The Weekend Australian - Review - - Viewpoints -

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.

this­life@ theaus­tralian. com. au

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