Small, But Special
We have inherited a lot of stuff from our parents, grandparents, and other family members. Some of us are swimming in stuff, and this embarrassment of riches can cause great anxiety when it comes to downsizing. And oh, by the way, our kids and grandkids don’t want it!!
Yet there are certain pieces that really are treasures of the heart.
Today, April 9, is National “Cherish an Antique Day.” According to the National Day Calendar, Cherish an Antique Day “…reminds us that sometimes there is more to antiques than just a dollar sign.”
When my husband Rob’s grandmother passed away, we were college freshmen. She left behind a massive Victorian home in Slatedale, Pennsylvania. It was the largest residence in this small town, with a fascinating history. It was a true slice of Americana: Four stories bursting with the collections of multiple families and life spanning almost two centuries. Over the years, it contained the town hardware store, two dental practices, a life insurance agency, and a community meeting room, among other things–with family quarters above.
In the 1880s the patriarch of the Rex family built a large home in town, moving the family from the log cabin that had originally served as their residence. Pappy Rex was a true renaissance man. He started many businesses, owned the hardware store, sold insurance, started the local electric utility. He was the founder and director of the local bank. The house he built became his place of business and the home for him and Grammy Rex…and eventually a home base for their three daughters.
In the early 1900s, Rob’s great uncle “Uncle Doc” married one of the Rex daughters, Lottie, and started a dental practice in the house. He and his wife Lottie spent the rest of their lives there, taking care of Grammy Rex when Pappy Rex passed away. Doc was the first in his family to pursue higher education by earning a dental degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He really did well for himself, achieving the American Dream. Lottie’s sister Beryl was Rob’s grandmother. Doc and Lottie never had children and Rob’s mom Mary was their favorite niece. They loved taking care of her, and the big house was like her second home. Not only did she get to spend time with her beloved Grammy Rex, Doc and Lottie doted on Mary and her two brothers.
When both Uncle Doc and Rob’s Grandfather Bob passed away, the big house became Beryl’s real home when she moved in with Lottie. In the meantime, Mary’s brother, Rollo, graduated from Uncle Doc’s alma mater and opened his own dental practice in the house. Lottie also took in two of her nephews and one of their wives, who also lived in the big house. The house was so massive that everyone had their own space. Even so, they all came together for every meal in the big dining room. It was quite an unusual house…and the family dynamics were very interesting. But that was just the way things were. Rob’s childhood memories in Slatedale were idyllic. The cast of characters was quirky and eccentric. There was always a bevy of older ladies making good food, cousins to run with, and the warm feeling of extended family. The pace of life here was slow. Neighbors gathered to play cards and tell stories in the evenings, the kids played ball in the yard.
As the years went by, every family member, every family enterprise, brought more and more and more stuff into this massive house. Sadly, Rob’s Grandma as the youngest in her generation was the last of the old guard. When she passed away in 1981, it was a sad day and the end of an era. Before the house was sold, Rob and his two sisters, along with a number of other relatives, were invited to choose some treasures for their own. And the treasures were many, many, many: Some fantastic pieces of Victoriana, the original deed for the Rex farmstead from 1740, endless furniture and fixtures, and all sorts of intriguing medical and dental equipment. Rob was overwhelmed with all the stuff, all the memories, and all the relatives’ low-key squabbling over this piece or that. It marked more than the passing of his grandmother and the house. It felt like the passing of a whole way of life, embodied by The Silent Generation and the Greatest Generation, a loss that is really is hard to put into words but very profound. Those of us who have gone through it understand.
This event also marked a personal turning point. The road before Rob as well as the one behind him were so different than what this place represented in his life. Mary had married an oral surgeon (to make the story more interesting, one of Rollo’s fellow dental school students) and they made a life in a pleasant Philadelphia suburb. Rob went to one of the best high schools in the nation and then went on to an Ivy League college. The expectations and pressure to excel started early. To whom much is given, much is expected. The summer days and holidays spent at his Grandma’s house in Slatedale were time out of time, where life was sweet, simple, and savored. And now…it was in the past.
That’s what he was thinking of when he decided on the one antique he wanted, a stout little Hall pitcher. Rob’s favorite color is red, and it was very, very RED. It had resided on a high shelf in Grandma’s kitchen all those years, a bright spot in the midst of all the cookery and cast iron in a large and busy Pennsylvania Dutch kitchen. Even though it was a practical vessel that could have been used every day on the dinner table, the fact that it wasn’t reflected a culture that those of us who grew up in small Pennsylvania Dutch communities recognize. All the “pretties” were “saved” for “special”—and consequently were very rarely used. Its brilliant color however reflected the desire for small indulgences–in lives defined by hard work and sacrifice–to have few special things that were simply pleasing to the senses.
On its high shelf, the pitcher was a talisman, always there, its position never changing, year after year. Like that big house in the small town, like his grandma, like that time out of time…special. So that was the one thing he chose, as he walked out of the past and into his future.
Now that little red pitcher resides on a high shelf in our house, and we don’t use it for everyday either. It is displayed like artwork, a memory of our heritage and a loved one long gone, as cherished as any rare Ming vase.