Tuesday I went with my Mom and my uncles and aunts to start cleaning out my deceased Grandmother's house. We only managed to get through most of her bathroom and bedroom closet because Grandma, bless her heart, was a packrat. I started a list of all the amazing stuff we found; it's below. It was an incredible experience going through that stuff with my mom and aunts. (My uncles retreated to the kitchen when we found the first hatbox.) Every time we picked something up, it was, "Oh I remember that thing; she wore it everywhere" and "Can you believe she kept this?" or "Oooh! Try it on!" We were separating things into keep, sell/donate, and trash piles.
I was absolutely gleeful when I found the box with all of my grandparents' love letters in it: every single one, all in their original envelopes lined up in neat rows, the handwriting still crisp and easy to read. There must have been hundreds. Some were before they were engaged, some during the engagement, when they lived in different states, some as newlyweds during the war. Have I mentioned I'm an English major? Original texts, original manuscripts are like our crack.
Then I started thinking, where is my love letter archive? I definitely have a file where I keep all the emails from the Significant Other, but is there something extra evoked by handling the paper or running your fingers over the ink? The thing is, it's not like the archive of my life will be ncessarily be digitized, because a lot of it is already digital. That's where a lot of my history is. Of course, there is so much to be said for digital archives. We will be forced to throw away a lot of my Grandma's physical objects simply because we can't handle all the stuff. We don't have the space. Digital archives don't take physical space (although they do take up hard drive space), so it's possible that more history could more easily be saved or organized by family members who want to keep it.
It's just, there is a mystique or a romance to the thing. I've heard scholars call it the "beloved object." We feel that the object has some kind of power to evoke the lived experience that memory alone or reproduced text alone (transcribed, digitized, etc) doesn't have. I think we're privileging touch somehow. We're making a distinction between the story of what happened (the immaterial, re-tellable story) and the physical trace of events as they were lived out. A handwritten letter was scribbled, touched, handled. The idea that we can touch what an ancestor or a famous person touched seems to bridge the gap in time somehow that reproductions can't. I've never hear of anyone reading the Penguin edition of Hawthorne saying rapturously, "These are the actual words he wrote!"
Maybe it's also a question of privilege. Stories are endlessly replicable. Everyone in the world can have a copy of my grandmother's love letters. Only one person at a time can have the piece of paper she wrote on. So the object becomes a commodity: Antiques Roadshow operates entirely on the basis of this idea.
This is one of the reasons Plato distrusted writing. Words that are so distant from their original speaker lose their original power. The speaker can't looking into the listener's eyes, can't tailor his words to the listener or the situation. Of course, I'm sure Plato would have hated the idea of love letters for exactly that reason, but a copy of a love letter? Even worse.
merisunshine36 mentioned the other day that Star Trek fandom has a thing about physical texts: there's this idea that Kirk and McCoy and other characters have secret loves for old, battered novels and medical tomes and encyclopedias. For Kirk, that may be movie canon, but it's extended onto other characters, perhaps, as Meri suggested, a result of a culture that is moving steadily away from paper and is romanticizing the physical object.
It's funny: the Star Trek movies came out in the 80s, before the boom of the internet and digitized archives and all that, and already, the ST writers were worried about a world beyond the book. So were a lot of people, I guess. Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 has got to be only one example of that anxiety. (Although Bradbury is of course worried not just about the loss of book, but of texts, more generally.) We're very worried about losing our beloved objects. Maybe we're following in the footsteps of Plato: the original manuscript or printed book is the new original (as opposed to speech) from which we stray when we make digital copies.
Hmm. *sigh* I think I need a coke. In the meantime, enjoy a list of beloved objects found in Granma's closet.
Things in My Grandmother's Closet
- Hats. More than a dozen vintage hats of every stripe: cloches, bonnets, beehives, wide-brimmed, straw, velvet, embroidered, hat-pinned. I have my eye on a black velvet cloche that's almost like a newsboy. Have I mentioned I LOVE vintage hats?
- Shawls and scarves. Crocheted, knitted, woven, store-bought, handmade, lace, chiffon, wool.
- Jewelry. At least seven decades of it. Big chunky necklaces from the 60s, 70s, and 80s mixed in with delicate chains mixed in with clip-on earrings that have matching bracelets. Bags and bags and bags of jewelry. Add to this jewelry stands and jewelry cleaner.
- Garters. Bags full of nothing but garter clips that she had no use for after about 1960.
- Rain bonnets. For some reason, Grandma had a ton of rain bonnets. My aunt said she always misplaced them and bought more. If you haven't seen these, they look like shower caps in the shape of bonnets; you put them over your fragile, hairsprayed hairdo to keep it dry.
- Slips/nightgowns. Some of these are gorgeous: lacy, silky, intricately embroidered. Do people even where slips anymore under dresses? I know some women wear Spanx, but straight up slips?
- Lipstick: more than 2 dozen sticks, some decades old.
- Perfume, also decades old.
- Greeting cards. I'm pretty sure she kept every card she was ever sent. All of them.
- An electric shoe polisher, complete with manual, still in the box.
- Letters. Besides letters to my grandfather, there are letters from her children, her parents, her friends, her sisters, her cousins, and more.
- A wedding book in which she lists guests, describes the honeymoon, etc.
- Magazines: hundreds.
- Romance novels: dozens. (The rest were elsewhere.)
- A-track tapes and cassette tapes: Judy Garland, John Denver, Willie Nelson, and others.
- Family bibles belonging to her parents.
- Dolls. Barbies, and Stacies, and Kewpie dolls, and fragile glass dolls, in addition to an odd collection of dolls from "around the world": an Asian lady in a rickshaw, a native Mexican girl on cart made of sticks. There were, honest to god, a couple of dolls in BLACKFACE. I was all, *facepalm*. My aunts informed me that it was a thing back in the day: people had dolls in blackface. Weeeird. Apparently Grandma used these "diverse" dolls in her Sunday School classes. To teach what? Not sure.
- Other toys, including wooden rifles with notches for rubberbands so you can still "shoot" with them.
- Books stuffed into the bottom of a drawer that shall have to have their very own post. I was all like, "Sex books! Yay!" And Mom said, "Oh right. You do that sex stuff. Have you told your aunts what your Master's Report is really about yet?" I had been telling everyone at the funeral it was about online communities. Which is TRUE. It just also happens to be about "that sex stuff." Thanks, Mom.
- Clothes, shoes, toiletries, empty gift boxes, et cetera, ad infinitum. 88 years of objects worth keeping.