02 April 2013

The Things We Have Around Us

I just finished reading The Hare with Amber Eyes - a fascinating, hard to describe book. It starts in the late 1900s, and meanders from Paris to Vienna to Japan, and ends in the present day. Along the way, it follows a collection of netsuke and tells tales of the family that owns them, and how they've passed from generation to generation, and the attendant political and social history.

The author, who is the current day family member with whom the netsuke presently reside, is also a potter, a creator, a maker of objects.

How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life. Because it will make someone else envious. There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten? (p. 17)
Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters. (p. 348)

I sit here writing at the desk that was my mother's, and before that, in my father's family. It's an Eastlake cylinder front desk, with burled insets, and a glass-fronted bookcase on top, and a cornice atop that which is missing its finials - and it dates to around the time in which The Hare with Amber Eyes begins. How do I tell its story? What are the important parts? When was it built? Who was the first owner? Who else has sat in front of it, tucked notes in its cubbyholes, fiddled with its hardware?

Tucked in one of its little drawers is a scrap of paper ripped out of a shelter magazine. Once upon a time, before Antiques Roadshow, you could send in a picture of your antique what-have-you and get an expert opinion on its provenance. Someone, not my mother, because it isn't this desk, had asked about a similar desk; my mother, pre-Evernote, clipped the column as an aide-mémoire, and tucked it in its twin.

I don't know who bought this desk, but it's likely - given its age - that it was my great-grandfather. At the time that my grandfather was born, in 1900, the family was living in a white, shingled farmhouse. My grandfather went to college, got married, moved to a small house in the same town, and later - after his father died in 1933 - moved back into that family house with his wife and older children. At some point, the Eastlake desk was moved into storage in the garage attic. Before my great-grandfather died? After? Later, after my parents were married, and after they'd become homeowners in the early 1960s, my mother - in need of things with which to furnish their house - discovered the desk and convinced my father and his brothers to lower it down from the attic by block and tackle. She refinished it, and it stood in the dining room of their first house, and in the front living room of the house they moved to in 1972.

In 2012, the desk arrived in my living room. Gently, and with the great understanding that we were making an irreversible alteration, my husband drilled several small holes in the back - allowing me to snake a power cord and ethernet cable through onto the desk surface. Built around 1870, it suits my 1920 house and 2013 connectivity, still relevant these many years later.

I tell its story, because it will go on.

As I was reading The Hare with Amber Eyes, I found myself thinking that it was a peculiarly idiosyncratic book, one that wasn't right for everyone - though two different people had recommended it to me, both rather out of the blue. Oddly, though, since I've finished it, I've urged it on a surprising number of people: friends, co-workers, imaginary friends, and family. Maybe it's because it has something for everyone: a little art history, Jews in Vienna in WWII, lovely writing, expats in Tokyo, supple charm, aristocratic bankers in Paris, a family tree. I hope you'll read it too.


Anonymous said...

I loved it. It's not a perfect book, but it's a really interesting book -- maybe because it's about that link between things and us and history. I love your desk, too --

Quiana said...

You've definitely piqued my interest and the fact that it goes across generations and time brings to mind "Cloud Atlas." And the story about your heirloom desk - I love family history like that. What a treasure!

mayberry said...

I'd love to read it too. My grandfather was quite a collector and many years after the fact, we've discovered notes written right on the furniture--where he got it, who should have it. My dining table: only my mother and her descendants were authorized!

Janet said...

the book sounds interesting...I have two netsukes I bought when I lived in Japan...

And that desk is gorgeous!

Wrath Of Mom said...

It's a lovely desk.

I'd never heard of netsukes before. I lead a sheltered existence I guess.

Wrath Of Mom said...

It's a lovely desk.

I'd never heard of netsukes before. I lead a sheltered existence I guess.

ozma said...

This is going to sound strange but this deeply saddened me. I'm still trying to come to terms with how beloved my grandparents were to me and how I have nothing from them--not even a photo. My cousins took everything and would not give me even a scrap.

It's something I struggle with but it's not about the things--it seemed to mean something to me about my life. Like my past wasn't real.

Anyway, maybe I'll do a post on it! This is so wrong to hijack but I think you will get what I'm saying because a strange side-effect of this is that I'm trying to be Buddhist about objects and not get attached. Well, to anything. Not with much success. But it is interesting that Japan is a Buddhist country but the idea here is so different.

I'm not sure what to do though. The pain of it is so acute. And it's going on 4 years now. It symbolizes something else, I think. I can't get to the bottom of it. The weird part is that the desk you post is the same style of one of their objects my cousin claimed even before death. I was OK with that. I wanted a book--but I was not allowed to have the book. It was thrown away.

Boy, sorry. I better write a blog post on this. Whoever thought someone should put 'trigger warning' on a blog post about a book and a desk?

Jocelyn said...

I'm a complete sap for tracing things and the way they connect with people over decades. I'd type more, but I'm off to Goodreads to mark this book...

City Twins Chicago said...

I'm definitely adding this to Goodreads. I always wanted to do a book/documentary on the 1920s condo we live in...who lived there before, where they came from, etc.