Some of my earliest memories were formed at St. Michael the Archangel Church on the River Road on the east bank of the Mississippi River in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The Gothic red brick building seemed monstrous to me as a child—the inside dark, solemn, and intimidating. I recall lighting candles in the grotto for loved ones I’d lost, burying relatives in the centuries-old cemetery, and frequently dipping my fingers in the Holy Water.
So when I walked into the church this past December, this time for a story, all my memories came rushing back to me with the smell of candlewax and old carpet, and the spirits of my grandparents, who were members for decades. It’s the smell of my youth, and the smell of history.
My earliest memory of listening to Frank Sinatra was around age 11 or 12, when I came across my dad’s double disc album, A Man and His Music. Perhaps because I had grown up with the sounds of one of his devotees, Harry Connick, Jr., thanks to my mom, it didn’t take me long to fall under the spell of Sinatra. Just a short time later, in May of 1998, the world lost The Voice, but I had entered a whole new world.
Today, we celebrate what would have been Sinatra’s 100 birthday. Throughout the year, musical artists and museums have been paying tribute, including a major Grammy concert featuring a score of today’s top artists singing Frank’s hits. But in my world, every day is Sinatra’s birthday. I am not exaggerating when I say that I probably listen to at least one song by Ol’ Blue Eyes daily, whether on vinyl, Spotify, or from my digital collection, which at current count is at 133 songs. I’m a sucker for all things Sinatra – I’ve read more biographies than I count (see a list below for some of my favorites), I take Sinatra selfies when I come across pictures of him at restaurants or bars, request DJs to play him at weddings, and each home I’ve lived in since high school has featured multiple pieces of Sinatra art, from posters and prints to my own pieces.
Yesterday, I read a piece in The Washington Post about a “seismic shift” happening all across America: Boomers are cleaning out their clutter and updating their décor, but their Millennial kids don’t want their stuff. The article goes on to discuss the various element at play, that we have read about again and again in nearly every story about Millennials for the last few years – we want to downsize and take less stuff with us, we capture important moments digitally, and, according to one quoted Millennial, we prefer to “spend money on experiences.” (I read another article this morning on this last point.)
While these things may be true for many Millennials, I find that the article is one-side, as most of these pieces are. What about those of us (me, obviously) who capture our moments digitally, but also do still carry around boxes of cherished items to feed our nostalgia and experiences? What about those of us who spend money on experiences but also spend money on such old-fashioned things like records, stationery, and (gasp!) books? And not to neglect the Boomers – what about parents like mine who don’t have clutter and whose decorative tastes are actually quite appealing?
I emailed the author of the article to express these thoughts. Her response: “Thanks. Interesting idea.” I don’t expect to see the other side of the story anytime soon. According to the article, eight out of 10 Millennials don’t want their parents’ boxes of memories and furniture. And again, while this may be true, it’s also stating the obvious. Just like all of the pieces about Millennials moving back in with their parents focus on the “majority” – those who are in debt, lost their jobs, in school, etc. What about the other side to that coin? What about the Millennials like me who make personal choices to spend more time with family, to explore a new career path, and to get a change of scenery? What about the Millennials who use this time to browse the old photo albums, read the old letters, and bust out the heirloom blankets for the bed?
With each of our collective numerous moves, my parents and I have donated or trashed a lot of stuff—whether it was knickknacks, collectables, furniture, etc. But there’s always that box or two of papers and ribbons and notes and other chachkies that we just can’t let go. And when my grandparents passed away in the 90s, I relished being able to discover their own cherished possessions, some of which became my own. There’s something to be said about these reminders of our past that use all of our senses—the smells, the touch, the colors—they can do a lot more for our memories than rifling through thousands of digital photos on a hard drive.
In an age when what’s old is new again, the real story should be about those Boomer parents and Millennial kids who are connecting over their precious moments from the past and the present, both through physical mementos and digital files. In an age when we shake our heads at the lack of connection between these two generations that are supposedly miles apart in ideology and tastes and behaviors, why not take a closer look and find the families that are bonding over classic Johnny Cash vinyl, taking selfies with a Polaroid, and supporting each others’ hobbies and passions (even if it means creating more “stuff” for the house).
I may be in the minority, but there’s something beneath all of this “stuff.” I think there’s a lot of soul.
Do you have any stories to share about your own experiences of keeping your or your parents’ old “stuff”?
I blinked and now it’s my 29th birthday. It may be one of the most low key I’ve had in my 29 years – a lovely day with my parents and dogs, a way I haven’t been able to spend my birthday in several years.
So, 29. It’s technically kicking off my 30th year, and society tells me I’m supposed to be freaking out about all kinds of stuff — I’m single, I’m unemployed, I live with my parents, etc, etc. Maybe I am freaking out a little bit. Mostly because I suppose a year ago I didn’t expect this to be my life, and I’m still not quite sure where it’s headed in the next few months. But instead of worrying about that too much, I’d rather be thankful for what these 29 years have given me, and what the next year can bring. If there’s anything I’ve learned in this last year, it’s that plans change, and sometimes it’s okay not to have a plan. I’ve realized that although I was driven to leave DC for a change of pace and to to forge a new path, that none of it compares to the time I’ve spent with my parents, really getting to know them, not just as parents, but as people, and letting them help me take what’s essentially “me” and craft my life around that.
When we celebrate birthdays, we’re showing appreciation for being alive, and it’s a day where others express their joy at our existence. It can be self-indulgent, and I’m the first to admit that I love birthdays, and I love being showered with love on that day (or even throughout the week). But I also want to show appreciation for the moments in my 29 years that have stuck with me, no matter how I’ve changed. The memories that move us and the experiences that nourish our souls are what bring us fulfillment, and keep us grounded and whole. Good and bad, physical and emotional, these moments make us who we are. This isn’t meant to be a collection of greatest hits, but more of the everyday experiences that resonate with us through life. Here are some of mine:
Watching my grandmother and her sister sew one of their many quilts in the “green room.” My cousin and I would sit under the quilt rack and pick up pins from the carpet.
The taste of my first snowball of the summer in Louisiana. Usually spearmint.
Making macaroni & cheese with Velveeta in the kitchen with Dad. We’d use almost a whole block, Mom shaking her head in the background.
Every night before bed, listening to a story on tape my other grandmother made for me about a guardian angel taking me to a beautiful castle.
A reporter from The Cincinnati Enquirer visiting my class in fourth grade. I got my first reporter’s notebook and it solidified my dream of being a writer.
Running down the hallway and jumping into my Jimmy’s (my neighbor) arms, Dirty Dancing style.
Endless games of double solitaire with Mom and weekend trips to the grocery store.
Walking around campus at Miami University in the fall in my hoodie (still wear it today).
A trip to Chicago with Dad. We went to two games at Wrigley Field.
A now infamous meal at the Red Planet Diner in Sedona where we ate way too much food, yet still got two desserts. Mom and I ran a lap around the parking lot, cracking up the whole way, Dad taking pictures.
Late nights eating boiled seafood with the family and telling stories.
Friday night trips to Barnes & Noble after dinner.
As what’s old becomes new, and the nostalgic becomes hip, it seems like everyone is taking another look at cherished heirlooms and items passed down through the generations. Shows like American Pickers and American Restoration is today’s cooler version of Antiques Roadshow, and people are signing up to take calligraphy lessons and buy vintage typewriters just as more and more schools are taking cursive out of their curriculum.
Perhaps people aren’t rushing out in droves to antique stores, but sites like Etsy and Pinterest have given way to the shabby chic trend, and suddenly grandma’s old lace doilies and your great-uncle’s pocket watch are fair game for decorating your home, or your body.
The photos above are some “heirlooms” of our own: Mom has a wicker chest in my room filled with old tablecloths, carefully embroidered napkins, and fine lace handkerchiefs. Some belonged to her mother, and some belonged to her father’s mother, two women that I loved so much as a child, and left us before I had a chance to know them better. I handle these items with care, imagining my grandmother and great-grandmother’s hands caressing them, too, and wrapping them up so tenderly for the next woman in the family to enjoy. I immediately remember sitting in rocking chairs drinking Barq’s root beer with MawMaw Chicken, as we called my great-grandmother Denise Roussel, even though she had stopped raising chickens well before I came around. I think with longing of the days I would sit in the “blue” room at my MawMaw Vickie’s house, watching her and her sister sew quilt after quilt, or apply delicate beading to a wedding dress for one of my cousins. And later, when she showed me how to work her sewing machines, so that I could quilt, too, and make special crafts for my mom after a summer spent in Louisiana.
Just yesterday, I came across a website from a British photographer called The Heirloom Project, for which he takes pictures of people’s treasured items in his studio, and they share the story behind it. The pictures tell a story all by themselves, but when you read the words from the items’ owners, you get a sense of their emotions, who they are, and where they come from. Some descriptions are just a few sentences, some are longer, but all are authentic, simple, and raw.
When items from our parents and grandparents and other relatives are passed on to us, we may not often take the time to really see and absorb the stories behind it. Perhaps we are grieving, and it’s just a part of the ritual of cleaning out a home. Perhaps it was discovered years later in a pile of items to be tossed out or donated, and we have to do a little research. Or perhaps you had your eye on something since you were a child, not quite knowing the significance, but knowing that it stood for something you had yet to uncover.
Today, the former owner of my parents’ house came by to pick up a couple of pieces of mail, and we gave her a gift. Years ago, she had painted a scene on some tiles for the kitchen; a cute image of her and her husband, now passed, in front of a flower shop, in farmers’ outfits. When my parents redid the kitchen upon moving in, they saved the tiles as best as they could, and we pieced back together the broken ones with glue. Today, when we gave the tiles back to her, she cried — with memories, with happiness, with grief still there years later. But it made us emotional, too, to think that we could provide a little piece of history and love back to this woman who had spent so many years of joy here with the love of her life. Someday, she may pass those tiles on to her children, and them to her grandchildren. There’s a story behind it, and I was glad to be just a tiny piece of it.