Monday, May 9, 2011

Household Gods

As you sit before your computer at your work area, your hands are resting on the edge of a table common enough in many branch libraries you've visited, but this particular table has been with you for years, making the trip north from Santa Monica when you moved to Santa Barbara; it has become your desk.  It was given you by your father.  Directly to your right is a two-shelf book case with sliding glass doors, a gift from the remarkable English anthropologist, Hilda Kuper.  Sitting atop the book case is an elaborate china pitcher, alive with figures of asters ranging from pinkish red to a full-blown red.  This pitcher and a series of delicate tea cups were much favored by your mother.  You have never taken tea from the cups nor used the pitcher for anything until last week, when it became the perfect vase for an ambitious bunch of red tulips you found at the Gelson's market.  Directly across the room from you is a five-drawer dresser of some period also beloved of your mother, while to your left is a four-drawer cabinet of the same era, also a reminder of your mother.  Living as you do now in a pleasant-but-small studio and large kitchen combo, space is an issue, particularly since the one closet, generous in proportion to the overall dimensions of the room, is nevertheless not what you have been accustomed to in past years.  When you moved in, your landlord in fact offered you a larger piece of furniture that would have picked up the functions the closet has had to delegate to other arrangements.  Thankful as you were, you refused the generous offer because, well, because the four-drawer dresser, while it could have gone entirely, or been stored, was after all, your mother's.

Only this afternoon, you went at an afternoon snack, a brioche from Reynaud's Patisserie, served up on a salad-plate-sized dish of thick clay, glazed in an umber glaze, its perimeter an imaginative display of brown and white dots arranged to suggest daisies.  You know nothing of the dish's provenance; you acquired it for ten cents at a sidewalk sale as you parked on the street next to the Trader Joe's on Milpas Street, its parking lots filled to capacity.

When the time comes to consider such things, you will offer any and all of these things to your nieces, but there is no telling which--if any at all--of these things they will want because it is not yet clear what if any meaning these things have for them.  Your youngest niece does in fact still have and use a waffle iron also much beloved by your mother.  She has as well a crock pot and electric skillet you used as a bachelor.  She also has an eclectic and diverse silver setting for four removed by you piece by piece from various New York hotels.  She has placed a "tibbs" on a set of thick, long-handled serving bowls from the now defunct Broadway Chowder House in San Francisco, a gift to you from a woman you loved enough to contemplate marriage with, secured by the gift of six fat marijuana cigarettes to a busboy at the Broadway Chowder House.

Things are only things until they become mementos, relics, artifacts.  A large basket, filled with shards of broken pots, have meaning to you not for their individual textures or patterns but because you came upon them one night when you lost your way walking about on the Second mesa of the Hopi Reservation.  A shaving brush once belonged to one of your dearest friends.  A Navajo carving is an inevitable reminder of an old pal who gave it to you.  The pencil sharpener in the shape of a Royal upright typewriter is a birthday present from a group of students you have not seen in over twenty-five years.

Many of your books are gifts from their authors or persons who knew of your fondness for the authors' work.  You are surrounded by mementos, relics, and artifacts, all of them in their separate way being of especial value to you because of some association beyond the beauty and/or usefulness of the thing.  Two of your favorite polo shorts, seriously frayed at their collars, were gifts from your sister.  You could get an unrusted hammer from a hardware store but prefer in stead the one given you by your sister.

The list of associations grows; so many of the things you are so close to on a daily basis are imbued with the spirit of a person, place, or event, even down to the faux marble paperweight in the shape of a book, commemorating your leaving Sherbourne Press to run the Los Angeles office for Dell Publishing, the two-foot rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald, complete with a hip flask and a Princeton pennant, given you by Barnaby Conrad after he realized he'd already done one for inclusion in a large mural in a local bookstore.

These items are your lares and penates, your household gods, your fetishes and icons, binding you and caressing you within a world and home of your own making.  The presence of these things keeps you not merely from being lonely but from the unconscious awareness of loneliness; they remain constant reminders of your connectedness to a world about you.

Only yesterday, you heard from Thomas Sanchez, he of Rabbit Boss and The Zoot-Suit Murders, whom you'd not seen nor heard from for minimum twenty years.  Somehow he, in Paris right now, had seen something of yours and thus the exchange of words and a hoped for reunion.

There does come a time in life--the sooner, the better--where words and things and persons and events merge into artifacts and lares and penates, filled for a time with the energy of their current person.  They are the curios and mementos and relics of what it is to be alive and to reach out; they are the most precious things of all.

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