Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Old Stuff

In my house I have a couple of pieces of furniture worth passing on to another generation. They’re functional, rather than museum quality and they’ve been around a long time.  One is a heavy wood dresser made in the mid-1700’s by an unknown ébéniste in France. It’s dark, scarred, rather forbidding, and the top, which I think may be oak, is cracked and stained. Gouges and nicks have been filled in places with sawdust and glue. The four drawers do not ride on metal rails but on wooden strips. The handles are inelegant, and the decorative carvings are well-made but rustic. I imagine this piece may have belonged to a country doctor, or to a bourgeois family in Amiens or Nice. As I was growing up, it was in the family’s living room and my mother used it to store linen and silverware. I use it in my bedroom for folded t-shirts and shorts.

My second treasure is a small secretary from the same period. One of the legs broke a long time ago and was clumsily glued and screwed back into place, giving the piece a slightly malformed look I feel adds to its charms. It has a pull down writing surface once lined with leather. There are six little drawers where my mother stored her decks of cards and score-keeping bridge pads, and a not-so-secret compartment with a sliding top, where she kept her red packs of American Pall Mall cigarettes and to this day, more than a half-century later, the compartment still smells of tobacco.

Lastly, I have a matched set of two fauteuils from the 1820s. They are small, built to accommodate the shorter and lighter guests of the 19th century.  My father recovered them several times over the years and the present fabric is dark with stains and age. One day, perhaps, I’ll have them done, but I’m in no hurry. The two easy chairs are redolent of earlier, more genteel times.

I was thinking of the furniture after visiting a friend’s home recently, a newly-built townhouse in the Maryland outskirts of the Nation’s Capital. It’s a pleasant, modern place with all the amenities of a 21st century dwelling, and no history at all. There’s a handkerchief of a front yard, a slightly larger square of fenced-in land to the rear, and not a hint that the family living has a past, with parents and grandparents who may have fought in wars, struggled to achieve, lived, bred and died. If my friends’ forefathers left something behind, it is not to be found in this dwelling place.

This isn’t the first time I’ve been in such homes. Not too long ago I was invited to a party at the residence of a former Washington bigwig. This was a multi-million dollar domicile in one of the country’s most affluent neighborhood, and there again, amidst expensive rugs, triple-paned windows, uninspired artwork and shelves of books that looked unread, was the vacuum of an absent past, as if the homeowner had sprung to earth full blown, adult and parentless.

I still have some of my father’s tools. Framing clamps, brad drivers, a manual drill, all things needed for him to frame my mothers’ paintings, reupholster a sofa or fix a leaky faucet. I grew up watching him repair things and learned how to do the same in my home. These old possessions have an unmatched importance in my life. I employ the tools, sit in the chairs, store my treasures in a desk that once graced my parents’ living room in another time and another country, and I am transported.

The passing down of family heirlooms is a dying institution. Few possessions nowadays are designed to survive more than a decade at best (think IKEA, stereos, TVs) and the handmade items of earlier generations are often lost to fire, flood, lack of attention or economic necessity.  My Kaypro computer from 1979 may end up in the Smithsonian—there’s already one there—but it’s unlikely to evoke the interest of a future generation.

In our haste to be blue-rayed, 3-deed and high-definitioned, we’re running out of the worthwhile household stuff we need to understand and remember our ancestors. If somewhere in your house you still have some of these things, take care of them. Once they’re gone, they’re gone for good. 

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