For nearly a year, I have been on an archeological dig of mid-century middle-class domesticity. The study was done in a post-war suburban setting; the dig was my parent’s home of six decades. After examining, dating, cataloging, and yes, crying, I am now just coming up for air and ready to evaluate my findings.
Exhuming the detritus of the past has been, quite simply, exhausting.
American consumerism has long been my consuming passion. I have chronicled it in my art, my writing, and in the past year, I found myself absorbed with it in a hands-on way.
For the past many months I have been knee-deep in postwar plenty both literally and figuratively.
Closing down my family home of more than half a century was a tough task filled with endless decisions – to sell or save, donate or discard all the flotsam and jetsam that lay in front of me – the tangible reminders of lives well lived, of hopes and expectations, some realized and some that were not.
Postwar Promises of Tomorrow
Sprawled out in front of me was evidence of all those post-war promises, tangible proof of giddy mid-century consumer culture. Suddenly it was if the pages from my vast archive of vintage advertising had sprung to life. All those artifacts were made manifest. An incurable collector myself, my mother was an unabashed saver.
Hidden in drawers and tucked away in closets lay the countless evidence of those material dreams that had once pumped through the culture displayed in lavish color-drenched ads that had furnished the material daydreams of the greatest generation.
Items that had once provoked desire, promising the envy of all your friends, were now worn, tired and neglected. But not discarded. Never before things because it was never possible before, objects bursting with promises of a colorful world of unparalleled ease, offering a new and improved life of no fuss no muss, a world of no waiting, no wondering…that now nobody wanted.
Pattern of Saving
Excavating the basement would be the most challenging.
In my basement lay the remains of that American dream of consumption and like the dream itself, things were broken, chipped and deeply tarnished, a remnant of a once upon a time that seems so distant and quaint now.
Looking around me, I was surrounded by nearly a centuries worth of consuming passions.
Our home became the final resting place of my long deceased extended family’s cherished belongings that no one else wanted but which my mother hadn’t the heart to discard. A few fortunate pieces had made it upstairs to join my mother’s own homage to gracious living, where they resided in breakfronts and displayed in cabinets. But the majority remained underground.
Spread in front of me now lay nearly three generation’s aspirations to the good life. The collection of fine china, sterling silver and cut crystal that had once graced the well-appointed tables of my great grandmothers, grandparents and great uncles and aunts stood abandoned in our basement. Testaments to gracious living they had truly come down in the world
For 40 or more years dusty cardboard boxes lay in our cellar untouched, unsealed, from the time when they first landed there with each death. Now it was my job to open and sort through them while paying homage to long ago family members. Kept from the trash for decades they were never homeless but never used for the glorious life they might have once led. As though they had been in hospice they came here to bide their time in a holding pattern. It was now up to me to make that final call.
Not only was I reminded of my family’s pattern of saving, I was overwhelmed by hundreds of manufacturer’s patterns on objects that I needed to learn to understand their value.
Sterling silver in all configurations, bon-bon dishes and compote bowls, melon knives and nut spoons. I learned a tomato fork is distinctly different from a fish one never ever to be confused with a pickle fork. All spoke to a time past, to gracious living and starched damask tables cloths.
I committed to memory each and every china pattern and researched the marks on the silver and bone china examining each piece like the archeologist I was. Strange hieroglyphics and backstamps made of letters, circles, squares and shapes would inform me of its manufacture and provenance.
All these patterns to learn but the bigger question was could I break the pattern of saving.
The items in the basement had no order, a cacophony of consumerism, decades melded together so that a box of saved 1972 Jello box tops once earmarked to redeem an Oster Blender, nestled next to a collection of Limoges hand painted boxes.
The mundane and the revelatory, the precious and valuable stood toe to toe with kitsch, all co-mingling without rhyme or reason, known only perhaps to my mother who placed these objects together.
It was a mashup of Mad Men meets Downton Abbey. A nod to past elegance, that world fading in time. The stuff that guaranteed a gracious hostess, might now casually be tossed in a box to be given to Goodwill.
I was surrounded by heirlooms and for once that word rang true. I am the heir and it all loomed in front of me.
I come from a family of savers though I prefer to think of us as saviors. Of honoring the past. It was a pattern I was determined not to break. In all these things a revealing pattern was made manifest. One that I have long known. I come by my collecting honestly. The distant past is always as close as the things on my shelf and in my drawers.
That “saving pattern” more than “Day in June” or “Tudor Rose”pattern runs deep in my family DNA.
Will I too end up with unopened boxes for my heirs to open?
My own mortality comes into question. Who will open these boxes I have saved?
Who will really care?
That future looms for my heirs.
Next: Reflections on Gracious Living
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