I love shows like Antique Road Show, American Pickers, and Pawn Stars. You know, shows that sometimes highlight the value of old, often neglected stuff and often times the monetary worthlessness of stuff we sometimes intrinsically want to value.
On Tuesday I helped my mother and father go through my maternal grandparents’ house as they continue the slow process of trying to figure out what to do with it (sell, hold on to see if a developer will buy it to tear it down, or perhaps have me move into it).
Cleaning out such a space can be daunting, doubly so when there was also a nephew of my grandmother’s who lived in the upstairs part of the narrow shotgun 1907 house and hoarded everything. (How many pair of shitty shoes and Big Lots pliers does one man need? I could actually ask him because he’s still alive, but to do so would also spark an “Ooh! I need that back conversation,” which he does not, not to mention that the that wouldn’t fit in his small assisted living apartment for the elderly either).
From a strictly outsider standpoint, going through my grandparents’ earthly possessions is an anthropological study of white, middle class living for the 1940s-to-mid-to-late 20th century American family. There are tons of Danielle Steel, All Creatures Great and Small, and Reader’s Digest novels, along with the assortment of Polaroids, gimmicky contraptions, old tape-cd-VHS players and boxes of neglected Avon bottles and vinyl records in the attic. Below the dust though there is the intrinsic value of this stuff.
My grandmother’s thirst for trashy novels (the Harlequin romance type) lead me to my first library card and my love for reading (even if it is a little more highbrow, but not always). My grandfather’s thin London Fog coat with its aviator club patch (he was testing for his aviator license when he died at 65 after buying his own small plane at retirement) probably isn’t worth anything, beyond the memory of him pouring over aviation books to test for his license that would allow him to take up passengers like me.
It’s a tough call, determining what is junk and what is not, what may be worth something monetarily, and what is worth carrying back to your own home and putting in a special place because parting with it is like giving up pieces of a memory. As my family tries to answer these questions on each piece of evidence of two lives gone before delivering a verdict (to the trash or family treasure) it is a great meditation on what matters. For me there is always a certain appeal for artifacts of items that stand as a testament to time and the longevity of certain items where lives began and ended, where families and memories grew then grew apart.
So far I’ve salvaged the blue prints to my grandparents’ home tucked away in an upper closet shelf with a ledger outlining contractors and the quality and type of building supplies needed to erect a house in 1907. My grandparents’ bought the house in 1950s . The names on the paperwork are strangers who built a home and probably lived a lifetime in it before my family did the same. I can’t explain the melancholy, longing and pride I have owning these artifacts. It’s like being honored with someone’s last will and testament.
Depending on the fate of the house, it may be, for a place.
And of course there are the items my parents would like to have appraised, a framed painting or two, some books and furniture, because honestly, there is also a bit of that too, that one item worth more than anyone could ever have imagined, sitting in plain sight, a parting gift of the dearly departed.