My grandmother’s house was next thing to a museum warehouse, crowded with antiques and heirlooms. Every object had a story, a genealogy and a book of memories attached. At the drop of a hat, my grandmother would recite provenance and price, and tell the stories attached to the silver water jug, the diamond-glass breakfront, the drop-leaf table. My mother does the same today. Always to me, this seemed like a mysterious form of female knowledge, a special sort of lore — a distant male cousin was a collector, but collecting doesn’t derive from the same impulse, the impulse to meld object and memory.
Dawn Raffel has the gene, she could have been a blood relative. The short essays or vignettes in her gorgeous illustrated memoir The Secret Life of Objects wrap translucent memories, character and an appreciation of tactile beauty around a litany of possessions — in the following essays excerpted from the book, an Oriental rug and pottery seconds (or a moonstone ring in an essay published earlier on NC). The objects function psychologically as mnemonic devices; they function structurally to motivate narrative; and they function aesthetically as symbols — they are an ancient form of knowledge, deftly resurrected and deployed in a contemporary setting. They remind us that memory is absence, that the ultimate meaning of the objects is their capacity to temporarily contain some vestige of what has been left behind, the melancholy texture of life lived — beautiful and achingly poignant.
The Secret Life of Objects is forthcoming in June with Jaded Ibis Productions.
Dawn hosts a discussion page at her web site. She hopes readers will take the opportunity of posting their own objects there.
And there will be a book party in New York on June 13. Watch her web page for more information.
My maternal grandmother liked elegant old things and she would go to auctions to find them—end tables and porcelain urns and pretty rugs and lamps. By the time my grandparents were moving from the apartment where they’d raised my mother and uncle to a one-bedroom, my grandmother had amassed a collection of real Oriental rugs that she couldn’t take with her.
My mother didn’t want them. She liked everything modern: white leather, white carpet, chrome and glass. And so the only rug that stayed in the family was a tiny oriental rectangle that sat under my grandmother’s tea cart at the mouth of her galley kitchen. The cart was used to hold dishes to be brought to the little eating nook or to wheel demi glasses of tomato juice with lemon out to the metal folding table set up in the living room for Thanksgiving dinner.
My grandmother loved to cook and bake—from that cramped kitchen emerged paprika chicken with mushrooms and rice, lamb chops with jelly, key lime pie, lemon meringue, pineapple strudel, sponge cake and chocolate cake, layered and frosted and studded with walnuts. She would feed us and fuss, and each time we said goodbye, tears welled in her eyes. Sometimes she would mail us food she’d made.
My mother put cooking in the same box as old furniture and religious ritual—something oppressive, from a generation where women were subservient. She liked to remind me that her own grandmother had died of a heart attack while standing in a hot kitchen making Rosh Hashana dinner. She would point out her mother’s ankles swelling over the tops of her shoes as she stood at the counter chopping nuts or over the burner boiling dumplings. My mother wanted out with the old—the old country ways, old habits, obligations, dark and heavy furnishings, things that looked traditional or, worse, antique. Still, after my grandmother died and my grandfather moved out to California, my mother brought home that tiny rug, and she often lamented that she’d let the others go. She brought home her mother’s monogrammed purses (her own initials, always, not those of some designer), her gloves, her pinned hats. Her glassware and dishes, although they were heavily chipped. Her ornate gold watch, which my mother never wore (“After I die,” my mother said, “take it to New York and sell it.” But my sister wanted it, although she never wears it either.) I believe those rugs were the only things she had given away and wished she’d had back. The sole remaining one went in my mother’s downstairs bathroom—there really wasn’t any other place for it in her white/glass/chrome suburban townhouse. It got threadbare.
Emptying my mother’s desk and dresser drawers after her death, I found notes everywhere, addressed to me and to my sister, having to do with what she wanted done with her possessions. Some of these notes must have been 20 years old, judging by the faded ink and by the fact that they referred to people long deceased as if they were alive. Some were more recent. All where handwritten. One of them instructed me to take the Oriental rug.
I had given that rug no thought at all and had no idea what to do with it. But here was my mother, dead, and still talking to me. I didn’t dare leave it, didn’t dare give it away. Right now the rug is under the desk in the office where I write.
When the children were small, almost every night when the weather was good, or simply good enough, I used to meet three other women in the park. We met around 7, after work. Our husbands were working later than we were—two were chefs in restaurant kitchens half the night. Exhausted from babies and toddlers and jobs and laundry and dishes that did not end, we’d heave our kids into the baby swings and push them and push them and pull them out—Brendan’s toddler cowboy boots would catch in the swing’s leg holes—and help them up ladders and into and out of wide plastic tunnels and chase them as they chased after fireflies across the open lawn. These weren’t the alpha moms who would soon appear in town, angling their $800 strollers into the new Starbucks. We dressed in sweats and leggings and oversized Ts. No one worked in publishing, as I did, or trafficked in words. These were women who, had my children been born in an ever so slightly different time or place, I would never have met: a chef, a chef, a caterer/potter. I think they saved my life.
We’d stay until well after darkness fell in the park or else leave to get what might have been the world’s worst pizza (fake cheese, tasteless—but the owner tolerated, with minimal dirty looks, our noise and detritus). One Christmas eve, two of the women, with their husbands, who were, for once, not working in restaurants, converged at our house. (Imagine the pressure of cooking for that many professional chefs—in an act of cowardice, I let my husband do it.) The five kids under six didn’t last long at the table, seized as they were by the kind of anticipatory frenzy that is usually only possible in the very young. I’m sure there was a great mess and that we were dead tired but what I remember are the children shrieking in delight. I also remember the other two women, trained in restaurant kitchens, converging on mine like a SWAT team; I have never seen anyone deep-clean anything so fast.
What happened in the following year was school. Boys played with boys, and girls with girls. We had homework now, and sensible bedtimes. C, the potter, moved farther than walking distance, to a house where she had her own kiln. Little by little, the park nights stopped.
The other three women are now divorced. K left town. T, I see rarely—we wave when we pass. Every so often, though, I hang out with C, the potter whose skinny boy is now a well-built, tall young man. We lost a mutual friend last year, at 50, to cancer, a woman whose son is the same age as ours. C still throws in her kiln-equipped basement—bowls, vases, and dishes that she sells in Manhattan. I’ve bought several of her graceful blue and green serving pieces. But C knows the ones I like best are the $5 seconds—the ones she can’t sell in stores: The glaze has dripped and bubbled, the clay shows in patches, the color, when baked, turned wonderfully strange. Perfection is sometimes the enemy of good. Besides, I like a lucky accident.
— Dawn Raffel
Dawn Raffel’s previous books are two story collections — Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division — and a novel, Carrying the Body. She is the books editor at Reader’s Digest and the editor of The Literarian, the online journal of the Center for Fiction in New York.
“The Rug” was previously published at The Milan Review.