Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Objects of Our Affection, by Lisa Tracy

The book's full title, Objects of Our Affection: Uncovering My Family's Past, One Chair, Pistol, and Pickle Fork at a Time, attracted me, as did the synopsis, which described the efforts of the author and her sister, Jeanne, to cope with a few households full of family possessions after their mother's death.

My own mother died in 2000 (my father had died back in 1986), and I have a conflicting relationships with the objects that I inherited from their household. While I can't trace our family's antiques back to relatives who arrived on the Mayflower or fought heroically in the Revolution, they include some 18th-century gems, some of which have been in our family for a while, some of which my parents bought at auctions here and there.  Regardless, they were in my childhood home, and they hold sentimental value for me as well as intrinsic value as antiques.  Is that enough to justify shipping them from New England to Malaysia to Cambodia? I don't know, but if I sell them, I can't replace them. If I sell them, I have nothing left that ties me to my past, apart from memories. On the other hand, they lost some of their nostalgic power as time passed after my mother's death---once removed from our family home, they grew less numinous somehow. The big, pine sea-captain's trunk looks out of place in Phnom Penh, and the tropical climate is not treating it kindly. It's become incongruous, like the piña colada that hit the spot in the Bahamas but doesn't quite work in Boston.

Tracy captures perfectly our nostalgic clinging. We use our stuff as a means to construct our historical narrative, be it fictional or real.
Yet the ideal that we Americans cherish is some cozy picture-book town---like the Lexington of our childhoods, or some idealized New England village---where everyone knows his neighbors, and where the names on the street signs and in the cemetery are indeed your own. I think that's what makes Thomas Kinkade's paintings so popular. Seems like everyone craves that small-town fantasy, and Kinkade provides it, just as surely as Currier and Ives did in their day. The reality is that most of us have little enough idea of where our great-grandparents are buried and even less chance of ever seeing the place we originally "came from." This is about grief and loss, says Jeanne. As a people, we grieve because we don't get to close the circle. We don't know how so many of our families' stories ended. We move around so much, sometimes we don't even know what happened to our childhood friends, to the houses we lived in, to the people we worked with just ten years ago. As a country, she says, we don't realize that our anxiety and our greed are part of an effort to lay the ghosts to rest.
She also captures the wish to leave things unchanged, as they were before the family members died. We all know stories of siblings whose relationships were permanently rent by estate battles; she points out that it's not easy, even in the best of cases.
The process was nerve-racking, even for two sisters who had for most of our lives functioned as long-distance best friends. Put yourself in our place: You're dividing up treasures garnered over many lifetimes, which are also the essence of your childhood home. But actually, you don't want to divide it at all; you want it to stay exactly where it is. You don't ever want to see it any way other than the way it has always been. And you're doing this with your best friend. Scalpel, please!
When Tracy delved into the history of her family artefacts, my mind started to wander. I wouldn't go so far as to call it name-dropping, but I found that I didn't get the same thrill from her historical connections as she did. I think many of us construct our own histories around the pieces we love, and they're largely personal.
It was Harry, after all, who had fallen while leading the charge at San Juan Hill, but Teddy Roosevelt who had claimed the day and seized the credit. And there was William Maxwell Wood Sr., the uniformed naval officer in the portrait and Daddy's great-grandfather, for whom he was named.
These and other illustrious names lurked in our family's background, as did various heroic deeds that had certainly made headlines at the time---like Harry Egbert's death---but had since receded, most annoyingly, into the vast swamp of history without leaving a trace worth talking about---or trading upon, as we were hoping to do in this auction.
In the end, she seems to agree with me that the decisions are largely sentimental ones, part of a futile search for what is long gone.
Still others have said that it isn't really home we're all looking for but our childhoods; or that home is the place we leave and then spend our whole lives trying to get back to.

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