The Life of Things: Sentimentality and Retention
Header collage created in collaboration by Mae Mcdermott and Nicki Diacik
After my grandfather died we kept everything, each of his ninety-one years of life and each decade of his travels. He had grown up poor in the Czech Republic, and been educated only through the eighth grade. Still, he wrote his way into employment for Radio Free Europe and into the path of Communist Russia, whose enmity forced him out of the country and away from his first-born son. It was in the US he learned English by rereading a single copy of The New York Times. It was here he continued his work for Radio Free Europe and began working for the United Nations. And it was here he raised my mother on 54 Maple Avenue in Pelham, New York, a place where the sky feels a penetrating blue, and the sun is searing and bright regardless of the season. But then maybe that is the nature of memory which, being such a vivid song, throws certain notes so clearly and resonantly into the present.
He traveled to every continent except Antarctica with my grandmother Elsa. As a man who arrived to the U.S. with so little and yielded so much, he was frugal; but on every trip he carefully selected a relic, usually a painting or sculpture, to bring back home. My Poppy was a quiet and collected man, but enwrapped in his quietude was deep pride, sentimentality, and a never-waning excitement for the journeys open to him, because he was always, always aware of the boy that he had been. He was keenly aware that mere years before he had showered in a communal bathroom down the street from his small, gray, concrete apartment in Prague, and he was thrilled and moved by the unexpected places life had taken that boy.
And so his house lived and breathed, elastic in how it filled with all the relics and stories contained within its walls. My mom brought my brother and I up to visit when we were very young. We felt even without understanding the weight of the space in which UN representatives had mingled together, and in which my mom with her short curls and striped jumpers had played waitress. The house felt big, even stately, imposing. And yet, painted and carved people, frozen into motion, cast their looks and hues gently upon us; and there Poppy sat in his leather armchair in the corner of the living room, always minding us as well. With this watchfulness, the house was unmistakably warm and loving.
Once his chair was empty the house became a shadow of itself. Slighter. Colder. Looking back, I think it had started moving toward emptiness long before we had begun the harrowing process of turning it inside out.
And we did.
We removed the deep red and burnt orange oil paintings and the dark brown wooden African masks from above the silk green living room couch.
We unfastened the smaller mixed media works that hung above every other stair, the portraits of women who watched over the house like silent guardians.
We uprooted the black glistening dining room table and its matching amber chairs, the rugs from the floor, and my grandmother’s cream-colored, and burnt-orange striped dish-ware, which ranged from well-used to untouched except for her long-absent fingertips.
We unmoored everything, even took the colors from the walls — the deep salmon of the dining room, the tan of the living room — and painted the house that had once breathed his warmth a taut, crisp, unfeeling white.
We cleared the house and emptied it into a single moving truck. My mom, my brother, and I watched, numb, as the universe was packed into a rumbling metal suitcase. The only thing we left behind was his mattress. It sat on a floor suddenly free of carpet, in a bedroom harshly lit by windows now devoid of curtains.
We got back to Maryland and unloaded his house into our own. It was like emptying a treasure chest into a rustic toy box. Our 180-year-old farm house sits in a sea of swaying corn and soy; its white wood is eternally chipping away, and inside plaster ceilings curve in wayward shapes of the builder’s choice. A collection of rusted tools, dug up from our yard, grows on our kitchen ceiling; there is faded and stained wood, homemade concrete planters with adorned with mosaic tiles, maroon checkered curtains, and occasionally animal droppings.
For weeks we watched TV through a tangle of polished umber bed frames, and stepped over stacks of valuable paintings and contradictorily labeled brown boxes, with our dinner plates in hand. On our dog-hair covered brown couches, we gathered our limbs to ourselves… they felt extraneous and intrusive poking around territory that was no longer purely ours. For what we had was a shocking collision.
My house was disoriented and small with Poppy’s regal, cultured house crowded inside of it… and I also felt breathless and shrunken, surrounded by the hefty things of his home that had been inelegantly uprooted and sent tumbling in a truck to a Maryland farm. I looked over the boxes and heard their silence and wondered if we could house these jewels appropriately. And I thought on the now-vacant, painted-over spaces on walls we would never see again and felt remorsefully that these living, breathing items were wondering the same.
Poppy was not, and would never be, there amongst his things. My grandfather does not live in the items he left behind… and I am not sure that by holding onto his things we were keeping him. But I do think that we were keeping the things he imbued with meaning, and indeed the things that felt alive in their own right.
The tension comes from how alive everything feels. Even before Poppy’s things took up residence on our floor, there were stacks of Thomas VCRs taller than myself, closets packed full of board games never played but never discarded. We keep these confusing closets closed off, because how could we possibly let go of the way that iridescent Candy Land box speaks to us, or the Would You Rather set we riotously played once without following any of the rules.
I am the worst in the household. Things stick to me. I look on almost any inanimate thing — a bead that catches and throws the light, a particularly declarative ribbon, a snipped tag with a meaningful design — and tuck it away with a pang of sympathy, unable to drop something so charming in the trash. What fascinates me even for a fleeting moment, whatever feels important, finds an empty place on one of the surfaces surrounding me and makes a forever home there.
But there is no way to house it all. Streams of small beauties are diverted into dark drawers, the undersides of beds and dressers, and precarious heaps, and always I feel overheated and guilty at the mass of pretty, locked-away, forgotten things. This is no life for the things whose lives I profess to feel so deeply. Sentimentality and nest-building dances into the territory of mess-building.
And because I am the curator, the mess is mobile. It followed me out of Maryland to school, where I hoard bottle caps and cookie tins and pens that overflow into desk drawers and mingle with spare papers, notes, drawings that never find a way home. I sit guiltily amongst the filth I have created for the things that, at some point, called out to me, and I question as always whether I am a worthy custodian, and whether this is any better for them than being thrown in the trash.
The life of objects is as transitory as the life of man. Material things are meant to decay and die and disappear. And yet here I am utterly surrounded. When I hold on to bottle caps, what am I holding on to? Because really this practice must be self-serving. I must be holding onto things not for their sake but because I cannot bring myself to drop a glimmering something into the garbage. What in the silver of the bottle cap am I trying to prolong? When I hold onto things with the vague notion of preserving or recycling or creating or rebuilding, what does the garbage I retain say about me?
And yet when I excavate from the precarious piles printed emails long forgotten from friendships no longer mined but once golden, and when I find silly drawings from my best friend from second grade on torn loose leaf scraps, the things that one day will be trashed or recycled or will otherwise break up and spiral into the air in particles… they don’t feel like garbage to me. They never could.
So I am overwhelmed by the mess, by the mass, by maximum capacity. Because whether this retention is charged by fierce love or soft nostalgia or neurosis, it is still retention, and I am still finite within it, gathering my legs to myself in order to fit within the framework hoarded items place upon my life.
I am as finite as the walls of our barn, where much of my grandfather’s things have sat piled on top of each other since 2013. My mom is often afraid to examine them, knowing how the rugs she sat on as a child will have grown moldy, knowing how the paintings he procured from every country he ever visited will have grown water-damaged and warped, their delicate frames juxtaposed oddly against the scraped concrete floor of our barn.
We want to guard it all. We love every single thing that filled 54 Maple Avenue, the relics that have found stately, delightfully peculiar perches in the cold sunlit wooden corners of a humble farmhouse. We want to be good custodians of everything he cared for, kept alive, treasured, and saw life in… though they may be inanimate, how could we deny the objects in his home bursting with life, with the lives of their artists and creators, and with the life imbued in every scratch and every discoloration? How could we give that away? How could we cut that life short.
And then, sometimes, the reservoir we have built up overflows. There is only so much that can fit into a desk drawer or underneath a dresser or inside a barn, and sometimes we cannot guard as we hope to. My grandfather was very proud of a painting called “The Long Drive” by Chinese general Yeh Sui-pai, who inscribed a note in dark strokes about Poppy’s efforts to help fight the communist regime on the Chinese mainland. It is a brush painting of horses running around a watering hole.
The horses are like dark wind, black with notes of brown, their legs and manes and tales wisps across the plain white page, their untethered bodies curving toward movement. It hung above the smaller couch in his living room. He would gaze at it from his chair and say, “Ah… look at the horsies.”
It reminded him of everything.
When we framed it front and center in our own living room and it fell within a week, frame shattered, we all silently agreed not to see the crash as an omen. It was only this year that my mom brought the painting to be re-framed, warning the employees at Michaels repeatedly that she was doing so against her better judgment, and to guard the flying horses with their lives.The delicate paper came back to her massaged into place under a too-small frame, the page now replete with ridges and valleys. Across the middle was a thick fold like a fissure in dry ground, fracturing the watering hole in half, and introducing to the flying horses a rigidity they had never known. I have not asked for updates.
Lamps broken, rugs ruined, paintings stained and crumpled and frames shattered. These were the things that were pushed to the very corners of
our space, pushed against hard walls until they broke.
Sometimes no matter how much we preen, the things we keep will decay and die… because there is only so much space. They are living not only in storage, not only in a barn, not only on the shelves of an overwhelmed room, but inside of us. We inhabit each other, give each other life. Everything that we keep not only surrounds but floods, and here we are, as finite as any building we could use to try to store it all, filled to capacity with memory of love and loss, completely and utterly full. So when we are both full, both pushed to the corners of a limited space, both the vessel and what sits contained within are pushed to the point of breaking.
And so the question becomes, how can we share this life? How can we share this space, and how can we live in rather than overwhelm each other? I think on the horses, on their broken watering hole, and what I could have done to keep their lives free and untethered… what I could have done to deliver them to the flight they seek, their bodies blowing like dark gusts across a now-fractured page.
I wonder if they, at once still and in constant, wisping motion, will forgive me.