I enjoy acquiring antiques and collectibles. If it was made before the 1950s, it's officially older than me, which means I am by comparison young.
Maybe this is why I still use a 1940s Bakelite rotary phone, serve dinner on flowered porcelain plates I bought at Castle Antiques, and keep in my living room a beat-up Depression-era saloon piano that no one in my family can play.
My need for old objects in my life has taken some extreme turns. About six years ago, I was tired of our house looking like it was built in the 1990s. I wanted an older home, and since we did not want to move, we remodeled.
"Are you sure you want to use that kind of linoleum?" our contractor asked. "You'll have to wax and polish it."
"I am," I answered solemnly. I imagined my husband using a buffer to polish our new floor to a high luster.
And later, when we replaced the aluminum-clad windows with wood frames, we were lectured about the upkeep.
"That's okay," we said, embracing the dry rot in our future.
We wanted arches instead of square openings, a dining room separated from the kitchen, and light fixtures that looked like they came from a World
War II-era diner. At a time when everyone else was remodeling to create an open concept, we were adding a wall between the kitchen and living room.
"I want it to look like an old house," I told our contractor. He studied the picture I showed him and nodded, pretending to understand.
I realize now that we were remodeling to accommodate the family heirlooms my husband and I have inherited over the years. My dad's collection of old pepper mills, the antique steam trunk my brother used for toys when he was a kid, my mother-in-law's sideboard I had coveted for so long -- none of these things belonged in a home built in 1990.
And so we fit the house to the furnishings, not the other way around as most people do, and today my house looks a little like a museum for old things of dubious value.
A man who resembles the revivalist preacher Jonathan Edwards glowers at me from one wall, an 18th century woman offers me a flower from another, and each morning I lie awake in bed until I hear 6 a.m. chime on a grandmother clock from a linen mill that switched to electric timekeepers six decades ago.
The furniture, pictures and clocks are heavy with history -- their own, our relatives and now ours. To live among such things is to be constantly reminded of one's mortality, but there is also a deep comfort in belonging to a continuum of objects and the stories they carry.
My sons are less enthusiastic about some of the heirlooms. "My friends hate that picture of the little boy in the dining room," my 12-year-old tells me. "He looks like a ghost and his eyes move, I swear."
But I look at the painting and am reminded of the aunt who framed it herself, a botched job that I could never bring myself to replace. And I know that one day my son will inherit the painting, and some part of my aunt, and me, with it. He is already a chapter in the painting's story.
The TV program "Pawn Stars" often features people selling off family heirlooms. The show is a study in cold-blooded practicality. Usually, the sellers are young men who want money to buy something else, something new.
"My grandpa gave me this letter from General Grant. It's been in the family for a hundred years."
"I'll give you 50 bucks for it," Rick, the shop's owner, will say.
"Deal," the young men always answer. "Maybe I'll get lucky at the craps table."
And while part of me feels a deep loss to see such things sold at bargain rates to a stranger, I can't help also feeling a twinge of envy.
How nice it must be to let go so casually of the past, to look at great-
grandma's old rocking chair and feel no burden of responsibility. It is a frame of mind my children and I will never know.
Brigitte Bowers is a lecturer in the Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced.