Thursday, April 2, 2009


This house is located in historic Angeleno Heights, Los Angeles

When I was a little girl, I was fascinated by old houses. I walked to school through a neighborhood of old homes. I loved reading about old houses and kids who discovered their secrets - "The Secret Garden," "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," "Gone Away Lake," "The Diamond in the Window." The idea of a house inhabited by generations of the same family fascinated me.

It's not hard to figure out why. My family was the complete opposite. My parents had left home and never looked back. My father's career leapfrogged us across the Midwest and East Coast. Before I was twenty, we lived in six different cities.

My parents liked new houses. We never lived in a house that showed the trace of earlier inhabitants. When my parents retired, they bought a house that was being built, and chose all the fixtures and finishes themselves.

The first home I bought was a 1911 bungalow owned by an elderly couple; the cupboards were full of old junk when we moved in. Our Los Angeles house was built in 1963, and was still occupied by the family that built it. It was full of architectural drawings, cans of paint, boxes of replacement tiles, and helpful garden guides for the native plants.

Although I like old things, when I move, I tend to moult, and abandon things. Even when I'm settled, I lose things - my sweaters, my earrings, a favorite pair of shoes. The book I want is no longer on my shelves. Favorite dishes break. Worn towels get thrown away

My parents liked new things. They didn't buy much, but they always bought new. I have never known my mother to visit a thrift store, junk shop, or yard sale. All our furniture was bought new, and upholstered to her tastes. But once they bought something, my parents never threw it away. As we spent days cleaning their house out to sell, we discovered how much stuff there was.

One often thinks of a family's heritage as quality items selected to last, chosen to be treasures handed from parent to child. China dinner services and silverware. Artwork and high-quality furniture and fine jewelry.

I see my family's heritage in the junk they kept. 2" pencil stubs. Juice glasses originally sold as sour cream containers. Small notepads bearing the name of Dad's company in 1954. Old calendars from their insurance company. Canceled bank savings books. Boxes of magazines.

Who else would keep a beach towel, printed with a cartoon of a beatnik strumming a guitar, terrycloth a tissue-thin gauze with age? I remember lying on that towel on a pebbled beach, after diving from the springboards into the green waters of Quarry Park in 1966. Not only did they keep things like this, but they packed it all up and carried it with them, through seven moves.

This detritus accumulated, shifting when drawers tilted open, like silt and pebbles carried by streams washing through. It mingled and mixed, the heavy bits settled to the bottom while the lightweight floated on top. That's how my mother's high school report card came to be found in the same place as a pair of clip earrings from the '60s, birthday cards from grandkids, and the instruction booklet for her current cable TV.

Life is said to have originated in the sea, and marine creatures exhibit the many ways living beings inhabit their world.

Photo: National Geographic

Some creatures build coral reefs - they build their homes on the foundations of their ancestors, living in colonies with their fellows. Together they erect an edifice anchored on the lives of those who've gone before.

Hermit crabs find a shell abandoned by another creature and move in. They are indiscriminate - it could be a beautiful conch shell or it could be a tin can; as long as it works as a protective home it's fine. Once it's outgrown - they move on without looking back.

Bivalves like oysters
spurt off as larvae to explore the waters, and when the spat matures it lights wherever it can, anchors itself and forms a shell to call home.

Others carry their shells with them. The chambered nautilus builds its shell as it grows, moving its body into ever larger chambers, and sealing off the smaller rooms behind it. Though it jets about the ocean freely, it carries its entire life with it, dragging it along behind.

The aquatic larvae of caddisflies build portable cases around their bodies, packing grains of sand, twigs, and other particles into a hard shell that protect them from predators. They finally anchor somewhere, seal off the case to pupate within, and emerge transformed, with wings to fly away. Sometimes people find abandoned caddisfly cases in streams or along riverbeds, and collect them as treasures.

My brothers and I picked through all the stuff. We threw some of it away, kept the things we treasured. Later this spring, a sale will be held, where the stuff that's left behind can be picked up, marveled at, acquired and collected by someone else.


mo.stoneskin said...

One of my friends is a Hermit crab. He isn't totally indiscriminate. He likes, at least, to have enough room to potter about and make a cup of tea.

Tristan Robin said...

oh my - our parents are polar opposites! LOL

I try not to drag too much stuff around with me - but, having only moved three times in my adult life, things do tend to accumulate. My last move was the most cathartic. I got rid of ALL furniture - what I couldn't sell, I gave a way...same with kitchen appliances, dishes, flatware, glassware and pots and pans.
I arrived in my new place with music, dvds and videos, art work, art supplies and clothing - very little else. However - LOL - nine years later you'd never know it. We've managed to fill up this place quite nicely!

Queenly Things said...

Oh, those dishes in the last photo are gorgeous - and they were hidden away? My mom is like your parents, though we hardly moved but twice. She refuses to throw away the oddest things - and, until recntly, never bought second hand. It's infuriating and endearing.

Anonymous said...

That's nice how you post the different characteristics of the water creatures :-) That's very nice to learn. Me? I'm not sure. But I don't think I'm a chambered nautilus where I have to carry everything :-)

With all the things you found in your parents house, you must have discovered something very dear :-) I wonder what you found that you liked very much.

Anonymous said...

I have a colander just like that one! It was either my parents' or my grandparents' before it came to live with me. My dh fears that I am a chambered nautilus, although I do purge some (a few?) belongings before and after each military move.

This is a wonderful post!
I hope you will someday give us a glimpse into what you found important to keep and treasure as your own.