The Continuity of Things

It has been a year of loss. Fires, floods, and tornadoes have ravaged many areas, including my community of Bowling Green, Kentucky. Add to that the devastating toll Covid has taken on the life and health of countless individuals, and it is no wonder survivors have been left reeling and struggling to make sense of it all. I thought this morning about loss, and how we learn to deal with it. I wrote the following a few years ago. It seems time to share it.

This morning, along with the other dishes, I washed a small, vintage Pyrex bowl. It is white, with a pink design, called Gooseberry. My companion uses it when he prepares his breakfast. We found it when we cleaned out an old schoolhouse. The bowl was miraculously intact, considering it was buried under towering piles of junk–ranging from bureaus drawers full of mouse-eaten sweaters to boxes containing pots, pans, and mason jars. Stacked in every conceivable space were also the kept items from a long-defunct gas station and garage.

We waded through heaps of oily tools and barrels of unknown lubricants. Tossed onto this mound of rubbish were soft drink signs, huge oak doors, a wardrobe with mirror still intact, tires, scrap metal, disintegrating chairs, old lamp shades, broken furniture–the detritus of two dismantled households and a business.

As each of his grandparent died, his family stored the unwanted household belongings in the schoolhouse. What may have begun as orderly stacks, and good intentions, fell victim to pressing schedules and higher priorities. As the years went by, the remnants of the two households rested in the old schoolhouse, gradually turning to mouse fluff and rubble.

When it began to seem masochistic to even try to sort out the mound of trash, treasures surfaced. A cut glass candy dish that sat on his paternal grandmother’s dining room table. A delicate item in the home of a down-to-earth grandmother; one who thought nothing of waking at dawn, going into the woods and shooting a squirrel or two for breakfast. She skinned, gutted, and fried the game with eggs from her henhouse, as easily and nonchalantly as I rip open a package and pop it into the microwave.

Another box wielded books that had belonged to the maternal grandmother, a woman as different from the other as possible. This one was a superintendent of schools, educated and refined, who’d probably never shot a squirrel in her life, much less held a gun.

From both came small treasures: a 1950s’ tablecloth, mercifully spared from the sharp teeth of rodents, with turquoise and brown patterns dancing across a snowy white background. A small stool, cut glass candle holders, a pretty vase, a cast iron frying pan, and two pink bowls, survivors of a set of four.

As I dried the small bowl and put it away, I wondered what his long dead grandmother would think if she could see him using the bowl she must have held so often. I wonder if she was left-handed like him. Does he thinks of her when he holds the bowl? He’s not sentimental, so maybe to him it is just a useful bowl, the right size with a good pour spout on one side.

Today, in my kitchen, I thought about our connection to everyday items that have no monetary value. Every time I open a bottle, I use a bottle opener that reads Casper Liquor Store. It belonged to my mother, and she used it before the advent of twist-off bottle caps. It has an honored place in my utility drawer, and when I feel the smooth, red and white plastic handle, I see her again, sitting in a lawn chair on a hot, Wyoming summer night, prying the cap off a chilled bottle of beer, then handing the opener to me to perform an identical ritual with a bottle of cola.

On my desk sits a red, square Hills Brothers Coffee measure; it is also vintage and rested for years in my mother’s coffee canister. When full, it measures the perfect amount of coffee for brewing two cups. The canister was tin, decorated with tulip decals and a topped with a chocolate brown lid.

The measure now holds a tiny sea shell, two unusual pebbles, and a sprig of eucalyptus. I look at it every day, touch it, feel a strong connection to my mother who died far too young, and far too soon. The coffee measure reminds me of how she would make coffee for both of us, lace hers with canned milk, then smile at me as though our drinking coffee together made her world complete.

Why do we keep mundane, everyday objects of little worth? Bent serving spoons? Tattered linens? Why do I cherish my father’s carpenter square and level, although the last time I used either was years ago in a house long abandoned?

Perhaps because when we see and touch these well-worn items, they connect us to the hands that held them–join us in a tangible way that hazy memories cannot. The singular act of using and caring for inherited objects is, in itself, a form of devotion: a reminder that the chain of life–and love–extends far beyond individual existence, linking us to the past as surely as it grounds us in the present.

I’ll continue to carefully wash and dry the pink-and-white bowl every day, make sure the bottle opener is put away clean so it won’t rust, and seek solace in the continuity of things. © Jennie L. Brown