A cut-glass condiments- or candy-dish sits on my desk. It belonged to my great-grandmother--Rebecca. And yes, I was her namesake. Eventually, our name will become an antique,too, like her dish. My grandmother, her daughter, died at the age of 93 in 2009. She gave me the dish, saying she remembered it gracing her mother's table as early as five years old. So yes, that makes this dish at least 90 years old. 90! If only this dish could talk...but in a way, it can:
There's a stamp on the bottom of the bowl that reads, "Deep Cut." And it is. The pattern is beyond intricate. There is a repetitive eight-sided star-design carved throughout. But if I had to guess why my great-grandmother bought this bowl (and yes, she bought it--she came to America with the clothes on her back and nothing else...), my best guess would be because the larger pattern and shape of the bowl resembles a Star of David. She probably purchased the set of two (one is on my desk, the other, awaiting the call of duty) for use during holiday meals. Today, there are lots of vendors who openly sell Judaica of every shape and form, but 90 years ago, that certainly wasn't the case. In fact, the reason my great-grandmother ran from her home, her family, her village, and everything she knew, was because she was a Jew, and being persecuted for it. When she found these deep-cut dishes--probably in what my grandmother referred to as a "five-and-dime"--she had to have seen what I'm seeing. The dish itself is shaped like a six-sided star and within that initial form, there are two more...equaling eighteen sides. Eighteen means life--literally. The two Hebrew letters that spell the Hebrew word "chai" or "life" have numerical values equalling ten and eight, or eighteen. A good omen for the new life she had started in America. But there's more to it than conjecture:
Did you know that at one point in American history, toward the end of the nineteenth century, it was the style to completely set a table using cut-glass? It was called the "American Brilliant Period" and with the advent of World War I, resources that produced glass like silica and lead-oxide were needed elsewhere. Of the more than 1,000 cut-glass shops in the States during the nineteenth century, only 100 remained by 1908. So what happened to all the craftsmen who worked as glass cutters? Between 1908 and 1915, the best designers and most skilled cutters were available to the 100 glass-cutting shops remaining in the States, known as the "Era of Super Glass" by some historians. And if I'm not mistaken, that puts us right around 90 years ago. Actually, what it really means is that my dish was 90 years old anywhere from 1998-2005. Today, the age of my dish ranges between 96-103 years old. It also means my grandmother's first childhood memories were established when she was about five. My grandmother was the third child in a family of five. And like the dish sitting on my desk, she was American. "Deep Cut" glass was considered part of "Yankee ingenuity," a uniquely American art. Like my grandmother.
All of that from an inanimate object? Yes. All of that. And more.
What now serves as my desk spent a decade in my dining room. Before that, it spent at least seventy years in the home of a woman who I never knew. When she died, the last remaining person in her family with no heirs, the lawyer who handled her estate set up a silent auction to sell a lifetime's worth of manifest history. My company was handling the sale of the home, a modest ranch but it was immaculately kept. At the time, I was head of the company's marketing and communications so had done a quick walk-through before the auction people got there. As I walked around the now-empty home, I felt this woman's presence walk with me, calling my attention to the special bottle of wine she saved from 1971, and, did I notice the matching stemware in her curio cabinet?
The deceased's husband had died years before her, though the two had been married for more than fifty years when he passed. She was 90 at the time of her physical death. She lived in the house until she died. But the house didn't feel lonely. This was clearly a woman who took pride in her life. Every glass was carefully put away, every dish, every towel. The surfaces of her dining room set looked like new--not a scratch or mark or mar to be seen. As I continued walking around her home, I immediately felt a connection with this person whom I'd never met and never would. And if it's possible, she connected with me, too--through what she physically left behind. I over-bid on her dining room set. Way over-bid. The auction people told me I was crazy, "You could buy a brand new set for that price..." but a new set wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to connect with this unseen, unknown person. I felt a sudden sense of obligation to care for her things in the same way she had. She had no children, no grand-children. No one to care what happened to a lifetime of manifest history. But that wasn't exactly true. Because, she had me.
I wonder now, as I sit typing out books and articles and blog posts on this table-turned-desk, if there will be someone to care for my manifest history one day. Will a person I don't know nor even imagine be the connection to keep a part of my physical history alive after my body succumbs to decades of gravity (or cancer, in my case)? Who will she be? Will she notice my dishes, neatly placed? Will she have a hint of who I was from the manifest history I leave behind?
It's a fascinating philosophical and physic-al question to ask. Beyond our imaginings, there is a life. It may be connected to us throgh the strength of family-ties. It may not be connected to us at all. And yet, a part of us will live on. Not just in the DNA of off-spring, but in the objects that allowed us to live our very lives.
In our fast-paced, globalized, techno-world, where two-thirds of everything we know isn't based in the "real" but the virtual, it is hard to give much credence to, well, pretty much anything. Sixty-seven percent of everything is nothing, based on some ethereal connection we can't see...and no, I'm not talking about God, I'm talking about technology. We throw away computers every few years to "update" our equipment and move even faster through what is essentially nothing. Our landfills are brimming with techno-garbage, and so are our skies. The ring of "space junk" surrounding our planet is so great, that scientists worry about the effects on our weather more than they do a random satellite falling to Earth and killing people. That's why pieces of manifest history matter. It speaks of a permanancy we can only enjoy in the physical world, though we continue to push forward into the ether. Why, I don't know. But that's never the right question.
Antiques are also green...or better for the environment. Not only will you get unique pieces of furniture (because manufacturing costs are so high and our resources are so low), but you'll inherit someone's history. It doesn't matter if you knew them or they knew you. What matters is how these pieces of manifest history show the definitive web of humanity. If we can invest more in that, than we have begun to pay forward the knowledge given to us so feely by those whom we have never met, nor ever will, yet, are the very people who make our 21st century lives worth living.
"No death should be meaningless. No death really is...." --from "In Memoriam," posted on 2/28/10