My mom and my grandmother surrounded themselves with much beauty in their homes; a part of my grandmother’s Latin American colonial art collection was on special exhibit for a time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There was always a sense of wonder coming into her house when we visited her because everything was just so beautiful. My mom too, had a very good eye, though she lived in my grandmother’s shadow and I think trusted herself far less when it came to decorating her house. Nonetheless, I can remember being in the old part of Stockholm, Gamla Stan, with Mom, going from shop to shop, while my mother searched for a couple of pieces to add to her snuff bottle collection. I remember being enchanted by the colors and the artistry. A couple of them were painted inside with a single bristle.
Quite honestly, Sherod and I really struggled as we started sharing a household. Our tastes are considerably different and though we have found common ground through the years, there has always been at least a gentle tug and pull between us about utility and graciousness, presumption (mine-ugh!) and hospitality. I’ve learned a whole lot about hospitality married to Sherod. Slowly, I have found a way to value beauty and challenge in myself both pretention and a desire to be liked, which includes having my home admired. Nonetheless, all through my years growing up, and then, as an adult, each time I visited my parents’ home while Mom was alive, there was this whispered, almost imperceptible promise: “many of these gorgeous things will be yours. You are the daughter, the sons don’t give a flip about any of it—much of this will be yours.”
The first round of letting go came when I went down to help my Dad after he sold the house he and my mom built in Boquete. He was downsizing significantly and needed help sorting through and paring down. I had vaguely imagined my dad dying in their own lovely house, not a rental, and my brothers and I closing the household down after his death. I figured that at that point, I would see about having the things that I would inherit packed and shipped to me. With Dad downsizing, and I working in a position that felt very precarious, it was gut-check time. I ended up showing my dad a few pieces of furniture I truly loved, and we agreed that he would see about getting those pieces shipped to me, along with my mother’s fine china. Every effort to make that happen fell short, I suspect because my dad was simply too overwhelmed, and time went on with those pieces and china sitting in a corner of his porch in the little rental.
Then, the reality of his need to move in with us hit, and after that, I faced into the enormity of the financial responsibility Sherod and I were assuming. All of a sudden, I had to think through and be clear with myself about what mattered. In the end, I settled on one painting and Mom’s collection of snuff bottles.
As much as anything, those pieces I let go of mattered to me because they connected me to the stories of my mother, my grandmother, and with one piece, even my great-grandmother who had lived with her daughter in Panama and the USA for many years and moved back to Sweden in her late 70’s. Mormor’s Mor, as we called her, took back with her a collection of all the exotic dead bugs she’d accumulated in the tropics, kept each in its own little box padded with cotton; her collection, which was quite extensive, was kept in an exquisite chest of drawers. When her lady friends would come to tea, she delighted in horrifying them by taking her specimens out to show. I knew exactly where that piece of furniture would go in our house here in Lowndesboro.
Maybe what also made this hard was we had the means to bring those things here and Sherod was extraordinarily generous about encouraging me to go ahead and do so. This was a purely adult decision I had to make based not on my own immediate desires, but the larger truths we inhabit these days. What you have relinquished of your own free will is sometimes harder to lose than what was taken away from you.
The picture arrived a few days ago and now hangs in the space I hoped it would fill. I don’t have my great-grandmother Caroline’s furniture but my mom’s snuff bottles and Chinese figurines are on the chest of drawers Sherod made many, many years ago. I can hardly even look at that little corner without tearing up; it didn’t take a houseful of stuff to stay connected to the women who came before me.
And today, something else happened. I had been out gardening and took a big load of weeds in the wheelbarrow to our burn pile. When I had finished getting the weeds where they needed to be, I walked back to the pole barn to put away the wheelbarrow. As I set it down, I noticed how beautifully the light was playing on everything our friends Mark and Kay have hung on the outside wall of the hay room, things they need for Gus and Buck, their horses who live with us. Those things were as beautiful, and the light was as filled with meaning as anything I own or possess. I got my camera, took a picture. I was hot and sweaty. I had been delighted, hefting the wheelbarrow, feeling the strength in my arms and smelling all the farm smells of this little corner, glad for my morning’s accomplishments.
It hit me then. This. The light and the color, and the very ordinary things that, together, were such a gorgeous composition. At best, this was a fleeting composition, but it was here. It was here for me to see before I went in to talk to my husband, and write a sermon, and call my girl. This. This is what I love. This is what matters.