Blame it on my upbringing, the odd traditions of my mother’s family. Basically, we say “I love you” by giving each other stuff. All kinds of stuff. Art, furniture, gadgets, clothing, books, whatnots. We were never a touchy, feely, huggy family nor verbally effusive. We rarely said “I love you.” I’ve had to learn to say the words. I’d still rather buy you a present.
Over the course of life with my family, I got clothing (used and new), pottery (ugly and uglier), jewelry, paintings (“No, really, it’s okay … you keep it … please!”) and whatever else came to hand. If someone had a sudden unplanned attack of the warm fuzzies, they might give you the nearest small object — ashtray, silver cigarette holder (from my mother, who never smoked), old souvenirs from Coney Island, empty cigar boxes (Uncle Abe). No wrappings or bows. Spontaneity precluded amenities. It was my family’s version of a hug.
One time, my dearest favorite-est aunt gave me the coat off her back while crossing 6th Avenue in Manhattan. It was mid-winter in New York and definitely not a good time to be coat-less, but I had said I liked it and she needed to express her love right then and there.
“Please, Aunt Kate,” I cried, hoping the people swirling around us didn’t call the cops, likely thinking I was mugging my elderly aunt. “I am wearing a coat. You gave me this coat years ago. I wear it all the time. I love it.”
Which only made it worse. “That old thing,” she cried. “You need a new coat.”
“When we get home,” I promised. “You can give me the coat at home.” And she did. And I wore it. For many years until it fell apart. I knew I was wearing her love and it kept me very warm.
When I lived in Jerusalem, I bought a box of odds and ends from a little shop on Bethlehem Road. They had been cleaning out their back room. They said “We don’t know what’s in here, but you can have it for five dollars.”
I took the box home and began to sort through it. I found tiny carved ivory elephants, amber beads, buttons from dress shirts, old agora and a green, crusted thing I was going to throw out until a friend said “Hey, that’s an old coin.”
I stopped. Looked at it. “How can you tell?” I asked.
“That’s what old coins look like,” she said. “Soak it in lemon juice for a few days and see what happens.”
I soaked it for two weeks and it still looked like a piece of green crusty metal. Finally, using a toothbrush and copper cleaner, I extracted an ancient bronze coin, circa 77, the second year of the First Jewish War Against the Romans. The date was on the coin in old Hebrew script.
I had the coin appraised at the Rockefeller Museum. It was the real deal, but not worth a fortune – maybe a couple of hundred dollars, if I could find a buyer. So I turned it into pendant and wore it on a ribbon. When my mother came to visit, she admired it. Of course I gave it to her. When my mother died, my father gave it back to me, but it disappeared. I suppose it will turn up someday in another box of odds and ends and become someone else’s treasure.
You had to be careful in my family. If you admired something you were going to own it. There was a hideous pottery owl that looked like its eyes were bleeding. Chartreuse with scarlet eye sockets. I was caught staring –and had to say something. It was a masterpiece of sculpting, but the overall effect was gruesome. So I said: “It’s … really interesting.” It was, in a ghastly way.
“It’s yours!” cried my mother. I detected a note of triumph. I still harbor a suspicion she had gotten it from some other family member and was just waiting for the chance to move it along. Tag, I was it.
The ultimate example of family love en passant were the dishes. It was my fault. I started it. I bought them from a barn on a back road in Connecticut in the early 1970s. I was poking around a room full of pottery and turned one over. It was Spode. The markings looked to be late 19th century. Eighty-six pieces, including a chipped sugar bowl and eight demitasse cups minus saucers … and a set of saucers without cups. In pretty good condition, all for $30.
It turned out to be Spode’s Tower. The dishes were old and delicate, so I never used them fearing they’d get broken. They stayed in the closet and gathered dust. Years passed.
One day, my mother admired them. Faster than you can say “Here, they’re yours,” I had those dishes packed and in her car. She loved them, but they were old and, it turned out, valuable. So she put them away and never used them. One day, my Aunt Kate admired them, so Mom gave them to her. Kate then gave my mother her set of bone china for 12 which she didn’t need any more, the days of big dinner parties being long over.
My mother didn’t need such a large set either, so she gave Aunt Kate’s set of 12 to my brother, who gave my mother his china for six. My mother gave my brother’s dishes to me while Aunt Kate traded my Spode for Aunt Pearl’s old china. Aunt Pearl packed the Spode away in a safe place, because they were old and valuable and she didn’t want to break them.
Twenty years later, Garry and I went to visit Aunt Pearl. She had the Spode, carefully wrapped and boxed. She gave it back to me and we took it home. She had saved them all those years. Of course, I never used them. I eventually gave them to Owen and Sandy who had the sense to sell them. They knew they would never use them and neither would anyone else.
Love can be wrapped in paper and carefully protected. There is love. There are dishes. And there are memories of my family, carefully stored, ready to be given. To you, if you like.