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The Spirit of Things

I was talking with a friend the other day about what I do and she made the comment that shopping estate sales makes her sad. She said it was even a bit depressing to her when she saw all these belongings “abandoned” for buyers to pick through and then to think that the family didn’t want it.

white and black estate sale sign

But I feel largely the opposite. For me it’s a way for the deceased to live on. For the things they treasured and used to have a second life — to be carried forward.

I think we imbue the things we use and cherish with a little bit of ourselves, which makes the decor, china, and curios I find at estate sales more meaningful and special. There’s a spirit to these things that new store bought decor hasn’t got yet.

Just think of the celebrations these “used” things have witnessed: the birthday parties, the weddings, the funerals.

They’ve been gifts.

They’ve been cared for.

They’ve been carefully shopped for.

They’ve been useful.

They’ve been admired.

Maybe they’ve even been fought for.

I like to imagine the stories of which these things have been a part. After all, material culture is a window to the past. It is a way to learn about how people lived and what they valued.

Maybe I don’t know the whole history or the details, but does that mean the stories aren’t there?

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Now I’m aware this idea that things can have spirit is perhaps consumerism’s ultimate achievement, leading to more consumption and probably the needless hoarding of things.

It’s a concept we debated in many a course during my museum studies program in graduate school. After all we were learning the art and science of preserving artifacts, aka things, and saving them for generations to come, so that they could be learned from and evaluated.

One of our discussions always centered around how important historical figures ownership of or interaction with something made it more valuable, so…

Does this ladder back chair with a green cushion mean more than this one with a blue cushion? What if George Washington sat on it?

Well then of course the answer is yes!

He pulled it out from a table.

He touched it.

He sat on it.

In every other way those two chairs are even: same maker, same wood, same time period, etc.

But somehow because of who used it the one with the green cushion is more valuable and has more significance. It must have something of GW’s spirit.

You know you’ve been to one of those museums. I can hear the tour guide now…“this is the chair that GW sat on to sign the….” so and so forth.

But what if GW has nothing to do with it — just your average George or Martha?

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I have this yellow teapot from my grandmother, who passed away almost 10 years ago now. Every time I pull it down from the cabinet, I see her knobby, age worn, capable and loving hands. And the sensation is like a warm hug.

I instantly feel her. Often it makes me sad, so I don’t use it regularly. I have to be ready for the memories. I have to need her.

The funny thing is the teapot is nothing special. It is simple pottery, probably from the 1930’s or 40’s. 

I don’t even remember her using it that much. In fact my whole childhood whenever we put on pretty frocks and played tea party with real tea, I might add, we used a little mini set for kids while that teapot sat on the top shelf of this open cabinet – bright butter yellow like a sunflower.

My grandmother's yellow teapot

I know it must have meant something to my grandmother. Maybe it was an heirloom — she never said.  Maybe she just thought it was pretty – a spot of sunshine on a dreary day.

For me that yellow teapot has spirit — it has a vestige, a remanent, of her.

This notion of the spirit of things defies logic. I know scientifically things don’t contain spirit. They aren’t capable. They aren’t living.

But there’s that teapot.

There’s that ladder back chair with the green cushion. GW sat on it!

So I also know that despite logic, despite science…the spirit of things is real.

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Once you acknowledge this concept, it explains why we become so attached to things. Why we collect them. Why we hoard them. And there is some danger to this idea if the accumulation and preservation of things starts to trump living life.

I’ve seen heirs who can’t let their loved one’s things go. Those heirlooms pile up, get in the way, create disorder and interfere with daily living. It’s not pretty!

In that conversation with my friend, I didn’t say all of this. I wasn’t half as eloquent or verbose, but it started me thinking about why I don’t feel sad or judge the family for not keeping more of their loved one’s stuff.

For one, I feel like I’m celebrating that person’s taste and style. Seeing what they used and cherished as charming and valuable too, and in that way it’s an honor to his or her memory.

For another, I understand that the family can’t keep everything. They have their own stuff…their own tastes…and lives to lead.

They don’t need everything for the memories…just a yellow teapot!

 

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