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The Shipwreck Rose: Joshua’s Box

Wed, 10/11/2023 - 17:55

The Buddhist term, I believe, is “clinging”: the human impulse to attach ourselves to things and stuff — things and stuff both physical and experiential — that we believe define us but that aren’t permanent and aren’t, actually, possess-able for longer than a fleeting minute. To continue a theme I embarked on last week, sic transit gloria mundi; our worldly goods are ephemeral and will decay, and furthermore, when you get down to brass tacks, our things and stuff are completely irrelevant to who we are, to our essence or deeper self, our identity or soul or whatever you’d like to call the voice that chatterboxes to you inside your head.

There has been all too much clinging going on in this family.

By which I mean that we suffer under the accumulated weight of acquired antiques and heirloom possessions, collected by three or four generations now with the intention not just of historical preservation but self-definition via notable bric-a-brac. Who has staircase banisters crafted from genuine whaleboat oars? We do! Who has three attics-ful of photographs, glass-plate negatives, Super 8 films, and Kodachrome slides on which a river of ghosts — children in white frocks leading goats on leashes, soldiers drunkenly wearing German helmets on Armistice Day, ladies with oiled hair and thin upper lips — are slowly fading into glory, glory hallelujah? We do!

I, for one, have grown a bit weary of psychically and (on the occasion of house-moving) physically carting around the hand-painted lid to a whale oil barrel and my great-great-great-whoever’s patchwork quilt stitched with scraps of Lancashire cotton saved from the wreck of the Circassian in 1876.

This week we — and by “we” I mean I — decided to do something sacrilegious, which was to demolish the old upstairs playroom, at the far end of the long hall in our house here on Edwards Lane, and disperse its aggregated contents — disgorge, with a belch — to family members, the Long Island Collection, the dump, and the FreeCycle! East End giveaway page on Facebook.

With its quaintly outdated world maps on the walls and built-in bookshelves framing a window that looks out on the backyard apple tree, this playroom, I always said, was my favorite room in the house. But it was also, keeping with the theme of encumbrance, completely useless to life as we know it. It’s going to be repainted in a fresh white-and-leafy-green scheme and repurposed with a rattan day bed and soft chairs as a teenagers’ retreat and extra guest room, so that my son can have sleepovers.

Opposite the apple-tree window in this playroom is the room’s real novelty, a small stage proportioned for preschool productions, with theatrical curtains custom-made in the 1930s from heavy red and gold satin, fading now to a watermelon and gold. Running along the side wall between this stage and the apple-tree window, under the maps of the world, used to be a rank of three built-in desks, constructed for my father, aunt, and uncle in those prewar years and never used by any child for any classwork, ever, not since the Great Depression, if then, but — poof! — they’re gone now. I asked my ex-husband, the boatbuilder, to tear them out a few days ago with hammers and a lot of crashing and banging.

The boards of the stage, by contrast, have been well-trod. Three generations of parents have been issued construction-paper tickets and obediently sat through productions costumed out of a steamer truck (yep, a steamer trunk) and, improvisational and unscripted, let’s be frank, rather boring even to them, the thespians’ parents. This well-loved stage hadn’t been used for some 15 years, either, because it had through slow accretion become a convenient depot for Ye Olde Stuff, including not limited to: a 100-year-old solid-oak filing cabinet containing, I don’t know, as many as a thousand family photographs; no fewer than four Persian rugs; two gilt-framed antique mirrors too clouded with age to be used for lipstick application; four amateur oil paintings of chrysanthemums and sailboats; small boxes containing silver spoons forged in the living room of this house when it was a silversmith shop; small boxes containing ancient sewing implements carved out of bone; a stack of framed color posters of works by Paul Davis and Winslow Homer; a Schwenk’s Dairy milk crate overflowing with Lego from the 1970s; two fruit crates (Dolly Brand Citrus and High-Hand Pears) jammed with my own old stuffed animals, Babar, Hunca Munca, Johnny Town-Mouse, and Paddington Bear. Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

I’m thinking now of the baggage train that followed France’s Grande Armée, abandoned when Napoleon was fleeing Russia in 1812.

None of us gets out of here alive.

The stage platform stays; the stage curtains go. It’s a wrench, but they have stains.

During demolition, a particular artifact emerged from the pile of mingled antiques and junk on the stage-cum-storeroom that beckoned to me, glinting and glowing like the ruby in a pirate’s den in a fairy tale. It was a well-fashioned dark wooden box about 15 inches wide that was only vaguely familiar. I thought I’d seen it before. . . ? Sitting on the floor, sneezing as the dust motes circulated in the late-afternoon sunshine, I turned the key in the lock on the box and, lifting the lid, realized it was a tabletop writing desk. Lay the lid flat, flip back an interior panel, and you had a neatly slanting writing surface covered in purple velveteen. Concealed under the top half of the desk was a compartment containing important correspondence belonging to my great-great-grandfather Capt. Joshua Bennett Edwards of Amagansett, mostly from when he was in his 50s and, retired from whaling, the man in charge of the Amagansett Life-Saving Station in the 1880s.

There was a three-cent coin dated 1830, very worn and thin, like it had been handled a lot, a good-luck charm. A letter about a rare species of shark that Josh found on the beach, packed in an ice-filled crate, and shipped to a scientist in Washington, D.C. A legal document recording the sale of a parcel of land to the Long Island Rail Road, for use as the L.I.R.R.’s Amagansett depot. A single-entrance ticket to the American Museum of Natural History, compliments of the curator, for Josh to visit the skeleton of the whale he harpooned in 1907. And at the box’s bottom, a palm-size daguerreotype of a lady from the 1850s — her brooch, necklace, and ring picked out in gold. (If you read my column a few weeks ago about Captain Josh’s romance in Hawaii, the missionary’s daughter, you, like me, may wonder if the woman in the portrait he kept under lock and key was or wasn’t his wife, Adelia Conklin Edwards. It wasn’t. Definitively wasn’t his wife. More on this juicy tidbit anon!)

Among the ephemera, deeds, and bickering correspondence between the keepers of the different Life-Saving Stations up and down the shore from Montauk to Flying Point I found a list, written in pencil and titled “inventory,” tallying up the acreage owned by Adelia and Joshua Edwards in the 1880s. It totaled more than 500 acres, including, but not at all limited to: a few dozen acres at Napeague, bordering Montauk, a few dozen acres at “Cranberry Hole” and “Cranberry Hole Meadow,” and a few dozen wooden acres near Fresh Pond. We’ve done all too much clinging around here, but I must say I rather wish we’d done a bit more clinging to real estate.


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