The Half-Life of Family Heirlooms

Recently, when I served dessert to women friends around my grandmother’s dining room table, we described our uneasy relationship with the objects the women of our families treasured.

Now when we have homemade cookies, we store them in Mimmie Shriner’s Depression glass instead of saving it for good.

Women of the Greatest Generation, like my mother, cared about “good” china, crystal, and real silverware. They hoped to get full sets of it as wedding presents, and they cherished their mother’s and grandmother’s things. For them, the hope chest tradition was alive and well. They collected china and linens before they married and instilled that value in my Baby Boom friends and me. But our Millennial kids don’t want to fuss with handwashing goblets or ironing tablecloths. Not that I blame them. I don’t either. Nonetheless, my friends and I are distressed about what to do with the tableware and linens we’ve inherited. Let alone the quilts, furniture, and photographs.

We were brought up to value them, but the tableware really doesn’t make much sense in our lives. Where do you keep it between holidays? Wouldn’t holiday meals be less work if all your dishes could go in the dishwasher? And yet, this stuff mattered so much to our mothers. How can we just donate it to charity? But people do—Goodwill is full of 12-piece place settings with dainty floral borders. I’ve seen Waterford crystal goblets there too.

Articles like,No One Wants Your Stuffhave taught me to rethink my assumptions. The popularity of books like The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaningand The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up make clear that either I can purge my stuff or my kids will.

Mimmie Shriner’s table where she served her out-of-work relatives on Sundays during the Depression

I’m becoming reconciled to the half-life of memories. When my siblings, first cousins, and I—the last people to remember Mimmie Shriner or Grandma Pleitz—are gone, my grandmothers will become “ancestors” instead of the vivid people they are in my head. Mimmie’s dining room table will just be an antique table, and Grandma Pleitz’s crystal goblets will just be wine glasses. Their significance is in my memories; my sons and any future daughters-in-law don’t have those associations—they never knew my grandmothers.

Many evenings, I sip wine from one of Grandma Pleitz’s eight goblets.

Yet the objects are a visible reminder of past generations—hardworking, loving women who wanted pretty things in their lives. How can I honor the memory of these women without feeling burdened by their stuff? One way I’ve chosen is to use the good crystal and china even if it isn’t a holiday. When it chips or breaks, I throw it out. That way my grandmothers come to mind and are more present in my life. If their tablecloths get shrunk or stained—so be it. At least they got used and enjoyed. Likewise, I honor my grandmothers by keeping a few things I really like so I can look at them often. Finally, I remind myself that heritage doesn’t reside in the objects alone. It’s also passed down through our family’s recipes, traditions, stories, and values.

Mimmie put hairpins in this small handpainted dish. I never put salt Grandma Pletiz’s salt cellars, but I still like them.

I accept that my sons and future daughters-in-law may not care about my stuff—whether inherited or chosen during 30+ years of marriage. If they do, they will have different memories than mine. I hope they only keep what they care about.

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Shopping? Let Me Grab My Laptop!

When I received a gift of money recently, my first impulse was to grab my laptop and shop online. Maybe there are some summer tops on sale. Wait. What? I’m going to shop online despite having a stack of 30% off and $10 off coupons from local department stores? Even though I might have to pay shipping charges? Um, yeah. For me, online clothes shopping is more fun than in-store shopping.

 

It wasn’t always this way. A long time ago, in a land far away, when my sister and I accompanied my mother on shopping trips to department stores, it was a fun excursion (for us, anyway). We all had to change out of our grubby around-the-house clothes and into something more presentable. There was a saleslady and cash register in every department. She’d help you find another color and bring the item to your dressing room—so my mother didn’t have to get completely dressed again or send my sister and me on a mission to fetch another size. Sometimes Mom would treat us to Cokes in the store’s coffee shop, while she had a cup of coffee.

Fast forward to today. On the rare occasion when I shop in-store at places like Macy’s, Kohl’s, JCPenney, or Herberger’s, my chances of finding a sales clerk are slim. Plenty of times, I’ve zigzagged through the store before I spot one several departments away. And this bored underpaid person doesn’t look too happy to see me with my question about another size.

To be fair, I have an uneasy relationship with sales clerks. The ones I remember from my girlhood often looked down their nose at me and my teenaged girlfriends as we flipped through the racks. When I was older and clearly a serious shopper, often a saleslady’s “help” turned into pushy upsell.

Today, if I want a snack to fuel my shopping, I can buy bottled water and a candy bar at the checkout. Not exactly the same as sipping a leisurely Coke while spinning on stools at the counter with my sister and mom.

I do get that customers like me helped change the retail experience. We don’t come because it’s no fun, and it’s no fun because we don’t come.

Nevertheless, if I want to shop for clothes these days, I’m most likely to be sprawled on my bed in my nightgown. There I can happily scroll through several store websites at once, checking for clearance items and considering the possibilities. Maybe the blue patterned one. No wait, what about the green one? And my coffee’s near at hand.

Opposing Thumbs

In 1975, as I sat in Miss Bloom’s typing class, I never thought that one day I’d be typing primarily with my thumbs. I’m sure Miss Bloom, ancient even then, couldn’t have imagined a keyboard so tiny that even the end of her thumb would be too large to hit just one key.

I picture myself in her class, feet planted firmly on the floor, my skirt pulled down over my knees, fingers curled over the keys of the IBM Selectric in front of me. Four rows of eight desks neatly lined the room. The only sounds were the soft squish of Miss Bloom’s orthopedic shoes on the linoleum floor as she paced up and down the rows checking our posture, and the hum of the newly purchased typewriters in front of us. (What a marvel those electric typewriters were. How much easier than the 1928 Smith Corona I used at home.)

What were my lonely thumbs doing then? They were relegated to the space bar, waiting for the opportunity to create a void between words. Only my right thumb ever got any business, the left thumb dangled uselessly while all of the other digits pounded away at 65 words per minute.

No wonder that now my thumbs have trouble finding the letters when I answer e-mails or send my daughter a text message from my iPhone. They’re not conditioned for this kind of work. Now they’re front and center, the rulers of the written word while my fingers curl around the back of my handheld device, providing support, but little else.

Occasionally my right index finger can’t stand the pressure and it says to its friends on my left hand “Take over. I’m going in!” as it darts from behind the screen to hunt and peck for the letters, thinking itself faster than my clumsy thumbs.

But even this is unsatisfying, because my right index finger doesn’t know the keyboard any better than my thumbs. The only familiar keys are y, u, h, j, n and m. And what can you spell with only those letters? Eventually, my index finger gives up and returns to its friends behind the screen, letting the thumbs take over because they at least can work together, doubling the speed of my messaging.

Gone are the days of 65-75 words per minute. My thumbs are lucky if they can get in 20. So they’re less creative. A reply that once might have been “I’d love to join you on Saturday evening. A trip to the theatre sounds like fun,” becomes “K” or more likely a thumbs up emoji, but rarely anything longer. It’s just too slow, too cumbersome, too demoralizing to spend so much time pecking for the keys and constantly backspacing to correct mistakes.

I’d like to say my thumbs are happy, that they’re glad for the opportunity to carry the torch after all these years. But I don’t think they are. I think they miss the days of working in tandem with my fingers, resting lightly on the space bar while the fingers searched for just the right sequence of letters. I think they’re lonely out there in front by themselves. Who knows? I could ask them, but they’d probably just reply, “IDK, may b. U D cide.”

 

Guest blogger and WordSister Jill W. Smith is a Twin Cities’ writer. Her work has appeared in the anthologies Here in the Middle: Stories of Love, Loss, and Connection from the Ones Sandwiched in Between; A Cup of Comfort for Parents of Children with Autism; and Siblings: Our First Macrocosms, in the online journal Mothers Always Write, and occasionally on her blog, The Autism Fractal, which she co-authors with her oldest daughter.

A Change Is Gonna Come

In 1967, when there were race riots in Detroit and Toledo, my hometown, I was 12. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated in 1968. Chicago policemen clubbed protesters who chanted, “The whole world is watching” at the Democratic National convention in 1968.

civil rights protest

In 1970, when Ohio National Guardsmen killed four students and injured nine others on the Kent State University campus, I was 15. Vietnam War protests took place across the country. Students took over college campus buildings. Protesters stormed government buildings. Thousands marched in the streets.

Kent & Jackson State

The civil rights movement and war protests shook our country. The old ways—from entrenched institutions like segregation to how political parties worked, and what we wanted from authorities like police—were under siege and crumbling. As a teenager, I felt the turbulence. Anything could happen. Was happening. Although I was against segregation and the Vietnam War, the violence associated with ending those ills scared me.

However, I sensed the dawning of a new era and was hopeful that real change, as well as peace and justice, were possible.

Black protests

Today, I have the same sense. Once again our country, and indeed, the Western world (Great Britain’s Brexit and the European union’s struggles with immigration and identity) is at a crossroads.

refugees

No matter what, change is gonna come. 10 years from now, our country is going to be different.

Decades have passed since I was a teenager who was bewildered by events and worried about our future. Today, I still worry about where our country is headed, and I don’t know what the coming changes will look like, but I’m hopeful.

I believe that people of good faith will work to end systemic racism.

I believe Americans will return to our core values: we’re a nation of immigrants who are committed to religious freedom.

I’m hopeful that despite our differences, we can redirect our political leaders so they once again work for all of us.

If you feel discouraged and hopeless about the possibility of change, click to this video set to Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come” to be reminded of how many unbelievably hard changes have taken place since the late 1960’s.

None of the coming changes will be easy and they will certainly be imperfect. Nonetheless, I believe that Americans’ good sense and love of justice will prevail.

“I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.”

Change Won’t Happen Unless We Demand It

Today I am in despair, afraid that Americans don’t have the courage and persistence to address gun violence. We feel horrible when another massacre happens like the one in Orlando. We deplore the murder rates and stray bullets flying around in the Twin Cities, Chicago, and other cities. Sometimes we react by going numb. Often we are cynical. Regularly we tune out the nonstop news of a massacre, because we can’t bear to listen and we feel powerless to change the situation.

Screen Shot 2016-06-13 at 12.05.43 PM

Without intending to be, we are complicit. Essentially, when ordinary Americans don’t demand change, we become accomplices to the mass murderers. We’ve provided the setting in which acts of mass murder are easy to commit. We’ve accepted that guns and violence are part of American life. We’ve allowed gunmen to kill in schools and on college campuses, in churches, movie theaters, military bases, neighborhoods, and nightclubs. No place is sacred. No one is completely safe.

I don’t know how to fix the problem of gun violence, but we have to try. Feeling bad isn’t enough.

The solutions will have to be multifaceted, because the problem is complex. Our attitudes and American culture, as well as laws, regulations, and more have to change. Common sense gun control and better support for mental illness treatment are good places to start, but the solutions need to go deeper. We need cultural change. As Americans, we need to re-examine how we think about our rights to have guns, protect ourselves, and exercise our freedoms.

I know this won’t be easy and it will take time. But we have to try.

As Americans, we have changed how we think about alcoholism and drunk driving. We look at both issues differently than we did 40 years ago. We’ve made some progress. Not enough, but some.

We’ve raised awareness and begun to change how we view child abuse, domestic violence, and rape. Obviously, we have a long way to go, but 50 years ago we were in the dark ages on these issues. In those days, many people thought that parents could discipline children as they saw fit, that a husband beating his wife was a private matter, and that women who were raped did something to cause it. Too many people still hold those views, but our culture has begun to change.

As with those social issues, gun violence will begin to change when ordinary people start having the conversations that challenge cultural assumptions and attitudes. Change will happen when our state and federal legislators hear from us and understand that we’ve had enough.

Change is possible, but we have to insist on it.