Monday, August 24, 2015

Items of the Dead

“Head tells heart how it is, again:
You will lose the ones you love. They will all go. But even the earth will go someday.”
––Lydia Davis, “Head, Heart”

Simone called in tears because an eye-glass case once belonging to her father, the one she inherited upon his death, fell from a coat pocket and was lost on a New York City street.

“It’s not the case you’re mourning,” I told her. “You want your father back. You can buy another case.”

She sighed and said they used to fight over the one she’d lost because she longed for it before he was ready to give it away, a thin black sleeve of leather he used to roll between his big fingers. It was masculine and soft, like his skin, Simone said, and worn in the exact manner she prefers––a cracked patina she associates with valuable objects, things that cost dearly years ago, and cannot be easily replaced. So different than things made in the digital era where value is created through surfaces that are voids––blank and shiny and clean.

“Yes,” I said. “I understand. Our fathers will not return.”

I grew up in a family less wealthy than hers, but by today’s standards, even hers was not very wealthy. They were not of the one percent who demand entire sections of cities be reconfigured in their honor, purchasing penthouse suites in towers rising past clouds with special glass for looking out of but not for looking in. Simone’s family was not that, but they did have fine things––Turkish carpets and candelabras shipped from Austria ahead of the Nazis, who took everything they left behind, including family members unable to make a timely escape.

What I have is my West-Virginian grandmother’s silver teething spoon. Her initials are engraved on its handle and its hollow is worn thin and bent like wrinkled cloth, signs, presumably, my grandmother did, indeed, gum it as a toddler. Now I use it to stir sugar into tea I serve guests.

From my other grandmother––the cranky one––I have a cracked blue soap dish with two white birds perched at the edge. There’s a blackened seam of glue holding it together, and sometimes it re-splits. Every so often, I must put a fresh line of Elmer’s across the old break to make it whole again. This very soap dish, already damaged, sat in my grandmother’s front bathroom years before her death.

Until then, I hadn’t even known I noticed it. However, grandmother was gone, we were allowed to choose things we wanted to remember her by, and I chose the dish because of its familiarity, so familiar it had hardly been seen––also a small pink hippo. The hippo, formed from a strange plastic no longer in use, sits on a ledge over my kitchen sink, just as it once did over hers.

Not long ago, Mother was throwing away the ugliest thing, a grey canvas lap-top bag that belonged years ago to my father. It’s worn, and not in the beautiful way Simone desires. I nevertheless suddenly coveted it. After all, it once belonged to my father, whose death three years ago is one I’m still getting used to.

I plucked it from the pile of things Mother was tossing. Though it is small, heavy, and impractical, I tried carrying my laptop in it. But the bag is not my father. It is ugly and grey, something I never even saw him use. Still, I can imagine him purchasing it with pride. Like me, he had ambitions––grand intellectual projects––bigger and grander than his small world of family and this ugly impractical grey bag could sustain.

I imagine him buying it and placing his laptop in it much like I did mine. What hope it would have carried! But where was he going to go with his laptop? My sister had childhood cancer and had suffered significant brain damage after the surgery. She needed fulltime care. As a result for thirty years, my father and mother rarely left the house.

There are diamond rings that belonged to my great-grandmothers, and one or two now belong to me. I never wear them. They are for more slender fingers, and I’m wary of diamonds. They seem fancy and are less than interesting because they are the very things we are meant to value when someone dies.

What I like are the everyday objects the dead once used––things familiar or banal that can be loaded up with a variety of memories (real or imagined). We can imbue them with so much story they seem to reveal the dead to us in a present-tense manner out of all proportion to an object’s actual use in our present-tense lives and, perhaps, even out of all proportion to the role they played in the actual lives of those now dead.

For memorializing a loved one, I recommend choosing not the diamond, the gold watch, nor the pricey porcelain vase but instead the well-worn comb, bathrobe, or jelly jar holding an abandoned collection of loose buttons or old coins. But be prepared, should one of these objects go missing, the ache of its absence will surprise you; you will know the value of comb, bathrobe, and jelly-jar in a fresh and painful way. In losing even these small things, you will find the dead can die all over again.

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