collecting, history, material culture, personal, Providence, Rhode Island, transferware, World War II
Last weekend, Drunk Tailor and I delivered the Giant to his new life as a college student back in New England, and paid a call on of my oldest friends, a 96-year-old former OSS agent and descendent of the Dexter family. My eldest friend had something she wanted to give me: a souvenir of the Dexter House, in recognition of the hours I’d spent working with her identifying and organizing several hundred years of family papers.
In the photo at left, the coffee pot on the mantle is now in a museum collection, as are the miniatures, the bellows, and the pipe box (which is now on display in a historic house museum). What my eldest friend gave me is not in the image of the house, but resembles the plate to the left of the fireplace: a Staffordshire transferware “Village Church” pattern plate with a wild rose border, ca 1825.
I’m a fan of blue and white china, and while I prefer earlier Canton ware, this plate is more special to me than the ones I’ve bought at auction or in New Bedford antique shops: because of course it’s not a plate, it’s memory, or an emotion, made solid.
Drunk Tailor and I spent an early Sunday afternoon on my friend’s porch listening to stories about her children, in particular about her daughter Mary, now an artist living in Mexico. Is it a comfort or an annoyance to learn that schools have been misjudging children since schools were invented, trying hard to fit round pegs into square holes? Mary, always more interested in drawing than in lectures, once left a classroom when the teacher said, “If anyone doesn’t want to hear this lesson, then they can leave now.” Out Mary went, three other girls following her out to play on a beautiful spring afternoon.
That story, and many others, aren’t apparent in the plate with its crazed face and discoloration. Only my memories (and anything I write down and keep with the plate) make the associations. But it is always the stories about the objects that make them important (even big-ticket dec arts items, like Plunkett Fleason easy chairs.)
Last night, before Drunk Tailor and I watched The Maltese Falcon, we watched Adam Savage’s TED talk on his obsession with objects. The TED talk is worth a watch for anyone interested in material culture and objects. Our human fascination with things goes beyond the shiny surface of new things (tabernacle mirrors or iPhones) as they become repositories of memory, symbols of feelings or moments.
This: In my desk drawer, I have a buckeye Drunk Tailor picked up and handed to me in a garden in New Jersey. It’s useless: inedible, too light to be a paperweight, but it reminds me of that November afternoon, the soft green of the garden, and how shy I felt. Anyone cleaning out my desk would toss that bit of organic matter, even as I keep it as a talisman of one of our first dates: the places, the smells, and the feelings.
And this, too: My friend is 96. I may never see her again, though when I left her, she was healthy and cheerful, making plans for the fall with her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren coming to visit. Given my reticence and her old-fashioned New England reserve, I may never be able to tell her how much she means to me (I try), or how interesting I think she is. (“I’m not interesting, dear, I just worked hard,” is what she says when I try to convince her to donate her personal papers to an archive.) But I have a plate that was in a house that had a great deal of meaning to her, and my best guess is that her gift of that plate to me means she knows how much I like and admire her. It reminds me of her, and reminds me of how little time there is before all that’s left is the plate and my memories.