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The Shipwreck Rose: Burning Down the House

Wed, 02/01/2023 - 18:22

Did I already tell you about the fishing I witnessed in Victoria Harbor, Hong Kong, in 1997 when I was on a press trip for Mirabella magazine? The fisherman tossed dynamite off the boat — or maybe it wasn’t dynamite, but some other explosive — and there was a huge bang and plume, and whole schools of fish popped to the surface, dead. Or maybe it wasn’t in Victoria Harbor that I saw this — watching from the railing of a ferry — but some other body of water in the vicinity of Hong Kong, as the Hong Kong Tourism Board toured us around. I’ve only been there once, so I know I witnessed the dynamite fishing in 1997, the year of the “handover,” but memory is fallible and the past isn’t solid, but mushy and malleable.

Cathay Pacific flew us to Kai Tak Airport, business class. When my editor in chief had called me into her office on the 44th floor of 1633 Broadway and told me I could go on a free trip to Hong Kong, I went into a fever of excitement to see all the historical sites and drink in all the rare gunpowder tea and historical flavor I possibly could. The surprise — the disappointment — was that a fragrantly old atmosphere, a jasmine-scented ancient setting, was difficult to find in Hong Kong. It wasn’t just that, obviously, it was a very modern city, all Versace boutiques and escalators rising into the clouds, but that no one seemed to want or value old things. The city was scrubbed and shining.

We were driven in limousines to visit the Che Kung Temple at Sha Tin (dating to the Ming Dynasty) — or maybe it was the Man Mo Temple (c. 1847) halfway up Victoria Peak — and sampled pork-lung soup at the Luk Yu Tea House (c. 1933), and I bought an umbrella at the Shanghai Tang department store (c. 1994), where you could try on traditional, vintage-look qipao dresses in bright fuchsia or emerald satin, but most traces of Hong Kong’s past had been blasted or plowed over.

The older I get, the clearer it becomes that hanging on to relics of the past can be a burden. I’m slowly getting more Hong Kongese in this regard. Preserving things and stuff is a ginormous burden. I understand the urge to sell it all on eBay and move to an empty white house.

My dad told me that his own grandparents, on the Huntting side, had dragged all the antique, handmade furniture they and their East Hampton kin had inherited and accumulated over the centuries — wood chairs, tables, and beds dating to the 18th century, probably half of it Dominy, and possibly even the 17th century — out into the yard and burned it, sometime around 1910 or 1920. Burned it all up in a great backyard pyre, to make way for modern furnishings. But other than that (or perhaps because of that?) my family has been hoarding and collecting anything old — and therefore uncommon and endangered — and filling our house, store room, and barn with it for the last 100 years. Because she was a historian, my grandmother was often given other people’s inconvenient antiques: Got a seven-foot-tall antique scythe cluttering up the joint, or a patch of colonial-era quilt so tattered it will fall apart in your hands if you take it out of the tissue paper? Sure, bring it on over here.

This past weekend, my brother dragooned his son, Ellis, and my son, Teddy, to begin the work of clearing out his mad-scientist workshop in the barn beside my house here on Edwards Lane. This is the third and final phase of the barn-clearing epic; the process began 10 years ago, when the oldest section was emptied, donated to the East Hampton Historical Society, and rebuilt on the Mulford Farm, across Main Street. The second phase came in 2020, when a television crew for a show called “Legacy List” helped me sort and empty what had been the barn’s midsection, so the kids could use it as a clubhouse. There was an old whale-oil barrel in there, and a stone spinning wheel for sharpening blubber-cutting tools. And a half-dozen bicycles, a half-dozen antique bed frames, framed posters from the 1970s, two black garbage bags of stuffed animals I’d hidden from my children when we moved home from Canada, more ice skates than a hockey league has feet.

The barn is like a magician’s hat: You put your hand in and pull out a surprise. Not just a rabbit, but something more surprising. A peacock comes out of the hat, a painting of the Rough Riders by great-grand-uncle Dan Huntting, who thought he was a cowboy, an electric quad off-roader, a taxidermied hammerhead shark. The relief was palpable when a scrap-metal man, who I found on the FreeCycle! East End Facebook page, managed to drag off a commercial Garland stove that must have weighed 800 pounds. It was left there “temporarily” by our cousin Jeff when he arrived from California, shirtless and bearded, in a converted yellow school bus for a visit in the summer of 1981.

We kept a goat in the horse stall in the oldest part of the barn in the late 1970s, and there was still a hay bale in the stall when we emptied that section in 2017. Upstairs, in a corner of the hayloft, was a small chamber where, I believe, a hired hand must once have slept; we found 1940s girly magazines in there when I was Teddy and Ellis’s age (very innocent girly mags, not showing much more than bosom, but unforgettable). Iceboats, paddleboards, shipping crates addressed to dead ancestors, iron mechanical parts of printing presses, vinyl patio furniture left “temporarily” when friends sold their Modernist house in Northwest Woods in 1996.

Ellis and Teddy don’t seem to have done much actual hauling. Mostly they just grabbed a hold of things issuing from the depths and ran around with them. The aim is to turn the workshop into an indoor basketball court. There is still a huge amount of cleaning out to do.

I am of a mind and of an age that, metaphysically speaking, I don’t necessarily believe the world is going to be the same tomorrow as it was today. When you are just a little kid, you think everything is immutable, that the world as you know it is eternal. But you get older and learn a few lessons about impermanence. Who knows what might be sprung on us when we awake in the morning? I open my eyes every morning rather hoping for a surprise. I’m always slightly disappointed to wake up and find that objects — the things and stuff — have remained exactly where they were when I went to sleep. The clock is still there, my bamboo-jersey robe still hangs from the hook, the Houdini universe has not changed the number of steps (five) from bed to bathroom. Some part of me secretly expects — hopes? — I might wake up tomorrow to find myself in a different century, a different universe, or no longer middle-aged but some other age. That would be fun. I mean, who really knows?

It’s the objects that are immutable. The objects are the memory. We have too many objects around this old house.

On the other hand, I’m extremely pleased with one of the bulky objects that came out of the barn this weekend, a large chest of drawers dating to, I think, the late-18th century. It escaped the burning. I tried to find similar chests of drawers online, to make a more specific identification, but what I know is that it is definitely very old and very solid. It is not rickety and the drawers open smoothly, unlike your modern Ikea junk. I still need to empty my other — now-unneeded — dresser of clothes and cart that one out, so this behemoth isn’t in place yet. It stands in the middle of my bedroom floor this week, in an awkward spot, and I must try to remember not to bump into it when I get up in the night to fetch a glass of water. It’s still there.


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