I spent an afternoon antiquing with my mother-in-law this week. She likes to look around at antique stores, looking for pretty little dishes to go with the sets she collects and wondering about the stories behind different items. I, however, have a love/hate relationship with antique stores. I love to get ideas for decorating my home. And I like to see which of the items I grew up using have inexplicably crossed over into the designation of “antique.”
I end up sad, though, when I think about my own grandmother’s belongings that are probably in antique stores somewhere in Arkansas being rummaged through by folks oblivious to the stories and history those items hold.
Grandma’s health declined quickly in May, 2002. At 92, she still walked the block from her house to her part-time job at the local Laundromat. Grandpa died in 1976, and Grandma had courageously lived on her own the next 26 years, a good six-hour drive from her only daughter, my Mom. But that May, she had to stop several times on that short walk to work to catch her breath, and she knew something was wrong.
Mom, 70 years old at the time, drove the six hours to Grandma’s in northern Arkansas to take her to the doctor and then take her home with her to north Louisiana. Dialysis would soon follow, and within eight months, Grandma would leave this world to meet Grandpa, just hours before she would have turned 93.
That May 2002 was a tumultuous time for our family. Not only did Grandma have declining health, but my husband and I were going through a very difficult time in Kentucky. My stepfather was struggling with numerous issues, as well, and Mom was the one we all turned to for help. I drove to Louisiana to spend time with Mom to help with Grandma, and while I was there, Mom and I realized that Grandma would not be able to return to her home in Arkansas.
I remember the long drive Mom and I made to Grandma’s house to collect some of her belongings. We were preparing for Grandma to move to an assisted living home since Mom was already providing in-home care to my stepfather. We met with a real estate agent on that two-day visit, and we packed the back of that pickup truck as full as we could with things we thought Grandma needed and wanted the most with her. The plan was to come back for the rest when we could.
Mom asked the real estate agent to list the house “as is” with all the furniture inside, except for three pieces that we would come back to get: Grandma’s foot peddle sewing machine, an old family table, and my mother’s childhood cedar chest. I remember having reservations about the real estate agent. I even voiced them to Mom. I just didn’t think she seemed all that reliable. But, we had two days to take care of things before heading back to Grandma and my stepfather.
Grandma’s attic was large – an entire half a floor of the two-story house – and was filled with family belongings going back many generations. I remember family Bibles with hand written notes recording births, marriages and deaths. I remember my grandfather’s military uniform from World War II, handmade quilts, clothes from a bygone era and so much more. The plan was to come back for those precious items.
But plans don’t always turn into reality. That two-day trip in a packed-to-the-hilt pickup truck was the last I would make to the house Grandpa bought for Grandma decades ago. Life back in Louisiana became overwhelming with Grandma living with Mom and traveling to dialysis treatments several times a week, while Mom struggled to help her own ailing husband. I headed back to Kentucky to deal with my own chaos, leaving Mom alone with the weight of the world on her shoulders.
Mom told me about the phone call she received from the real estate agent. The house’s price needed to be lowered if Mom wanted it to sell quickly. Oh, and by the way, it appeared there had been a break in. The only things stolen? The three pieces of furniture Mom had told the real estate agent about. I knew the real estate agent had taken the only three large items Mom wanted to salvage from her mother’s home. But, I couldn’t face that battle at that particular time, and neither could my Mom.
Mom made one last trip to Grandma’s house and discovered the contents of her childhood hope chest had been dumped on the floor. Mom was able to gather the tossed items to take back home to sort when she had time. She packed a few photos and other small items, locked the doors, and was not able to return again. The home sold with the remaining contents inside – antique furniture, jewelry from long forgotten dinner parties and special events, dishes that held special family recipes, and an attic and closets full of memories contained in inanimate objects.
Grandma never asked about her house. She never asked about her treasures stored inside. Mom didn’t tell her about the stolen sewing machine or the hope chest or the table handed down through generations. But, I think Grandma knew and felt the sorrow that comes with losing a lifetime of belongings that remind you of the journey you have traveled.
I have a few items from Grandma’s house, probably more than my mother has, actually. There’s an old radio that doesn’t work anymore, an ancient typewriter, a camera, a pair of pinking shears and a pair of eyeglasses. And a photo album with pictures that tell a story that objects could never fully tell.
Not much to represent 93 years of life. But, what I do have are wonderful memories – memories that can survive burglaries and family crises and estate sales.
So, every time I visit an antique store, I’m reminded of all that happened to Grandma’s things. My husband says that one day we will visit antique stores in the city where Grandma lived, and we can search for things that were hers. Will I find photos of family members? A hope chest that once belonged to my mother? A foot peddle sewing machine? Perhaps. And I’ll certainly purchase them and bring them home. But, ultimately, I already have the best “things” I could ever have from Grandma – the memories and stories of a Godly woman who showed courage, strength and grit for 93 years. And those are things you’ll never find in an antique store.