I’ve been thinking a lot lately about family, about my grandmother and my mother and my stepfather. I’m not entirely sure why. It’s partly that spring always makes me nostalgic. And it’s partly because we are undergoing some home “improvements” and I am cleaning and decluttering in the wake of the workmen. And, it seems, I am incapable of doing this without stopping to admire each of my favourite things and think about how I came to own them.
I have always loved “old stuff” whether it’s vintage fashion or old beat up bits of furniture. When my mother married my stepfather in the 70’s and we moved from our apartment to the old farm, I thought I had died and gone to heaven.
|View of the Saint John River and Sugar Island from the top of the hill behind our house.|
I had my own room up under the eaves of the green and white farmhouse. My window was in the gable and the house was green and white… I was undoubtedly Anne reincarnated! And the house and barns were old, really old. There were, literally, hundreds of acres to explore outside and in. I wandered up the hill behind the house with my sketch pad. (I fancied myself a budding artist in those days.) I poked into deep closets, maneuvered myself on elbows and knees into a fascinating, dirt-floored crawl space under the old part of the kitchen, shifted piles of old wood and assorted castoffs in the barnyard…..and always emerged with some sort of treasure.
I’d track down my stepfather where he bent over the motor of an old tractor or sat on a saw horse patiently filing the blade of the mowing machine and I’d ask about my found object and if I could have it. He’d always stop what he was doing, straighten up, remove and replace his cap and say, “Well now, Snooze, I can’t think why not.” Snooze was his nick name for me. It actually originated with my elder brother, and funnily enough, only those two ever called me that.
My husband and I always laugh nostalgically about my stepfather’s penchant for speaking in double negatives. The year my husband and I decided to live together, I flew home to tell my parents… my stepfather’s response was “Well Snooze, I’m not sure that that’s not the right thing to do.” Only his pleasant tone told me he approved…. I certainly couldn’t tell by his words! That story always makes me smile.
This is the little earthenware jug I found half buried under the kitchen the first year we lived on the farm. I love it. When I was fourteen, it sat on the shelf in my bedroom and held my paintbrushes.
This is an old chest I found behind the cow barn, under a pile of boards and partly covered in cow manure. It took me all one summer to clean it, scrubbing it out repeatedly and then letting it dry in the sun. Cleaned and repainted, it sat at the foot of my bed in grade nine, and has traveled with me ever since.
When I was in high school and finally had my driver’s licence, I spent a lot more time with my grandmother Sullivan. I’d go to her house to scrounge for books; my grandmother was a great reader, and I’d often leave with a box of books as well as a treasure of some sort.
I remember one day my grandmother said I should have a look in some boxes in her shed. They had been there for years, left over from when my grandparents bought an old house in the neighbourhood known to all as the Gregory house. The house had been owned by a maiden school teacher and her bachelor brother. When they both died my grandparents bought the house with all its contents. That day I rummaged through all of Grammy’s boxes, and finally emerged covered with cobwebs and holding a small box filled with the most amazing blue and white china, pieces from an old tea set. Six plates, and six cups and saucers. Years later I found out that the pattern is called “Flow Blue” and is quite collectible. That didn’t matter to me then…or now, actually. I just loved it because…well, I loved it.
The cat chasing the red ball, below, sat on the floor in my grandparent’s living room all my life. My mum says that she can’t remember it not being there, either. One day my grandmother said if I liked it I should take it home with me. So I did.
The fumed oak secretary behind the cat also came from my grandmother’s house. She gave it to me when I moved into my first apartment when I was in university. I must have admired it and she decided I should have it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Grammy was beginning to divest herself of her possessions. She was well up in her eighties then. I can’t claim to know what was in her mind, but I like to think that she was placing all these treasures in good homes. But that is probably overly romanticized and sentimental because… although my grandmother was a good woman, who had worked hard all her life, who loved a laugh and was smart as a whip… sentimental, she was not.
Now my mum is in her eighties too, and has been doing the same thing as my grandmother. Divesting herself of treasures accumulated over a lifetime. Many of the things are items she wants me or my sisters to have. Like the china cup and saucer, below, which my father bought for my mum when they were newly married.
Or the beautiful old tea set that originally came from my grandmother’s house, to my mum’s, and now sits in my dining room. The cups are so thin you can see your hand through them. Right now I don’t have room to display the whole set, so the plates, cups and saucers I keep packed away. When I get my new dining room set and china cabinet, I’ll bring them out.
Two summers ago when my mum moved from the old farmhouse into her new little house… she had to decide what to do with a lot of furniture and dishes and pictures and other stuff. Mum packed up everything that she wanted to take with her to the new house and my husband and I sorted through everything else. Well… I sorted, my mum made the final decisions and hubby carried and stacked and eventually transported three or four loads in our truck to the newly opened Salvation Army store in Fredericton. We laughed that Mum had single-handedly stocked the store.
Below is an old wooden tool box and a lovely little butter churn that I brought home that summer. The box had sat in the old horse barn for years. And the churn, well, I think it was stashed in the rafters of the woodshed. My mum had set it aside for me, knowing that I would love it.
Everything in the house, several generations worth of possessions in fact, was looked at, discussed and decided upon. Dishes that had belonged to my step father’s first wife or a hand painted maple bedroom set that had belonged to his grandmother and thus should go to my step brother, were carefully set aside.
Books, books and more old books were sorted. Some belonged to my father when he was a boy, others to us kids… our names carefully inscribed in each. I knew that I couldn’t keep them all. My husband was starting to roll his eyes and sigh.
My mum had moved to her new house the big, old cedar chest that my father had found and refinished in the 1950’s. I unboxed its contents and, with my niece’s ten year old daughter Carlie, unfolded and inspected each item. Carlie has her great-aunt’s passion for fashion, so she tried on almost every item of clothing we found and modeled them, old bridesmaid dresses, my mum’s hats, eventually wearing home a lovely old kilt that had belonged to my sister. It looked smashing with her tee shirt and black leggings.
Some stuff from the cedar chest was not worth saving. Some went to the Salvation Army store (bet there were lots of 60’s bridesmaid costumes that Halloween.) Some I couldn’t bear to throw out. A hand-knitted sweater and hat that I wore as a baby. My aunt Marion’s hand embroidered tea towels that would have been part of her hope chest if she had lived. And the curling tongs that she used in her hair salon. My mum has kept them all these years. I couldn’t NOT bring them home.
Some of my own childhood treasures that were still stored in the big closet in my old bedroom were passed on, finally, that day. Carlie loaded up the back seat of their car with several cases of 60’s era Barbies, Barbie clothes, Barbie’s car and her “House of Dreams” … and her mother, my niece, rolled her eyes and said…”Gee, thanks Aunt Susie!” Except that she was one to talk… having previously packed her trunk with old green painted kitchen utensils, stoneware crocks, and a large picture that had hung in my grandmother’s (her great-grandmother’s) bedroom. I guess loving old things runs in the family.
I’m not sure why I love old things, I just do, and always have done. My friend Mary is a great shopper of antiques. I’ve learned a lot from her about browsing through country antique fairs. When an item interests her, she always picks it up, carries it over to the merchant and says…”Tell me about this.” I love that approach. It elicits all kinds of surprising detail and information about the item’s value and provenance. And sometimes quirky stories about the object’s history.
“Provenance” is a word usually reserved for rare and valuable antiques where the chain of ownership must be proven since it has an effect on the object’s monetary value. To me it just means the story behind the object.
Each and every item that my grandmother or my mother passed on to me was accompanied by its story, or a related story. Stories about dances my grandmother attended as a girl or about the maiden school teacher who lived in my grandmother’s neighbourhood. Stories about my father and his and my mum’s life together before I was born, or about my Mum’s sister who died young. None of my treasures is particularly rare or valuable, as far as I know… except to me. I know the “provenance” of them all. And knowing that infinitely increases their “value” for me.
Are you a lover of old things? What objects do you treasure?