A few years back, we moved into a new house in a new state to begin a new phase of our lives. Yet for all that newness, our house was instantly over-stuffed with memories — and they’re all mine. They were delivered cross-country via a 79-ft.-long moving truck. According to the packing inventory, there were 180 pieces of furniture and 220 boxes.
Several, bulky, sentimental pieces had belonged to my grandma, part of a shopping spree on her one trip home to visit her family in Hungary in 1929 — two decades after immigrating alone to the U.S. It was the last time she saw them. The Nazis saw to that.
When Grandma came to America as a 12-year-old, she was poor. Now, even in the midst of the Great Depression, she was a fancy American lady. Stored in the hull of the ship sailing back to the U.S. were an elaborately carved walnut couch and matching chair; an equally ornate coffee table; a massive china closet; a narrow parquet side table that magically opened to seat 14 people; and cartons of delicate fine china and hand-embroidered linens.
My grandmother cherished these items and devoted much care to their upkeep. She polished the furniture lovingly and used the dishes only on the most special occasions, like Passover. A worker at the dry cleaners lost one of the tablecloths, and my hardly diminutive, 5-foot-10 grandma decked him!
For a time after Grandma died, her furniture and other items were scattered among various relatives, but eventually they all wound up in my home. “You’re the sentimental one,” said each relative as they happily shed the clunky, old-fashioned items. For me, each item is laden with deep emotional history that outweighs any simple cost-per-item calculation or desire to re-decorate.
Thanks to my mother and grandmother, I have closets, cabinets, couches and walls overflowing and over-decorated with embroidered, knitted and needle-pointed pictures, pillows and afghans. Adding to the inventory: 21 handmade, banquet-size tablecloths and matching napkin sets, lace doilies, guest hand towels, and a brush and comb holder.
And there is, of course, the art, music, movies, photos, the drawings and the knick-knacks my husband, my children and I have enthusiastically (and over-abundantly) added to the mix.
I should be grateful. It is, after all, amazing that people who fled Russia, Romania and Hungary with nothing did so well in America. It is equally amazing that just two generations later I am blessed with this problem of overabundance.
I should relish the wonderful memories associated with each heirloom. Instead I recall standing over finger-scalding hot water at the kitchen sink, hand-washing delicate dishes and polishing silver. And I grimace thinking about cleaning the crevices of all that intricate furniture with Q-tips and toothpicks.
Instead of joy, I feel haunted … and sad.
I think of lifestyles and lives too long gone. I recall misunderstandings, ill-timed words, fights, illnesses and deaths.
As I write this, I sit at my mother’s desk, in my mother’s chair. I smile, remembering how meticulously she worked as she used a typewriter and adding machine, wrote out checks by hand and prepared billing statements for my father’s electrical business.
To my left is Grandma’s couch; to the right, her chair. This old-fashioned furniture doesn’t fit the style of our new sleek, ultra-modern house. Yet these items had to be put somewhere. So, here they — and I — sit in the back of the house in a space used only by me, rarely visited, except by the memories.
Every direction I look, I see the past. I am lovingly surrounded and simultaneously oppressed by this familial clutter. Yet I cannot imagine shedding a single item. These objects tell the story of my family. They tell the story of me.