Monday, July 17, 2006


On a shelf encased in a well-preserved leather shroud is a Brownie camera. The fitting on the clasp is broken, and does not latch. The long thin carrying strap is just the right width to be comfortable, but not too thin or flimsy that it will slip off while shifting packages from one hand to the other. The camera, a relic of days gone by, captured thousands of moments in time. I thought about the many places the camera had seen – how many thousands of images have been captured onto film, then transferred onto paper or transformed into slides. By holding the slides up to the light, you can see the shadows of people - barely visible - ghosts of your ancestors, if you will.

The relics we keep represent our lives, our prime time days gone by, and the passage of youth to aging.

Beneath the shelf hangs an old man’s cane – its brass head resembles a Mallard duck, but over time, frequent use has smoothed away the fine details, leaving a rich patina in its place. The mahogany cane is very distinguished looking, reminiscent of the man who once owned it. Looking around the room, I noticed a pair of mirrors hanging on the wall that had once belonged to my grandfather. Without realizing it, I surrounded myself with memories of his life, and in that instant became the keeper of my family’s history, pictures, and treasured heirlooms – my great-grandmother’s delicate, hand embroidered linens and scarves decorate my tables and dresser. An old flintlock fowling piece engraved with the owner’s name, and hand-made before the Civil War, found its way home to me. It belonged to one of my ancestors, Edward A Kennard, a family deeply rooted in the rocky soil of Maine since 1625.

A carefully preserved steamer trunk also sits in the room. Inside are family mementos - each one with a story to tell - a rabbit fur pillbox hat and muff, that my mother wore to my aunt’s wedding, vintage Christmas ornaments, Depression Glass dishes, and my grandmother’s wedding dress which was not so carefully preserved. How did it feel to wear the hand boned wedding dress, with its delicate bonnet and tiny kid gloves? I try to imagine my grandfather, as a young man, traveling. Where did he go that he needed such a large trunk? Did he use the flintlock that hung over the kitchen mantle for so many years to hunt with family members?

At my grandfather’s passing, my mother, aunt and I went through boxes that had been packed away for many years. One box contained a shoebox filled with jewelry belonging to various family members long since passed. My mother would pick up a pin and say it belonged to my Grandnannie, or my Auntie would fondle a necklace and say, “Oh, that belonged to Tadair! Don’t you remember she always wore it to church?” My mother and auntie prattled on as if I were their younger sister – though I was not yet born while the relation lived - and not yet their daughter and niece.

When it was my turn, I chose a hand carved cameo ring and necklace, a plain gold wedding band engraved with the owner’s initials, and a pink gold ring with a purple stone engraved “to M from F.” Neither my aunt nor my mother was sure to whom they had belonged, so I researched our family tree. I discovered the wedding band belonged to Marion Prime, my great-great grandmother, and the ring with the purple stone was a gift from her husband. My aunt and mother were upset they had not noticed the inscription themselves, but did not ask for the rings back. Through my research I had also discovered my relationship to the original owner of the fowling piece; and that the house my beloved Grandfather and Grandnannie lived in, was once a tavern, and frequently used for town meetings.

So what is the purpose of keeping these items? What do these items do for me? They are my link to the past, they keep me close to those I love and miss, and to those I never knew; they keep me connected to the land and places I miss. We keep these items to comfort us in hard times. As long as we have them, we are secure – we are safe. The memories of our family live on more vividly.

On further reflection, I realized that most of the antiques Mother had given to me had belonged to her parents. The hand-boned bodice had been removed from the skirt of the wedding dress, both now yellow with age, the lace nearly brown in spots, and torn in others. This dress had not been carefully packed away to preserve it, and I wondered why. My mother carefully packed my wedding dress, and that of my sister’s, in acid-proof paper, and gave them to me. My mother cleans her closets, and at the same time discards the unpleasant memories that cling to those trinkets. I envy her; she removes the skeletons from her closet so easily, while I cling to mine like a life ring.

This leads me to believe that I have a different perspective of my family – my past – than my mother and aunt. Did the old Brownie camera lie? The camera I saw took pictures of a young, but happy family, and later pensive teenage girls with their mother; I saw smiling pictures of family picnics at the lakeside cabin. The stories it does not tell are the angst the mother feels toward her eldest daughter, my mother. My mother remembers her mother as someone who never liked her daughter for the way she was, who was always trying to control her, and who expressed disappointment at her daughter’s life decisions. It doesn’t tell the story about the daughter who later is forced to care for her father in his advanced stages of Alzheimer’s – the daughter who later gives away his belongings – to separate herself from the bad memories of the past – and to separate herself from the guilt.
When I look at my grandfather’s picture I see a caring man who proudly showed off his miniature train collection, as proudly as he displayed his children’s pictures, a man who worked for Sears, the man who was never too busy to answer a little girl’s question or to take her to picnics in the park, or to the zoo.

Was Jacob Marley right, after all? “We forge our chains in life, link by link, and yard by yard.” Are we remembered by what we leave behind in our belongings, as well as in our children’s memories? In the passing of my grandfather, I saw that my mother was first someone’s daughter and my mother second. The resentment she felt toward her parents was there in front of me, but I could not see it. I saw too, my own shortcomings as a parent, and I wept for the loss of child-like innocence.
The old Brownie camera captured thousands of moments in time, but the stories they tell are etched in the lines on our faces, forever burned into our memories. Does the camera lie?


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