I forgot about writing posts based on Dawn Raffel’s memoir, The Secret Life of Objects. Joey over at Joeyfully Stated reminded me, so I’m happy to be back at it. I’ve written about the magical bowls of my childhood snacking and the name sign from my grandmother’s mailbox, as well as some jewelry that holds meaning for me.
Maybe the object that I still have that carries my earliest memories is the music box I have had since I was a baby. I know it’s weird, but I am a person with very early memories. I apparently inherited this ability from my grandfather. If you wonder what toddler memories are like, they are exactly like memories from all the other times of your life: vivid and realistic.
When my mother put me down for a nap, she would wind up the music box and set it going. I still remember standing in my crib, looking over the white iron bars, willing the music box to start up again. It didn’t, of course, as it had to be wound by someone.
I think I must have been a hard kid to settle to sleep (undiagnosed ADHD or anxiety?), and I always felt I was missing something. But then again my parents wanted me to nap AND have an extremely early bedtime. As a child I used to play shadow games or read under the covers with my flashlight.
When I became a teen, it was the sixties and incense was very popular, so I used my music box as an incense burner.
Have you ever heard that music is one of the best triggers for memory? Well, my music box–after 60+ years–still works. (Take that you plastic parts in today’s merchandise!)
I did a quick search online for a vintage round metal music box, and there are quite a few that look very similar, even to the color. They are called “powder puff” style. It’s very possible that this music box is from the 1940s and predates me. It could have belonged to my mother or grandmother well before I was born.
Question of the day: what song does the music box play?
Anybody want to play along and write about the secret life of an object? If so, please post the link in the comments here!
On another note, my uncle has been visiting for two weeks and the kids (daughter and BF) are still living here, so for an HSP like me it’s been Grand Central Station over here.
That fall the essay was published in Phoebe (45.1), a beautiful print journal. If I ever put together a collection of prose pieces, maybe this one will find a “book” home. In the meantime, though, I wanted to share it with more readers via an online journal, so I submitted it as a reprint to Ginosko Literary Journal where it was subsequently accepted. This weekend the journal went live. I hope you will enjoy this piece. It means a great deal to me since it covers emotional issues that preoccupied my mind at the time.
My maternal grandmother was a good baker and a good cook of meats (usually beef) and vegetables. Her use of Grandpa’s garden vegetables in stews and ratatouilles came from being raised on a farm by a mother who was a good cook. She loved her Club Aluminum pans, and the one I most remember was the Dutch Oven. Since my grandmother’s father and my grandfather (her husband) were Dutch, as a kid, I thought it was a pot that was original to the Netherlands, not realizing that is its official name. Her pots were “silver,” the color of aluminum. My mom had Club Aluminum, too, and as I got a little older I realized that she had probably gotten the pans from her mother. She also thought they were the best type to cook in, but her pans didn’t seem to work as well as Grandma’s ;). Or, at least, more anxiety made its way into those dishes.
When I became engaged at nineteen, I had never thought about a wedding or wedding gifts. The only thing I ever imagined was a white velvet dress with a red hooded coat like Mary wore for her wedding in Babes in Toyland. Instead, to save my parents money, I wore my mother’s wedding dress that my other grandmother had made, but that’s another story. I know it sounds blasphemous to American wedding tradition, but I didn’t even register for gifts.
My bridal shower was a family affair, to which I wore my favorite outfit, a teal corduroy pantsuit. Everyone had a very similar pantsuit, but mine was special because of the color. When I arrived at my aunt’s house, I discovered that the person I most wanted at the shower, Grandma, was home sick. The whole event paled after that news, but I do remember that her gift was the biggest and splashiest–an entire set of Club Aluminum pans in yellow. Instead of a metal handle like my mother and grandmother’s Dutch Ovens had, mine had a plastic knob.
I still have my Dutch Oven and a couple of the other pans with lids.
You can see the yellow exterior is pretty banged up after all these years, but the inside is still pristine. My pot has seen some really yummy dishes, but it also was what I used to make Kraft mac and cheese in (for the kids), too, I’m sorry to admit.
This link has a little history of Club Alumimum. It explains that it is cast, not spun. So it is cast aluminum, kind of like cast iron.
Eventually, a report came out that aluminum is dangerous for cooking. If I remember correctly, it was supposed to cause some sort of brain trouble. I guess that has been mainly proven wrong at this point. But it was asserted so strongly that the gardener bought me a set of Calphalon pans. Gosh, I hate those things. Everything sticks to them. Grandma knew what was a good pot! I’ve since added some All-Clads to the mix, and those are ok. But nothing is as good as Club Aluminum.
Or a well-seasoned cast iron frying pan. Funny how much less expensive ($14.88 at Walmart) those are than all the fancy frying pan brands sold today!
By my current kitchen standards, Grandma’s kitchen was a little too small, with not enough counter space, a small persnickety stove/oven, and a ridiculously crammed smallish fridge. She didn’t have granite counters, hardwood cabinets, or stainless appliances. But to me it was a wonderland of magic commanded by my gentle, smart, warm, and loving grandmother.
Remember when I wrote about feeling inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir and wanted to write about the “secret life” of objects I hold dear? I wrote about “Magical Bowls” and later about my grandmother’s mailbox sign.
This past week I went through a drawer of old jewelry to photograph it. I like to photograph things that I have packed away and haven’t seen in a long time. That way I can decide what to keep, as well as what to get rid of and just keep the photo. Jewelry was always something that appealed to me. When I was in college, I first worked for a department store in the jewelry department. I even briefly considered becoming a “jeweler.”
I use quotation marks because the definition of jeweler versus jeweller is one of the many things that has shown me how fast our world is changing. When I was in my twenties, there was a difference in the United States between these two professions. Today, the first is American and the second British, but in those days there were American jewelers and jewellers. And one was a more sophisticated job than the other. One actually made jewelry and the other sold it in a store. I’ll be darned if I can remember for sure which was which.
The other happy memory I have about jewelry is that the gardener was even more fond of buying me jewelry for gifts than I was at receiving it. This is what he gave me for high school graduation. It is sterling and onyx and was purchased at a shop on the Kalamazoo mall that specialized in gifts and decorative objects from India.
While I worked in the jewelry department, I managed to purchase a couple of pieces of jewelry with my discount. I thought they were a little better than costume jewelry, almost semi-precious. Today, they have no value as the gold is “gold-filled” and the styles are no longer fashionable. They really are costume jewelry.
But I didn’t stop hanging around jewelry after I quit that job. After I graduated from college, the gardener and I opened a store that sold “accessories.” That included handbags (purses, pocketbooks), billfolds (wallets), jewelry, belts, and gloves. I was always more interested in accessories than in actual articles of clothing, so it was a good fit for me. (Actually, I am not very interested in clothes at all). The gardener worked for Dictaphone as a sales rep, while I ran the store.
Over time, I collected a handful of pieces of “semi-precious” costume jewelry for myself. This is my carnelian Les Bernard necklace. Vintage Les Bernard jewelry is available online at about the same price it sold for originally ;). Carnelian represents passive female energies (whatever that means). Check out its meanings here.
Although I enjoyed the freedom from a corporate job running my own store, I was a little bored. Luckily, there were a few aspects of the job I enjoyed. One of my favorite parts of running the store was “doing” the window displays. I never had a class, a mentor, a single comment from anyone teaching me how to decorate a window, but maybe the proudest part of running the store is feedback I got from others about my windows. (I wish I had photos–maybe one day I will run across a photo!) There was a professor at Western Michigan University who loved my windows and one of her assignments was to send her students to check them out and do a write up about them. I would say that the most engaging part of my style was my use of color. For instance, my favorite window was all in bright red and natural wicker/bone. I didn’t bring in any other colors, and the contrast of those two colors was unique and really drew the eye.
Today my enjoyment of interior design is probably tied to my window design background, but I would never want to design someone else’s home interior (although friends have asked me to do so). I have confidence when it comes to doing what I like for myself, but I don’t want to have to take someone else’s “likes” into it ;).
What I noticed as I went through pieces of costume jewelry from one grandmother, then my other grandmother, then the gardener’s aunt, and a piece from an elderly relative who was cousin to my grandfather was that each piece, even if it is absolute junk from the viewpoint of the world at large, means something to me. Each piece makes me remember something about my past. The clay cross from La Purisima mission brought home by one of my children from a school trip, the kukui nut necklace from my parents’ trip to Hawaii, the hand-beaded bracelet a high school friend made. They all mean something to me. When I die, nobody else will have any connection to this jewelry. It will look like garbage to anyone who goes through my stuff.
Sometimes when I go to an antique mall I look at the vintage jewelry displays and try to imagine the stories behind the jewelry. But, honestly, it looks like shopworn seen-better-days stuff to me. That is a crushing blow, probably related to feelings of mortality. So of course I didn’t get rid of anything. Now I have the stuff in a drawer AND the photographs.
While I’m not a hoarder because (to the gardener’s everlasting annoyance) I like to throw things away (he is a hoarder!), I sure have managed to accumulate a lot of stuff for a thrower-awayer. I surprise myself at how sentimental I am. But then you’re probably not surprised!
The gardener and I have been married for ever so many years (vagueness is mandatory here), and this month we had our anniversary. We ate at a wonderful Lithuanian restaurant (I thought it was Ukrainian, but I was wrong). We also decided to choose our own anniversary gift. This is what I chose for myself.
A gorgeous light catcher custom-designed and crafted by Pauline at The Contented Crafter. I wanted something for my office, which is coral and black on ivory. When it arrived last week, I was ecstatic. Such a classy presentation, too. Pauline had the light catcher in a gauzy bag with the top of the piece tied to the bag so that it can just slip out and not be tangled.
I laid it out in a tray because the gardener wanted to hang it himself. (He doesn’t trust me with picture hangers, but the truth is that unless it involves a molly I think I am better at them).
My mother has arrived for a few weeks, and we had to put her in Perry’s room (my daughter’s room). Perry had to be moved into my office. He sleeps in there and also has his time-outs in that room now. So we decided to hang the light catcher in our living room instead.
As I inspected it on the tray I was thrilled to see how much of my personality Pauline imbued the piece with. As she describes it: “pinks and oranges and coppery hues; sea jasper beads, tiny coral beads, seashell pieces and masses of crystals.” The charms are a Russian nesting doll, a cat, an “I love cats,” a tiny book called “A True Story.” There are hearts and stars. Imagine!
And here is a close up of the top of it.
See the doll (for Doll God) and “I love cats” above?
Since my photos suck, Pauline sent me some better shots of the lovely! Click through the slideshow to see up close!
Why did I want a light catcher?
Well, for one thing I had seen some of the photos of Pauline’s work and thought it beautiful.
Also, one of my favorite movies as a kid was Pollyanna, and the most memorable scene was the one about the prisms at Mr. Pendergast’s house. If you want to cut to the chase, start the video at exactly 2:40.
The light catcher is certainly living up to its name. It throws brilliant rainbows all around the room.
Mini rainbows on the floor
I love having my home filled with rainbows!
Also, I got the new issue of Tab in the mail. It’s quite an innovative literary magazine. It’s a series of beautifully designed postcards with poems and art. My photo is sort of upside down, but I don’t think it matters because the idea is that you pick up a card and read them one at a time. I have been carrying them around with me.
Here’s what I have to say about #amwriting. Before Mom got here I had completely restructured the memoir. It still needs a lot of revision, but the structure is radically different. Marie Bailey really helped me with her comments. Thank you, Marie! Check out her story, “Rapunzel, A Different Kind of Fairy Tale.” Extremely enjoyable and found at the new lit mag, The Disappointed Housewife. When I restructured, it was easy to see what scenes to get rid of. I jettisoned about 23,000 words and wrote another 3,000 so far. This means that I have now written about 310,000 words for this project. But it’s only 66,000 words right now. Good grief, get on with it and finish it, woman!
More information on Pauline at The Contented Crafter
A little about me: For a start, I’m a baby-boomer – you do the math – the number keeps changing and so do I!
I’ve had many incarnations as wife, mother, student, teacher, teacher trainer and mentor, curriculum writer and advisor, community hub developer, new worker trainer, and [whew!] life coach. In between I painted, crafted, hand worked, gardened and generally tried to create beauty around me where ever I went. Oh, I forgot to mention ‘world traveller’!
These days I’m [mostly] a very contented crafter and pursuer of serenity. And of course, I live with Orlando, a now elderly Maine Coon cat of great distinction and forbearance and a most delightfully joyful pup who goes by the name of Sid-Arthur [yes, a play on Siddhartha for those of you who picked it up]. They feature prominently throughout this blog.
I’m retired now and happily spend my days doing whatever it pleases me to do. Sometimes, in between my crafting projects, I still coach now and again, gratis, as a thank you for this blessed life I’ve been given.
I have had a most interesting life, from traumatic beginnings through the highs and lows of self discovery – learning to take responsibility for my thoughts and actions, learning to forgive and let go, learning to trust, learning to ‘be’.
I adopted this as my motto many years ago, it still fits: Life is a school room and everything is a lesson to be learned. Lessons will be presented in many ways and many forms until they are learned. When a lesson has been successfully mastered, another lesson will be presented. You will be tested.
What I have come to see is that some lessons will be tough, some will be fun. The secret is to maintain a sense of equilibrium with them all, no matter how they make you feel.
And in the end, it’s all been about learning how to be a ‘successful’ human being – and by ‘successful’ I don’t mean in a material way. I mean in terms of understanding who and what I am and why I am here and what is the meaning of it all………. you know, all that existential stuff.
I consider myself to be counted amongst the most fortunate of people despite the fact that I live without much of the material wealth and supports that so much of the western world considers necessary. I enjoy to keep it simple these days!
This is my second response to feeling inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir about the “secret life” of objects.
This object is not something I’ve owned for long, carrying from house to house. In fact, I only spotted it in July when we brought my mother home from the hospital.
My mother’s basement has shelves, boxes, and tables overflowing with photo albums and photo boxes. She has little interest in them. They were my father’s treasures. He was the family photographer and tried to hold every memory close to his heart and mind. With him now gone, my mother feels burdened by belongings that she never cherished to begin with. Every time I visit, she encourages me to take as much as I want of our family memories.
Before we flew back to Arizona, I decided to give the photo albums another go-around, taking home as many of the most important photographs as I could pack. I plan to scan them and then email them to other family members. While downstairs, I noticed a metal sign resting on the floor, shoved between two boxes.
This mailbox marker is from the 1960s. My father had it made for his mother’s mailbox when she moved near us from Chicago.
This is how it was attached to the mailbox and what Grandma’s mailbox looked like. If you click on this image, you will discover that there is a company (perhaps) still making these using a machine from the forties. The writer of the article says the company is so old school they don’t even have a website.
Grandma was born in Germany in 1893 and immigrated with her family to Illinois when she was two or three years old. When she was in her early 70s, she decided to leave Chicago for the small town atmosphere of Portage, Michigan, a suburb of Kalamazoo. Dad bought a duplex around the corner from our house, rented out one side, and moved Grandma into the other side. I was ten and could now ride my bike to Grandma’s house.
Not that I liked to visit her. I’m not proud of that fact, but it’s true. When Mom or Dad made me pedal down her street the houses all seemed to be watching me. The nameplate on the mailbox signaled that soon I would be walking in Grandma’s door. I always had either terrified starlings or lake stones in my stomach.
But why? I am not sure, but am trying to figure it out. Grandma was a bit stern, a bit strict, at least more so than my Kalamazoo grandmother who was warm and fun. (Kalamazoo Grandma was 19 years younger than Chicago Grandma). Was it a cultural reflection of Grandma’s semi-German upbringing? I think her father was stern and difficult to know. He might have been domineering and given to punishments. But this is a guess based on my dad’s and uncle’s stories. In old photos, Grandma’s mother looks like a sweetheart–sort of like my maternal grandmother. Was it that I was afraid of my grandmother’s strictness?
If so, that’s odd because my father could be unrelentingly strict. She was an amateur compared with Dad in that way.
I remember Grandma, a talented seamstress and tailor, poking a straight pin in my stomach and warning me that I was getting fat. I wasn’t overweight, although for a period of time my belly protruded a bit. I deeply resented her saying this to me, but she didn’t do it all the time. Would I have held it against her? Maybe, but I think she did it after I already had developed anxiety at visiting her.
Within a year or two, a doctor confirmed that I had “water weight” in my abdomen. Years later I would be diagnosed with lymphedema. Where did I get it? From Grandma who never did get a proper diagnosis. Doctors told her it was caused by congestive heart failure, a disease she developed with age, but the swelling in her legs was visible before she was forty–I can see it in photographs. (I hope you’re seeing the thread here about photographs: they can be important).
Grandma always had a glass bowl of Dum Dum suckers for me to choose from. I didn’t care for those dull little things. Tootsie Pops–or better yet, Slo Pokes–were my lollipops of choice. Did I resent not being offered what I wanted instead of what she wanted to give me? It’s possible that she couldn’t afford Tootsie Pops. The candy was only for us because she couldn’t eat it; she was diabetic. Was I a brat? She seemed to try to make me happy, but her ways were limited and without imagination.
Some of my memories make me wonder if I pitied Grandma. Her age? Her solitary life? Some unexpressed sadness deep within her?
I remember Grandma’s home being so quiet that the clock ticking spooked me like a sudden noise in a horror movie. And still. Every object in the dusty rose living room seemed preternaturally still, the sort of stillness that comes before unexpected movement, as if the contents were waiting for me to leave.
When I left and pedaled as fast as I could down the street, I deeply drew in the outdoor air, thrilled to be headed toward my own street.
Then, all these years later, I saw the heavy metal sign in Mom’s basement and brought it home in my suitcase. The gardener didn’t say anything until I pulled out hammer and picture hangers to hang it on the wall of my study. “You don’t want that there, do you?” Hahaha, yes, I did, and there it is.
Every day I scan a few of the photos I brought home. The other day I found this one of me kissing Grandma, thanking her for the crocheted afghan she made me for my high school graduation (you can see a bit of the pattern in the photo). Proof that Grandma and I loved each other, even if she made me nervous.
A while ago I warned you that I felt inspired by Dawn Raffel’s memoir and might write about the “secret life” of objects I hold dear (or in fear). Here’s the first one that I wanted to explore.
I only now have realized that the four snack bowls, speckled like the linoleum floor in my childhood kitchen, are melamine, not plastic. Maybe that’s why they are at least fifty years old and still have their little handles intact, although cracked.
When my parents moved out of their winter condo south of Tucson a few years ago, they decided to get rid of the majority of their furnishings, rather than cart them back to Kalamazoo. They urged us to take what we could of the wall art, furniture, and Dad’s craft pieces. My mom was amused when I grabbed the stack of dull brown bowls. “What do you want those for?” I wasn’t sure, but I knew I wanted them.
As long as I could remember, we had eaten Be-Mo potato chips, as well as vanilla ice cream and Hershey’s syrup whipped into milkshake consistency, from those bowls. When Mom kept out our hollowed tree branch bowl of nuts long after Christmas, we filled the snack bowls with smooth pecans and bumpy walnuts that gave way to cracked shell fragments.
The bowls were out at parties, but not for individual snacking. Mom filled them with her homemade Chex Mix and placed them around the living room. Her makeup and bouffant hair were already complete, a frilly half-apron tied around her waist, as she spread out party food, paper plates, and napkins. I placed the spoons and forks in angled lines. Lamplight and low music from the hi-fi set the stage.
As he beamed and told me silly jokes, Dad set up a temporary bar with highball and Old Fashioned glasses, cherries, olives, and a bucket of steaming ice. The anticipation of the party made a team of my parents and me, a protective shield against arguing and my father’s sudden mood changes.
At twelve, I was always hungry; my mother said I had a bottomless pit. When we counted up our daily calories in 7th-grade science class, I averaged 10,000/day. My parents were thin people and not big eaters, so meals were just what we needed for nutrition, no more. To fill up my cranky stomach, I would munch cooking walnuts and chocolate chips from a bowl I’d hidden under my bed.
I wonder today what my mother thought was happening to her baking supplies. And the sugar cubes she kept on hand to serve to company that stayed for coffee. Maybe there were other shortfalls in my life that my mother didn’t notice. In my imagination, as is the way of magical objects, the bowls are always brimming with delicious munchies.
Anybody want to play along and write about the secret life of an object? If so, please post the link in the comments here!
On another note, you all (that’s the same thing as y’all without me co-opting southern talk, or “you guys” as we used to say in Michigan) know I love family history. You probably know I have a blog called thefamilykalamazoo.com about my family history. Now I have a new–a second–blog about family history. It’s called enteringthepale.com and is about the gardener’s family history from eastern Europe.
I think this new blog, which follows our search for his ancestors, is important work on a very small scale. I am talking about finding and recording the history of Jewish family branches that were either lost or decimated during the Holocaust. In the case of the gardener’s family, we just don’t know yet what happened to anybody or who or where his family was 100, 150, 200 years ago. That’s what I will be writing about on this new blog. I’d love for you to follow. Right now we have about one follower unless you count my twitter followers.