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August 6, 2020 | Rome, Italy

Forwarding the past

By | 2020-08-03T11:18:42+02:00 July 30th, 2020|"Notebook"|
The author's mother and grandmother on bicycles, 1940s.
L

ast tine around I wrote about the pain of performing triage on a lifetime of possessions and my fear that discarding things would erase the people they belonged to.

Since that piece, I realized that there might be an effective — and maybe better — way to remember these objects and the people associated with them. It’s too late for photos, but not for writing. So here’s a selected record of motley objects I no longer own:

My parents had a self-imposed mission to provide a home for the possessions of people who “fell on evil days.”

  • A yellowed and crackly plastic folder of things from my old refrigerator.
  • Three birthday cards, including one showing Dr. Seuss’s “Thing One and Thing Two.”
  • Several name tags from parents’ weekends at my children’s schools.
  • Pictures of antique German postcards showing dachshunds dressed in dirndls and lederhosen.
  • Grease-encrusted refrigerator magnets with sassy sayings and a cooking conversion table from metric to Imperial measurements.
  • My mother’s bicycle. Purchased second hand in 1942 so that she could ride to her Victory Garden despite fuel rationing. Mom’s other friends drove Lincoln Continentals or Crown Victorias their husbands bought for them. But Mom rode this bike well into her eighties. The formerly forest-green bike was rusty. The wicker basket and much-repaired sheepskin seat cover, what really made it Mom’s bike, were long gone. I put the bike out by my mailbox, New England-style. Whoever took it probably uses it as a garden ornament. A fitting end.
  • Weird books people gave me; crackpot theories, dodgy history, and vanity books. Some people give books because they think you would like them. Others give books they like or think you should like. These went to be resold by a charity that promotes literacy. Here is their chance to find new owners more open to liking them than I.
  • Silk and lace lingerie. These are not reminders of lost people and times but of a lost me. Silk makes excellent rags for dusting.
  • A 19th-century Russian painting. It shows a soldier, wearing a Napoleonic-era uniform and clutching a tattered flag, breathing his last in a companion’s arms. My father bought it in Moscow in the 1970s in a state-run shop where people sold personal possessions for hard currency. My parents, whose lives were shaped by the Great Depression and a century of world wars and upheavals, had a self-imposed mission to provide a loving home for the possessions of people who “fell on evil days.” My own home was not a loving one for this lugubrious and clumsily-painted battlefield scene. It sold at auction to a man who loves history and thought it was “really cool.” My parent’s mission is accomplished, just not by me.
  • Four sets of binoculars; all of German origin. Stiff and dusty, they were in cracked leather cases with musty velvet linings. The stories that I am sure are behind them never reached my ears. Their smell reminded me of happy days searching for channel markers on the Mississippi. But I still have two more, plus newer and more lightweight models that work smoothly. These don’t stain my hands with disintegrating leather and could never have contributed to Allied casualties, like the German ones might have. The binoculars went to a thrift shop, where I hope they end up in peaceful hands.
  • A leather knapsack my father bought in Austria. This went to a dear friend who will feed the dried pigskin and replace the missing buckles. My father would be thrilled.
  • A federal-style dresser that was in my childhood bedroom. It was also my grandmother’s. I have several other similar, equally hard-to-place behemoths. I gave this to a carpenter who split wood for me. Because he vastly underestimated his time (and cost), he refused to charge me for the full hours. He had been looking for a piece just like this and was rapturous about its wood and craftsmanship. He carted it away and everyone was happy.
  • More paintings. Dad bought these twin Scottish landscapes in Hong Kong. They still had their dealer’s original labels and were dated “1830s.”A quick Google search revealed the artist worked in Australia from the 1950s to the 1970s. At auction, someone paid five times what Google said they were worth. Once again, everyone was happy.

I will never know if the feelings of my departed relatives or long-lost friends have been hurt by my choices. I do know that although the process may have been sad, the end was not. All these things went to new lives and probably better ones.

People who are not writers think we possess magical powers. They think writing is a magically liberating process or that having words in print confers some sort of immortality. This is an illusion.

However, writing about these things has kept them and the memory of their owners alive. And that is magic indeed.

Madeleine Johnson, Associate Editor
Madeleine Johnson has written her "Notebook" column for more than a decade. She lived in Italy for almost 30 years, mostly in Milan, before returning to the U.S. in 2017. Her work has been published in the "Financial Times" and "New York Post."

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