"Potato masher," I thought as I pressed the ancient utensil against the soft Yukon golds. "Potato masher, silk shirt, grandmother clock, white pitchers, wing chair, cashmere sweater." The potato masher belonged to my mother along with the other items that sang themselves into a list in my head as I squished the cream and butter into the potatoes. I could have used my newer potato masher or the stand mixer or a food mill. But this is always my tool of choice when I mash potatoes, and for some reason, it called forth that list of inherited objects.
Of course, it reminds me of my childhood, of my mother, of family dinners. It was a Proustian moment -- the potato masher, my madeleine. But it resonated in other ways, as well. Objects are about themselves as much as they are about their owners and inheritors. The potato masher has more personality than the other utensils in the drawer -- more than the spatula and the garlic press I bought at Home Goods. It has history; it has integrity. I know this sounds whimsical, but it also has veracity -- the objects of our lives do have a truth and meaning beyond their usefulness.
I have a lot of friends whose parents have recently died, or have sold their houses to move to retirement communities, which means I have a lot of friends cleaning out their parents' houses. Often they are doing the cleaning-out in a state of trauma or despair, or in the midst of sibling disputes.
I had the task of cleaning out my in-laws and my parents' homes at the same time. My mother kept revising her list of who gets what until it became clear that it was up to her four daughters to make those decisions. My oldest sister and I sat at her dining room table the week my mother died and assigned her jewelry to granddaughters and our other sisters. Everyone was gracious and well-behaved about it. We were too sad to argue or let the objects be witness to family hostilities.
For a whole year, I was consumed by all those objects whose fate was in my hands. All I thought about was things. While I hated myself for being so materialistic, at the same time, it felt inevitable. Maybe what compelled me was not just my parents' and in-laws' possessions, but the loss they represented. I was consumed with the death of family members, with the loss of the places they lived and where those objects resided. Removed from the places we know them best, those things become contradictory -- detached from memory as well as remaining the stuff of our past.
In an essay called, "Talking Forks: Fiction and the Inner Life of Objects," Charles Baxter writes, "People in a traumatized state tend to love their furniture. They become ferociously attached to knickknacks." As an example, he cites a section of Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse." "Taking care of things, it claims, is a way back to the reconstitution of the spirit. It gives sentience to objects as the containers of that spirit. It declares a truce between humans and objects..."
In the decade since I cleaned those houses, made decisions under duress and sadness about what to keep and who got what, I have developed a relationship to the clock, the pitchers, the black cashmere cardigan, the wing chair, the silk shirt, the potato masher. They don't feel like they are entirely mine, they have too much history. Much of the time, I feel like their caretaker.
A friend of mine took photos of all the objects and furniture in her house that had value, and wrote down their stories and made a Shutterfly book so her children would know what they would some day inherit. My husband's grandmother and great grandmother did an early 20th century version of Shutterfly.
They wrote labels and attached them to furniture and paintings saying where the object came from, who passed it down to whom. The ink is faded in places, and the paper torn here and there, but I can make out most of the information when I turn over a portrait or a chair.
If you ask me, I am not sure I could tell you why I have kept an old potato masher, the square silk scarves my mother wore and I do not, my mother-in-law's brocade evening gown that has some holes in it, smells of moth balls, and is two sizes too big for me. The obvious answer is it that they remind me of the previous owners. But there is more to it than that -- they reconcile past and present, loss and continuity.
Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.