Sunday, February 27, 2011

Money can't buy it...

What do the possessions we have say about us? 

I was confronted in a very real way with this question as I sat amongst a pile of my Gramma's things yesterday. My two aunts are preparing to sell her little house in Syracuse. The house my mother and her family grew up in- the first house they ever fully owned. The house where I spent many holidays and good times. And tucked away inside it... are her treasures. Nothing she owned could have ever made a pawn shop man's eyes glaze over, but they mean the world to us--because they represent the hard work and love they had for their family. In many ways, they are a vestige of just a stitch in the fabric of what some call our 'greatest generation'.

I think I wasn't prepared for the tears that would come as I held in my hands the momentos of her life---those things tenderly immersed in the memories I was tied to--and those that were of a life before I was even born.

Things like this I don't have a story for unfortunately. This tiny peach pit carved into the face and body of a monkey was probably something from someone's vacation. It was carefully wrapped, this delicate souvenir, but no one remembers where it came, but likely from a tropical island she never set foot on.

Inside her jewelry box were many pins marking milestones of significance, my grandfather's high school graduation and her own. And this, my grandfather's pin from his service in the Navy in World War II. As I touched it, I thought about the tiny token of such sacrifice. I know that the pride with which she held her husband's pin was also inextricably mixed with so many tears while he fought overseas. Like so many wives, she had waited in fear and hope for him to return safe while she held down life at home with two young girls. This pin doesn't fully tell us his story, what he saw or experienced as he fulfilled what he believed to be his most patriotic duty. It doesn't fully tell us her story--the premature baby she lost (who might have been the aunt closest in age to my mom) just a few months after he shipped out. 

And this-- probably one of the more beautiful stories I have ever heard.
 A woman's watch and a man's watch. Both seem inconspicuous until I was told how they were acquired. The watch to the left was a gift my grandfather received for three plus decades of service, working for Allied Chemical. 
Yes, a women's watch. 
My grandparents were not rich people and finding out that he would receive a fine quality watch for his years of work, he wanted it to be a gift for her--one perhaps she never would have accepted otherwise. Such a fine gift would have been far too impractical. With conviction, he asked the company if they could instead of the traditional man's watch, give him a watch for his beloved Godelieve. The answer from the company had been no. It had never been done before. Workers were always issued a man's watch and no one had ever asked for such a thing. But my grandpa, as it was told to me, stuck to his request and did not relent. He didn't want anything if it couldn't be for her. On the day they honored him and several other employees (with cameras flashing), he was told not to open the box. He posed with the closed box. Inside was the women's watch inscribed 'to William Duxbury for 35 years'. When he retired a few years later, the company presented  him with a man's watch.

And this was upstairs. It is a lacemaking pillow. It belonged to my great grandmother, Emma DeClercq and came from her native Belgium. Before the family emigrated from Belgium, Emma and generations of women had learned to make lace on this stiff yet plush platform. The pillow still contains a partially finished strip of lace- the last to be made on it---in a craft not even Godelieve, nor her offspring would ever learn. A lost art from a country left behind. 

The importance of this heritage was displayed in the framed print hanging above Gramma's bed - Vermeer's the Lacemaker. As a child I never knew this was a famous painting. I once saw it in an art book at school and declared that it was my "Gramma's painting". I am sure some art teacher must have laughed inside at that remark.

A few years ago when I made my first visit to the Louvre in Paris...I barely made a quick stop to gawk at the Mona Lisa. I instead made my pilgrimage to see the woman who I had beheld (in replica) as a child so many times at that little bustling house in Syracuse. Feeling the silent comfort of my ancestors, and stories long forgotten, I stood before that masterpiece in wonder.

It isn't easy to say goodbye to a grandparent. Neither is it easy to hold their belongings in your hands and realize that the touch of their hands have long gone from them.

Just recently I was reminded sharply of my loss  while hugging a friend who had just lost her own grandfather. We prepare ourselves, knowing that one day nature and time ensure we will lose the grandparent(s) we cherish. Yet, inevitability doesn't make it easy. It doesn't ease the hole or the feeling of absence when they can't tell us in their own chosen words or we can't see in their eyes that recollection of history-- the one we never lived. 

But as I carried in the box of things I had selected into my apartment...and as I look on my nightstand at the gold necklace I took for myself--the one with her initials, I know I will carry Godelieve Valerie Duxbury with me---not in any vessel I can haul or store or put on a shelf---but in my heart.


Betty Duxbury said...

Your Grandmother and Grandfather would be so pleased to read your lovely tribute. You are an extra special grand-daughter and niece.

Aunt Betty

Val Sun said...

What a beautiful story about the watches! :)