October 7, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Becoming curators of our own museums

Old people live in museums. At least it seemed that way to me when I was a kid. Being an “only,” sitting with adults at every event, I had occasion to observe my older relatives closely in their natural habitats. And they were something to see!

Great-aunt Teen (short for Christina) was a case in point. She lived in a tiny house that was perfectly scaled to her 4-foot-10-inch height, if a bit restrictive for Great-uncle Eb (Eban), who was over 6 feet tall. Every visit to their home was an archaeological experience.

That’s because it was crammed with old-fashioned Victorian furniture, china cabinets full of pretty dishes, plant stands with weeping ferns sitting on top, lace curtains at the windows, tintypes and sepia-brown photographs on the walls. You get the idea.

Everywhere we looked, there was some example of Aunt Teen’s artistic abilities on display. She did china painting, braided rugs large and small from old scraps of wool, and quilted beautiful hand-sewn coverlets for every bed in the house. She invented crafts from junk, such as little flowerpots filled with plaster of paris “dirt,” containing flowers fashioned from scraps of painted metal.

She made footstools from soup cans arranged in a circle, padded with cotton batting and covered with elegant scraps from discarded clothing or upholstery. Then, for good measure, she embroidered designs on the plush or velvet covers. Every item had a story, about whose dress it came from or what old sofa belonging to which cousin lent itself to the project.

Great-aunt Sarah and Great-uncle Pete also maintained one of my favorite home-museums. They were great collectors, and their taste ran to excesses such as small Oriental rugs placed in front of each chair or couch, on top of a room-size Oriental rug. Even their plumbing was fascinating. The toilet in the upstairs bathroom featured a wooden water tank on the wall above the stool, with a chain to pull for flushing. It made a great noise when operated.

The other day, it occurred to me that my home has joined the ranks of living museums like those of my great-aunts and great-uncles. Some friends came to visit who hadn’t been out our way for a couple of years, and I was showing them around the “new” addition to our living room.

They exclaimed over the numerous artifacts on the walls: the watercolor of “our” covered bridge painted by our daughter, the needlepoint made by a daughter-in-law who presented it proudly as her first such effort, a portrait of my husband’s mother painted by an itinerant artist during the Depression.

They noticed the crazy wooden cat stool from Guatemala given to us by a son and his wife just because they thought it would amuse us. And they remarked on the many sets of bookends, gifts from friends who know we love to read.

Looking around at our possessions, I realized that every one had some meaning beyond its outward appearance. Every object, photograph or piece of furniture related to someone we love or places and events in our lives that are memorable in one way or another.

Someday, our living museum will need to be dispersed. Sure makes me think of garage sales in a whole new way!

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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