For more than a decade I’ve been left in the position of cleaning up after dying curators and collectors. It’s an object lesson in where collection actually exists: surely the boxes of pyrography or elephants or first editions that waited for your attention are no longer your collection, now you’re dead. The record is gone, the record you bore in your memory, the sparks of recognition and anecdotes that you carried in response are unreachable now.
So my father’s memorabilia from NACA and the first days of NASA Lewis Research are now bare photographs, snips of glassware blown by the masters in the instruments lab, parts of plaques and trinkets received to honor unknown anniversaries and projects. My mother’s gardening books are reduced to a mere pending book sale, her cards identifying the jumbled garden she kept as useless as the plowed-over drought-purged garden itself. My wife’s parents, with their own accumulated and uncurated precedents, are a genealogical mystery story too baroque for publication: Wait, I thought she was married to him—who’s this? My lost friend Nancy, herself a collector of collections, can no longer tell me the difference between the fancy milk glass and the cheap junk, or help me split the Victorian pyrography from the 1930s kit-work she accumulated in her over-small house. My godfather, who came to this country as if to a frontier, with a patent in hand that made a (small) fortune by stuffing your attics full of pink floss, his few passed-along bits and bobs salvaged from a 1900s Wiener Wekstätte youth adorn our shelves and confound visitors by being so out of place.
There’s a swirl of pop-cultural pop-psychology floating in and around collecting these days, focused on throwing “hoarding” glibly down in front of any cultural variation that shows respect for memory and material culture at the expense of geometric austerity. Yet at the same time we love love love our tumblrs full of scanned ephemera, the RSS feeds filled with snapshots snipped from 1940s girlie rags and punk zines, the free (as in what? “beer”?) books scanned up to the cease-and-desist line of 1923. The past is all the more a foreign country because it’s kept in other people’s houses, in museums and libraries and private collections we not only never visit but we alienate by calling “pathological”.
If the autistic or the over-social, the religious or the ruthless atheist, the capitalist or the volunteer can all make their valid claims for respect in our society, let this be a claim on behalf of rememberers. Not those pundits who resort to big-story macroscopic remembering: where were you when Large Things Happened that Tie Us Together? But the supposedly trivial memories, a.k.a. “the fabric of history”. The baby thrown out with the bathwater of hoarding-abhorrence is the baby of our origins in family and culture, the fine wires that connect the stuff we read in history textbooks to our selves.
Knowing about all this junk is the only way I know to own your own history, the history of your place and your people. Otherwise, anything not in your head is reduced to a cunning science fiction story. When we who breathed leaded gasoline fumes are all dead, it’ll only be the key fobs for lost manufacturers, the uninstagrammed images of gas stations with uniforms, the misfolded road maps and quaint magazine ads that reminds us what that thing meant to the world.
I’m sitting within a few inches of a Chinese checkers board (of Nancy’s, since hers is the stratum we’ve recently uncovered after the purge of a decade’s deaths) and sitting next to it is a little wooden contraption: a block of mahogany-stained oak carved cunningly with channels, decorated with rotating screw-hinged caps, holding marbles for the game. It’s a purpose-built wooden Chinese Checkers marble-holder, manufactured by the Van Raden Product Company of Alter Road, in Detroit. Not by Milton Bradley, but rather by… some dude. You Google it, you’ll find this mention, and some forums somewhere on some woodworking topic where a fellow found another and doesn’t know what to make of it.
The address was 3136 Alter Road, Detroit. Go look it up on Google Maps. Zoom right on in there. Look real close at the house where this man lived. What you see? Zoom out a couple blocks. Look at those blocks, that wide-ranging perfusion of lawn they seem to have. Spacious, yes? Gone. Zoom out a bit more, look at that density. The voids. The holes.
Gone. Gone. Gone.
Tell me the story of the man who made the marble holders, back in the Chinese Checkers craze of the late Depression, in that vacant lot in Detroit. The neighborhood in which he arose is filled with empty blocks, five or six houses left standing on entire city blocks. Residential blocks. Each missing house once filled with things that ended up dead stuff, the chaff of history.
I don’t know what to do about this. It’s no easier to fix than the death of people is, and some days it seems there’s no more point in attributing “history” to key fobs from disappeared car dealerships and framed prints on the wall behind the photographed dead than there is to saving emptied milk containers and screws in a baby food jar. And yet there is in fact something happening, something odd and interesting. I can find my godfather’s name here and there in the growing memory of the world and somehow draw the flimsy links through public records to the point where we can drive up to his Rossford neighborhood and recognize things from photographs he took the day the house was new, in 1927. I see my father’s tiny image standing at the side of photos in the NACA Langley history archives, and that same day he clearly took a picture for himself, standing looking back the other way. And I go to see Van Raden’s street, now, after wars and more wars and abandonment and scouring, and if I want take back his handiwork and make a new (though flimsy) link of sorts.
Not every thing’s a reminder, nor of historical import. But the ability to tell meaningful stories about those things is as far as I know the only way we have to explain them and ourselves—the sort of explanation that’s not merely our strength but also our responsibility.
This just to say that as I sell things off, and purge and lighten and discard, I’m doing all I can to weave as well. Be reminded; that’s all I ask. Be reminded.