“My mother had a collection of old lace, which was famous among her friends, and a few fragments of it still remain to me, piously pinned up in the indigo-blue paper supposed (I have never known why) to be necessary to the preservation of fine lace. But the yards are few, alas; for true to my conviction that what was made to be used should be used, and not locked up, I have outlived many and many a yard of noble point de Milan, of stately Venetian point, of shadowy Mechline, and of exquisitely flowered point de Paris, not to speak of the delicate Valiencennes which ruffled the tiny handkerchiefs and incrusted and edged the elaborate lingerie of my youth. Nor do I regret having worn out what was meant to be worn out. I know few sadder sights than museum collections of those Arachne-webs that were designed to borrow life and color from the nearness of young flesh and blood. Museums are cemeteries, as unavoidable, no doubt, as the other kind, but just as unrelated to the living beauty of what we have loved.” – Edith Wharton, “A Little Girl’s New York” (Harper’s Magazine, 1938).
Setting my table for a dinner party recently, I opened the drawer of the buffet where the tablecloths live: a white feather-patterned damask, a very old lace cloth (from my maternal great-grandmother, I think), and more. I reached for one but hesitated: are you sure you want to use this? whispered some interior voice. What if wine spills on it? What if it gets ripped? Since it’s survived so many years already, could you handle the guilt if it doesn’t survive you? I argued with myself about this but didn’t win. The tablecloth stayed in the drawer.
However, as always, I did bring out my grandmother’s china — a Renaissance-ish-floral-bordered pattern I’ve adored since I was a little girl, staring up at it ensconced in its glass-doored cabinet — and the wineglasses that had come to me, through her, from my great-grandmother. “You remind me of her,” my grandmother always told me. “I know she would want you to have these, and enjoy them.” I remember her urging me to do that. “Don’t be like me,” she said, “having nice things and never using them, ‘saving them for later.'” She gave me her mother’s rings and cameo, too. She would have loved you. You remind me of her.
I have hosted many a dinner on that china, and enjoyed it without guilt. Not so the one time I wore my great-grandmother’s ring — three small opals on a thin band — out of the house and, looking down, saw that a sliver had chipped out of one stone. I had been taking care. Opals are just soft, anyway. My grandmother had urged me to wear that ring. But I was inconsolable. Even repeating her words to me — have them, use them, enjoy them, she would want that — didn’t help. This was entrusted to you, and you ruined it. Isn’t that the reproach we most fear from our ancestors, that particular sharp shame? That little chip isn’t noticeable to anyone but me. But I’ve been scared to wear that ring ever since.
Yet the alternative to use and its dangers isn’t really any better — immuring ourselves in museums of fearfully preserved objects that in a way become even “deader” than Edith Wharton’s museums, because they are seen and used and enjoyed by nobody but us. Buying rooms full of glossy new things (and then hissing at everyone who comes in your house to stay off the furniture) is even worse. Looking at the lists of items in estate sales in the newspaper every week is looking the passage of time in the face, sadly realizing that as much as the hand wringer or those stoneware crocks or those porcelain figurines might have meant to the one who gathered them, they don’t necessarily mean the same thing to the ones who follow: one person’s treasure collection is another person’s how will we ever get this house cleaned out when she’s gone? It’s not a bad way to keep stuff-accumulating-impulses in check: what, if anything, will my descendants do with this? What meaning will they make of it?
Memory sticks to things, but it must also float free of them to be alive, to make a thing (and the memory) more than a static object of worship. Laurel McKelva Hand of Eudora Welty’s novel The Optimist’s Daughter (1972), confronts this when she returns to her father’s house to find that a breadboard her late husband made by hand as a gift for her late mother has been ruined by her father’s careless young widow, Fay, who’s scornful of it as “just an old thing.” Significantly placed at the end of the novel, it’s a startling scene to read – especially if you like old things as much as I do. But Welty’s closing words echo beyond the book, into every moment in which you touch an object and remember the one who gave it to you:
“The past is […] impervious, and can never be awakened. It is memory that is the somnambulist. It will come back in its wounds from across the world… calling us by our names and demanding its rightful tears. It will never be impervious…. As long as it’s vulnerable to the living moment, it lives for us, and while it lives, and while we are able, we can give it up its due.”
“Laying the breadboard down on the table where it belonged,” Laurel thinks: “Memory lived not in initial possession but in the freed hands, pardoned and freed, and in the heart that can empty but fill again, in the patterns restored by dreams.” We can care for our inherited things and our treasured possessions without being bound by them, without being terrified of the loss and breakage that is inherent to the passage of time in this world. That’s the challenge, but, when we find it, a gift.
And as my friends and I sat around my grandmother’s table, in her chairs, eating and drinking from her china and glassware, laughing and talking for hours, I thought of her and knew she’d be glad we were enjoying her things together. That’s another gift of memory, and of the present moment in which we let that memory come to life again.