community a couple of years ago, she gathered her children and dispersed any belongings that would not go with her to the new living quarters. I told my friend that if no one wanted that vase of porcelain flowers, I would love to have it. Happily, no one did, and now it sits on my bedroom dresser where I see it every day.
At first, its appearance there caused some unexpected cognitive dissonance. To see this object from a childhood spent in Baltimore now sitting on my dresser in Seattle — worlds collided. It beamed a message from my past, reminding me of where I came from. Anne Leavitt died recently, and I am deeply saddened by her death. A piece of my childhood has been lost forever. Now when I look at the porcelain flowers, I think of Anne and I feel her loss, just as I feel the loss of my childhood. The object has now become sacred, a symbol of something lost forever.
I have many such objects in my home. My mother gifted two scarab bracelets to me a few years ago. Originally, they belonged to her; one was an engagement gift from my father, and the other slightly smaller bracelet was a gift from her sister, a present for being the matron of honor in her wedding. Years before, I mistakenly thought I could purchase one for myself when I visited Egypt in 1999, but scarab bracelets are not Egyptian. They were all the rage in mid-twentieth century American jewelry. My mother didn’t wear them anymore. Knowing how much I liked them, she gave them to me as a gift. I love the look of them. As they dangle from my wrist, I’m always conscious of the story behind them, the history of young women in my family and their relationships and bonds. I feel closer to that history every time I wear them.
When I married in 2004, I received a pair of paintings from my long time friend, artist Henry Callahan. I feel a deep sense of connection with him, though we seldom speak. He describes the process of painting as “breathing paint onto the canvas” and he is intimately connected with his work. He has always been a huge supporter of mine. His paintings stare back at me right now from across the room, and I feel a sense of peace, as though he is watching over me. Art is powerful stuff.
My house is full of old family photographs and travel souvenirs. Family portraits painted by my husband’s great-grandfather hang in our front room. We surround ourselves with memories. These objects act as an invisible thread connecting us back to another moment in time. Through them, we act as our own medium, divining the past, feeling its pains and pleasures again. Everyone has a box of stuff they can’t bear to part with, an emotional time capsule that can be excavated at will. You need it to remind you of who you were then, and who you are now.
My uncle died recently at quite a young age. He was only nine years older than me, but I was still his niece. Though we weren’t close, I have many fond memories of him when I was a child. Thinking the other day about the summers we spent down the ocean on the East Coast, I remembered how we used to play wiffle ball on the beach. This week, my nine-year-old niece, visiting Seattle from Berlin, walked into our house with a wiffle ball and bat over her shoulder, asking me what it was. I haven’t seen a wiffle ball in forty years. To see one now seemed uncanny.
I love these nudging reminders, these invisible connections to the past, because it gives me something to savor, even as I contemplate the impermanence of life. These people, those places, this memory will all pass. But, through the object, I can be there again. I can love and cherish them forever.