Sunday, March 9, 2014

#119: "Against Bric-a-Brac" by Elizabeth Bales Frank



~This essay was originally published in Epiphany (2006).

The lobby of the building where I live contains two huge breakfronts which house the sentimental items of former tenants.  The building is a good value pre-war co-op with a contingent of renters which grows smaller every year, as they move into nursing homes, retire to Florida, or die.  They leave behind the little somethings for a shelf, the small vases, the prancing figures, the engraved bowls, the statuettes of animals. Our superintendent takes what he considers the best of the selection and displays it in the breakfronts, bric-a-brac as memento mori.
I hate all this stuff.
My father had a talent for transforming an ordinary word into a profanity simply through pronunciation.  One such word was “junk.”  “Get rid of all this jjjjuuuuuuuunk,” he would command.  “Junk” became a curse, a German curse, a bad cinema German curse, the kind that Hollywood Nazis shout at the uncomprehending conquered in war movies.  Junk!  Junk!  Get rid of all this jjjjjuuuuuuunk!
And there was a lot of junk to sort through.  A widower with three teenagers, my father married a divorcee with four.  In the interest of strict accuracy, I should point out that my sister, the eldest, had just left her teens and I, the youngest, had not quite entered mine, but you get the idea of our baggage — dolls and toys, tea sets and train sets, tennis racquets and skateboards, abruptly obsolete 45s and eight-track tapes and the equipment that played them, abandoned worlds of aquariums and terrariums — the normal flotsam of childhood.  But in addition to the boxes and boxes of things we had been exhorted to sort through before the great move to the combined house on Ironstone Road, there was their stuff — the heirlooms, the wedding gifts from three different weddings — his, hers, theirs — the treasured mementos.  Or the junk.  The value of bric-a-brac is in the eyes of the beholder.


For example, a decoupages wooden box was just a disposable craft project, unless the handed that had wielded the glue gun and the lacquer brush was my mother’s.  In that case, the box was a treasure.  I don’t remember much about my mother, who died when I was eight, but the smell of varnish or paint evokes in me a wistful yearning for the possibility of home.  My mother made a lot of things.  She made my clothes — and don’t pity me as an outcast, envisioning sad floppy frocks, but picture me in elegant sheaths of olive green raw silk, my monogram inscribed across my then non-existent bodice.  I was still an outcast, of course, with all my classmates in short sets, but I have never since dressed so well.  I was the First Lady of the second grade.
My mother made my furniture, refurbishing second-hand stuff with new knob s and hinges and paint.  She painted paintings and gold-leafed the frames they went into.  These pursuits were not soothing domestic hobbies.  She had a fierce urge to create every aspect of her world which in a different era would have led her to become Martha Stewart, or a film director, or the Secretary of State.  As it was, she left behind small artifacts of her restlessness.  My sister and brother were teenagers when she died.  When they set up their own homes, they made shrines of her things — the platters shaped like fish to serve fish, the fish forks, the watercolors of sailboats, the enormous hutches sanded and re-hinged and varnished.  With a sense of abandonment stronger than my memory, I abandoned those things.
And so we came to a series of divestitures.  My stepmother was diagnosed with lung cancer and my stepsister left for college.  My father, stepmother and I had a garage sale and we moved to a smaller house.  My stepmother died and I went to college.  My father moved to a townhouse and sent our family legal into storage.
As we set up our own homes we began, inevitably, to miss things.  Initially, the older kids asked me about certain items, since I had manned the garage at the Great Yard Sale of Ironstone Road, which had come to represent a loss as epic as the burning of the Great Library at Alexandria.  But since I had been practically checking the flights for my permanent departure from home at the time, I don’t remember much.  Whatever happened to, Christine or Jim or Michael or Sarah would ask, my guitar, train set, tennis racquet, collection of A.A. Milne, hockey stick, Girl Scout sash, sewing machine?
“I don’t know, it’s all in storage!”  My father would roar.  “No one was here to help me so I sent it all away.”  It wasn’t particularly accurate to that we hadn’t tried to help — I had offered to pack and label, others had offered to come in to sort — but the charge that we weren’t there was, in a larger sense, true.  We wanted to shed such clutter and its obligations and attachments and set out unencumbered on adventures.  And then we wanted to come back and find our treasures waiting for us, carefully tucked away, seasoned only by a thin veneer of dust, like the sturdy rocking horse tucked away in the nursery in a sentimental English novel.  We wanted to put away childish things, but we wanted doting parents to preserve them until we were ready to take them up again.
It didn’t seem like much to demand.  Our college friends had it — repositories of the trophies won in high school, the clay handprints crafted in grade school, the prom dresses and varsity letters, preserved in a tissue-paper softened, cedar-scented trunk in an abandoned bedroom.
We, on the other hand, had a unit in a storage warehouse in Earth City, Missouri, which is as bleak as it sounds and was built on a flood plain.  The mere mention of the word “storage” set off the same lonely lament:  “Nobody was here to help me.  Everybody was scattered all over East Jesus...”
Until the day came when we were there, too late to help him, but nevertheless there, with all the junk, in the warehouse in Earth City, my sister and brother and me, nearly a year after our father died.  We had put off this chore that long because during the week of the funeral we had had to tackle his apartment (since none of us lived in town, but in the various ex-burbs of East Jesus) and that ordeal had been, quite frankly, rough enough to hold us for quite awhile.  My father’s last domicile was his mother’s apartment, which he moved into when she took up residence in a nursing home.  He left her things in place and merely covered them with a topsoil of the meager possessions to which his life had been reduced:  cigars, disposable lighters, the daily crossword puzzle, his fountain pen, his glasses, the cap he wore when we drove . . . alongside my grandmother’s Hummel figurine of lederhosen-clad children, her few and well-preserved pieces of Depression-era glassware, and the sundry Bibles which formed a cliché-realizing stack when I gathered them all together and yearned to swear something on them.
The prized possession of her household was bric-a-brac by anybody’s definition, a 6 inch high figurine of a baseball player.  Someone had made him for my grandfather.  Despite the fact that the name “Phil” (my grandfather) was painted on the base where he stood, that he was the wrong age (a child), dressed in the wrong color of uniform (pale blue and tan) and batting from the wrong side of the plate (right), he was meant to represent Stan Musial and had Musial’s number “6” painted on the back of his blue uniform.  He had watched us from a knick-knack shelf through the hams and turkeys and angel food cakes of countless holiday and birthday dinners, so rosy-cheeked, so wrong, so benign.  I strode over and claimed “Phil.”  My brother and sister sighed with disappointment.  They’d wanted him, too.  Most of the other stuff in the apartment, despite its value, was just junk.
Less than a year later, we were back at it, sorting through the stuff of a lost household.  We stood in the warehouse in Earth City, gazing at various pieces of this and that, notably a structure that had once been a couch before my father’s cats had turned it into a litter box and scratching post (if he’d indulged his children the way he indulged his cats, we’d all be in jail.)  Boxes of age-stained baby clothes, acres of dusty crystal goblets for specific sweet liqueurs no longer in vogue, rickety chairs from “antique” shops, ashtrays commemorating vacations and sports victories, all this had to be either trashed or shipped.  My stepsister Sarah had worried that my brother and sister and I would fight like the heirs to a kingdom over the last of our inheritance (hey, Sarah!  Found your sewing machine!)  but our bickering was motivated less by greed than by weary repudiation.
“I don’t want it.”
“I don’t want it, either.”
Somebody has to take it.”
“What movie ends like this?”  my brother asked, surveying the crates and garden statues.
Citizen Kane,” I replied, although for once I wasn’t thinking of movies but of Buddhism and its renunciation of attachment to material things.  The call of nothing was so appealing.  I wondered if Buddhist nuns were allowed to have sex. 
We finally got through most of it, although much of the stuff I was compelled to take — the tarnished silver coffee service, my mother’s tiny twee hand-crafted casserole dishes — still sits in storage.  It’s just a smaller unit a thousand miles away from Earth City.  I can’t get rid of the casserole dishes; they stand as a permanent reproach for a life I chose not to live, the household arts I haven’t mastered.  And I can’t get rid of the coffee service, because nobody wants someone else’s old silver.
Except, apparently, for my mother.
At my sister’s yard sale, some years later, my sister and I debated the worth of her boxes of junk.  I took the position that it was better to get rid of the inventory than to have to ship it, while she upbraided me tearily for not being “sentimental.”
“This.”  I displayed without sentiment a corroded egg beater.  “A dollar, at best.”
Five!” she retorted.  “People collect those things.”
“People collect other people’s rusted kitchen utensils.”
“It’s Americana.”
“Then I would like the names of those people, so I can find them something better to do.”  I pulled out a silver serving spoon inscribed with my initial and surname:  E Frank.  “I guess I’d better keep this.”
“Yes, she was so pleased when she found that in that antique store.”
A ghostly sigh breezed between my ears.
“Antique store?”
“That antique store in Canada.”  My sister sorted through a heap of old coffee-stained linen napkins.
“She didn’t have this made for me?  She didn’t buy it new?  It’s somebody else’s spoon?  Some other E Frank?  Some Canadian?”
“What difference does it make.”
“The difference is I don’t have to keep it if it wasn’t meant for me.”
“It was meant for you.  Why else would she buy it?”
How would I know?  Why do people buy anything in antique stores?  Why do people buy anything at all that isn’t meant to perform a task or to hold something else, or to be consumed, eaten, worn, read, listened to or to organize smaller, useful things?  What were all these people doing in my sister’s yard, ready to fork over money for the few geegaws she was willing to part with?  Why do people buy any thing that has no purpose except to be a thing, to sit on a shelf and be looked at?  Since the trauma of clearing out the warehouse in Earth City, I had had trouble with this concept.  I have had to leave gift shops, even while a friend was holding up some decorative object and asking, “Do you think she’ll like this?”  I have had to leave Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonomas where I was expected to buy a wedding gift; I have been found just outside on the sidewalk, hyperventilating at the thought of the future burden of these items.  These potential “keepsakes.”  These things.  The junk.  The little carvings, the useless additions to the useless collections . . .
Why did it matter that this spoon I had always thought was created for me was merely recognized as something similar to me?  When I thought that my mother had commissioned its creation, it was one thing.  When it was left behind in a junk store to commemorate some dead Canadian, it was entirely another.  Just because my mother had seen and touched it, that didn’t make it a holy relic.  Who cares.  What’s the point.  Of course, I still have it.  But I’m not proud of keeping it.
You think I exaggerate.  Oh, you think, E Frank is no Buddhist, she has her little treasures, too.  The things that remind her of childhood, of the trips to London and Paris and Prague and Salt Lake City, of those ex-boyfriends.  And yes, I do.  My pre-war apartment building has built-in bookcases and mine are filled with the amusing objects that those bookshelves were meant to store ­ the crystal baseball from Orrefors, the wooden kangaroo named “Kangaroo,” the reliable doll Becky who survived the warfare of my nieces, the figure of a nymph washing her foot (a housewarming gift), and of course, “Phil,” the baseball player meant to be Stan Musial.  But I would love to surrender them and not experience searing hurt for doing so.  They are just things.  They are not my friend Donna, my mother, my friend David, my grandfather.  They don’t “remind” me of these people.  I don’t need reminders.  I think of Donna, Mom, David and Phil all the time.  And when I die, the meaning of the crystal baseball, of Kangaroo and Becky and “Phil,” will die with me, even if they end up in those breakfronts in the lobby of my building.
Rainier Maria Rilke wrote:
“We need, in love, to practice only this:  letting each other go.  For
            holding on comes easily; we do not need to learn it.”
I can quote Rilke because my built-in bookcases hold — aside from bric-a-brac, photographs of long-lost pets and other people’s children and old silver — two shelves of books of poetry.  I’ve learned I need to keep these books close at hand, because at one point in my life they were in storage for six months, and I was unaccountably depressed almost every day until I was able to unpack them.

*****

THE STORY BEHIND THE ESSAY
I was watching my superintendent unlock the doors to one of the breakfronts in the lobby in order to add another porcelain statuette of happy peasant child to the collection when I remembered the phrase “humble figurine.”  Years earlier, when I managed a small matrimonial office as a day job, I took a call from one of our heartbroken clients, complaining that his kids had called him to tell him that his wife was packing up all the things in the living room, “The vases and ceramic things, and the humble figurines.  Half that stuff should go to me, right?”  I knew he meant “Hummel figurines,” but what I said, gently, was “Do you really want it?”  What he wanted, of course, was the marriage back the way it was, but he had displaced his yearning onto the objects they (most probably she) had accumulated.  And so the essay was born.

*****
ABOUT ELIZABETH BALES FRANK
Elizabeth Bales Frank is a novelist and essayist who lives with little clutter but too many books in New York City.  Her work has been published in Glamour, Cosmopolitan, The New York Times, The Sun, Post Road, Elysian Fields Quarterly, Compass Rose, Under the Gum Tree, and The Writing Disorder.  Her new novel, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me, is looking for a publisher.  Her website about the literature of World War II is http://www.somuchsomanysofew.wordpress.com

  

4 comments:

  1. Please, pass the tissue - I lost it at the rocking horse. Beautiful!

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  2. Those of us with a lot of year mileage can appreciate the farewell to JUNK. I converted to Buddhism years ago but my wife collects things as if that is the purpose of life: collect as much stuff as you can. Thank you for the insight.
    Jerry Miller, born Cedar Rapids 1936

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  3. This is so beautifully written. I absolutely loved it.

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  4. "Why do people buy any thing that has no purpose except to be a thing, to sit on a shelf and be looked at?" That made me laugh out loud.

    Such a great essay on a topic that torments many of us. Thanks for putting many of my feelings into words so that I might be able to free myself of more junk if I re-read it a few times. Why does it get harder as we get older, even though we value it less and less? Maybe because processing the feelings and then conquering through logic takes quite a bit of effort, and we're more tired than we used to be.

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