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Guestwords: Keepsake and Proof

Wed, 07/03/2024 - 08:19

The other morning, I stood admiring the rug at the foot of the bed.

Its tight, even weave; the rich colors. The thought of the days or weeks of labor that went into its creation, by whatever artisan produced it before our friend G bought it. Then, the memory of where it hung on the wall of his stairwell, before he passed it on to us, along with some wonderful ceramics, when he was emptying the house in Sag Harbor that he’d lovingly repaired, remodeled, and maintained with his own hands over the 40 years he owned it.

It was his garden that mattered most to me. I spent a ridiculous amount having a hinoki cypress from his back courtyard transplanted to Amagansett. What an absurdity: I could have bought one directly from the nursery for less. And it was the best money I ever spent.

As a teenager and into my early adulthood, I endured impatiently my mother’s rehearsals of the stories behind some of the objects in her house. The memories that went with them weren’t my memories. Her increasingly persistent efforts to instill them into me sparked a sometimes poorly suppressed annoyance. I came to think of these occasions as the Litany of the China Cabinet.

Now I understand better what was at stake for her. She was the custodian of other people’s lives. Passing on the story of who had owned what meant keeping the dead among us. And with it, a reassurance that her own memory would endure.

When she died, I carted far more out of her house than I needed to hang on to. I realized soon enough that I had no use for the poster bed that had belonged to her aunt — whom I also knew and adored in my teens. The pegs in the sidepieces are set up for stringing ropes to support a featherbed. The frame is an inch too short for a modern double mattress. Over 20 years later, it’s still the albatross around my neck — or rather, the obstacle at the side of the furnace room.

What I prize most: the hickory cutting board from my grandmother’s kitchen, marked by 50 years of scorching and sharp knives. What I regret most: that none of the cowslips from my mother’s garden now grow in mine. By oral tradition, they were descended from ones carried by her grandparents from Stuttgart to Richmond, Ind., in 1871.

As I approach the age of 70, the question is on the horizon — where does all this stuff go next? Not to a next generation by blood. Perhaps, in some few cases, to younger friends who will remember these things not because of their extended provenance, but principally because they came from me.

When one of my undergraduate professors retired — a “confirmed bachelor” who took me under his wing in his last years of teaching — he gifted me his Greek dictionary. At my own retirement, I passed it on to one of my students. And was overjoyed when another student picked out about a hundred books from my office library just before she packed up to move to her first full-time teaching job.

In many cultures, the history of objects is as important as the genealogy of families — a history that sometimes strengthens lines of blood relations, but sometimes cuts across them to map out the web of other, equally important bonds. We’ve lost much of that in capitalist society, with its commodification of nearly everything. Once, there was your grandfather’s writing desk. Now, there is IKEA.

The love of objects isn’t necessarily symptomatic of greed. Sometimes, it’s born of the sense that they’re infused with human memory and a thick texture of relationship. They become an extension of who we are, and a tangible sign of our connection to others. Their meaning needs to keep circulating.

A gift economy isn’t about acquiring and relinquishing stuff. It’s about the value and the bonds that are created by the act of exchange itself. The Indigenous cultures of North America still understand this — despite the settler economy they have little choice but to accommodate — here on Long Island, and across the United States and Canada.

Latin has a flexible word, pignus, that sums all this up. It can mean a pledge, or a token, or an assurance, or a keepsake, or a proof. In the usage of the medieval Christian church, it came to refer to the relics of the saints. The Veil of the Virgin Mary at Chartres Cathedral (which miraculously survived a fire in 1194). The Crown of Thorns at Notre Dame in Paris (which survived the fire of 2019). The Shroud of Turin.

Or, if you will: the shawl given to Harriet Tubman by Queen Victoria, now in the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., along with Nat Turner’s Bible. The ceremonial rattle that has passed down through a shamanic lineage of mentors and apprentices. The ancestral photographs on a Mexican family ofrenda. The beads that some random beautiful boy put around your neck in the middle of Mardi Gras, when you were everything in the world to each other for three minutes, before the crowd moved on.

David Townsend is professor emeritus of medieval studies and English at the University of Toronto. He lives part time in Amagansett.



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