In Carlsbad, California recently, I was privileged to wear a vintage, designer gown that had once belonged to a fashion icon. Amidst the fields of unending, colour-coded ranunculus and cloudless, azure sky, its bold, circular pattern stood out tremendously. There was something else too, something intangible about wearing that dress on that day – how very immediately and instinctively it recalled the one who once wore it.
Clothes are essentially objects – fabric held together by stitching – reflecting the pattern and design of their creator. Clothes, like any other object, especially those that are handmade, over time and use, come to be associated with their owner so completely, that by simply gazing at the object all sorts of memories of the owner are conjured.
This association grows to acute proportions for some, when the object’s owner dies. Nearly all of us can look around our home and find something that once belonged to someone dear to us, who has departed the earth. In the course of daily life, the object is usually overlooked, but, pause for a moment and really regard it and remembrances of the person to whom it once belonged, abound.
I was once given a rather old and (some would call it) decrepit camping stove in a time of dire need. The flaking metal, non-functioning burners (2 out of its 3 actually worked), and detritus of soot have largely gone ignored in the intervening years. Instead, it has been used and cleaned and treasured as if it were a gleaming oven range of several hundred thousand dollars. Every once in a while, though, I will glance at its sorry state – as it spews embers into the air like some great, clunky medieval chimney – and think silently of its former owner who provided peace of mind and great assistance by gifting it, a smirk and twinkle in his eye as he did so.
Many of us will strive to retain at least a handful of objects from one who has departed, however objectionable, and contrary to our taste and sense of aesthetic – simply, as a reminder of their presence. The objects must be so intertwined with the life and personality of their owner that anyone who knew them would say, “ah ha! Yes, there (s)he is.”
Then, there is an opposite situation which will sometimes occur where the person has utterly divested, either voluntarily or not, of their possessions. In this situation, even a relative (not involved in the clearing away process, and not given a thing) is known to look around, once the divestiture has taken place and profess disbelief – I wonder where X has gone? I wonder who (s)he gave this to? I wonder who has that now? It can be quite disconcerting when there is nothing left. What is there to remember him or her by?
In life, we are often dispossessed by fate or by choice. Ritual dispossession was a feature of many rites in the ancient world, and traditions allowed for this process to occur gradually. I know someone who cherished all that she owned and cared for things so that they could become heirlooms. Most of these things were given away by others, she was left with little choice, unable to maneuver a way to keep them. It was not lack of will, for hers is iron, but circumstance that made it this way. Still, today she catalogues in her mind, these things she once owned with a sort of fond, forlorn, frustrated love which becomes uneasy and painful in their very recollection.
It is natural to want to keep what (we believe) is ours. It is healthy to want to decide for ourselves the destiny of our treasured objects. There was once at my local community grocery store, a communal exchange library – you left and book or magazine or picked one up – the rules were pliant and casual. Besides, no one ever checked because it was a place that honoured your word and deed. It was a place that spoke to the ideals of community life. Perusing the shelves one day, an older patron seeing me flip through the worn copies of National Geographic inquired whether I liked the magazine. All it took was the slightest hint of interest on my part, before she offered me her entire collection on the spot. She wanted the magazines to have a good home and be cared for as she herself had done.
Letting go of an object can be fraught. How can this be? An object is little more than a mere inanimate thing – it has no feeling, no thinking, no being. Edgar Cayce the famous American psychic told the story of a machine that was made and sold but that was not functioning properly. He eventually learned that when the machine was being made, the maker had a terrible row with his wife and the machine had held that energy.
That is the essence of an object – it holds energy. The reason we associate an object with its owner is because it embodies its owner’s energy. When it is given away we want to ensure that someone with a similar energy or someone who can benefit from its energy comes into its possession.
It may seem like strict materialism to focus on possessions. There are, of course, many, many ways to remember someone without an object. It seems to me their laughter is one thing that reverberates and lingers through eternity.
But, the wonder of an object, any object, even those that never gain familiarity or association with a person, is that it exists at all. It has come into being just as this universe has come into being. Just as we all come into being. And depart.
This original editors letter article first appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of City Style and Living Magazine.