THIS ( COLLECTABLE) LIFE PAMELA CUPPER
WHAT does a historian do with her heritage? It was a question that had to be asked when we finally cleared our mother’s house for sale. She was a child of the Depression and a World War II bride, but even so she had accumulated a few hints of household finery.
Her gold- edged dinner service, a box of silver cutlery, a dozen tea sets in Royal Albert and Elizabethan fine china. Embroidered tea cloths, dressing table sets and serviettes. Fine glasses, cut crystal fruit bowls. They were piled up on the kitchen table.
‘‘ Take anything you’d like,’’ my brother said. ‘‘ We’ll take the rest to the op shop.’’
I don’t need any of this. In 50 years I have accumulated far more than I can possibly use in the next three decades I plan on staying around. But I couldn’t see these souvenirs of my past end up on a dusty shelf in a cluttered secondhand shop.
Every piece was history; some of the linen that my mother inherited from an aged aunt must be more than 100 years old. The coloured glasses dated from the 1970s, but is that any less history? And it’s my history.
But short of turning my home into a museum, what am I to do with it? I love that dinner service with the gold edging, but I cannot wash it in my dishwasher. I love dining with silver cutlery, but my own set is used once a year, at Christmas. Those beautiful floral tea sets, with cup, saucer and plate: who among my baby boomer friends drinks out of these?
Besides, I have a Royal Albert tea set, lovingly bought by my husband, who told the shop assistant that I definitely would use this. She hates things sitting on shelves unused. Use it? Occasionally, when an elderly aunt visits, we sit up with starched tablecloth and serviettes. We pour tea from a china teapot, take dainty cakes from a pretty tray. I pack it all up and put it away again, for perhaps another year.
When my generation of professionals visits, we sit outside with thick white mugs or department store wine glasses. A finely embroi- dered, starched cloth? Linen serviettes? When did you last use those in a private home? We professional women have no time for such household slavery. Handwash crockery that can’t tolerate a dishwasher? Why?
There is not even the distant prospect that the next generation will treasure and use these things. Not one of my nieces or nephews looks anywhere near setting up a proper family home, nor is there a glimmer that my son will want to inherit such fine souvenirs of his mother’s past.
I try to teach my students to respect the past, to study it and value it. I write about the past. I rely on all those hoarders of seemingly useless miscellanea to inform me, to let me touch and see and smell the past. What if they had taken it all to the op shop?
I’ve just washed all the linen, sprayed on starch, ironed and made perfect creases. I’ve polished the silver cutlery and handwashed the crockery. I’ve put them all away in already overflowing cupboards and drawers. They are my history, my own childhood. Perhaps, one day, someone will thank me.
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