On October 20, 1991, when the fire destroyed our house I tried to tell myself that "material possessions" are not most important; we still have each other, our families, our friends, our memories. And indeed we did, and do. But as the months pass I realize that many of our lost objects were intricately tied to us, to our family, to friends, and most certainly, to our memories. Even now I can hardly separate the memories from the objects I have lost. When I think of Granny I realize how much I miss wearing her sapphire and diamond engagement ring. She could no longer slide it on her arthritic fingers. She gave me her ring on my 18th birthday, the day before Valentine's Day. The center chocolate in a heart-shaped box of candy had been replaced by a small purple velvet ring box. Her silver footed butter dish with the insert tray for butterballs reminded me of her regular morning chore, rolling little cubes of butter between the wooden, grooved paddles. When I think of "Big Daddy" I remember the little slipper chair beside our fireplace on which his mother sat, he told me, to button her shoes, in St. Louis, in the 1860's. Thoughts of my Grandma Powell remind me of her hand-painted china I brought out for special parties. Grandpa Powell makes me think of the years of research I did based on his father's diary and his emigration from Wales to California; piles of paper, photos, prints, a published article, and the diary itself, now ashes. When I think of my parents I remember so many objects which made me remember them, every day: the bedside table Father made to match Mother's tansu (oriental chest); Mother's antique furniture she inherited from Granny; many books my parents read and passed on to me; and, of course, the photographs. Among the treasures were our children's first letters to us, and their gifts over the years. They are the greatest loss because they could bring us immediately in touch with those we know and love.
Yes, material objects are terribly important. We cannot comprehend their value until they are taken away. Their ashes have, in some inevitable way, joined the ashes of my ancestors. I was simply their custodian for a part of my lifetime.
How do we get along without these possessions? Some people rush out to replace everything that the insurance money can buy. My reaction was the opposite. I cannot replace those objects I really cared about, so I will buy nothing except the bare essentials needed to keep house. Now, living temporarily in a furnished apartment where I have not had to buy anything in order to keep house, I have continued with this attitude, but gradually I have come to realize that the new house will be empty when it is rebuilt. We must put things back into it. There must not only be "essentials", but there can also be lovely decorative furnishings again. I might even be tempted to have another tansu even if it will not have been Granny's. I have been nudged in this direction by a cousin who wants to give back my old walnut dresser which I used as a girl in Lafayette but which I let my mother loan to our cousin many years ago when Mother noticed that my husband and I were entering a "contemporary" phase of house furnishing. She was afraid I might sell the dresser to buy "Danish Modern"! But I emerged safely from that phase in time for Mother to leave me the antiques she had inherited from her mother. Our daughter, Margie, could hardly wait to inherit her share. Her sister, Kathy, also might have enjoyed having some of them. It makes me very nappy to see Kathy wearing Granny's gold wedding ring and to know she has my Grandma Powell's engagement ring. Certainly our four granddaughters expressed an interest in their ancestors'belongings when they came to visit us. Anna has already received the silver spoons with her great, great grandmother Anna's initials on them: "ASM", for Anna Smith Miller. Beth has the set of Victorian silver coffee spoons from her great, great grandma Powell. Mother had given Kathy her sterling flatware, the silver we used when I was growing up. It is a pattern I liked so well I would have chosen it when I was married if Mother had not selected it 24 years earlier. Now Kathy, who seldom uses it, has offered to loan it to us. A friend has offered to loan us his mother's china and bits of silver. She was my dear friend and when she died her belongings went into storage. Using some of her things will remind me of her, everyday. Material objects are very important.
I seem to be willing to gather them in, again. Who are these people whose objects have meant so much to me? Because their belongings were reduced to ashes, just as they themselves have been, do I need to create on paper who they were? As if, having lost the objects that kept me in touch with them, must I now write their biographies so that I will not forget these people, and can let my children and grandchildren know these ancestors, especially now that they will never inherit their possessions? Are biographies the only chance they now have for immortality? All the raw data are gone. The ancestors are at my mercy as I now write their life stories.