The butterfly was one of three that decorated my fortieth birthday cake. The white arrowhead my grandfather found when he was young, perhaps as young as he was when the nearby picture of him was taken in his doughboy uniform.
The baby hairbrush just below that picture belonged to his firstborn daughter, my mother, who is now eighty-eight years old. The baby shoes are hers, too, one pair made of silk, the other of leather.
The gold cigarette holder, lipstick and compact belonged to an acquaintance of mine from college days, a rather grand old lady who loved the theatre. My uncle’s dog tags from the Korean War are hanging off the side. The shiny lighter belonged to my grandfather. It’s inscribed with his service record from both World Wars.
There’s an old love letter from my high school flame pasted behind the four-leaf clover. There’s a sterling silver lipstick case that belonged to my aunt who spent most of her working life in Korea, Germany and Japan.
The sepia-toned portraits I picked up at a flea market. I have no idea who the subjects are. I don’t know who wore the glasses. I don’t know who used the ivory cigarette holder or who it was that brought the theatre programs home and kept them, so that I might find them half a century later in a musty antique store. There are unclaimed cameo molds, printer’s blocks, an opera glass, a beaded purse and lace doilies, all compressed into a spotty narrative of people and times gone by.
I made this shadow box during a virulent bout of cabin fever one frigid winter eighteen years ago. These days when I look at it hanging on the wall, a terrible loneliness comes over me. Even when I know to whom the object belonged, a wistful feeling draws a veil between us.
Where are they now? What can I know of them from the little things they left behind? Things elegant and proud, things they endowed with meaning as well as with functionality, things that made them feel smart or important, back when they were alive, when they mattered, when they were surrounded by people who knew them well and would remember them always, until now, the desolate now, the now with no more past and no more future that comes to everyone when there is nobody left who recalls the tears and the laughter, the story, behind each material thing.
When I walk through a history museum filled with artifacts and antiquities, when I experience a great work of art, when I look at this shadow box hanging on my wall, I wonder whether it’s fear of death that underlies all our actions, whether fear and loathing and a yearning to be indestructible drives our addictions and achievements.
What do you think? Imagine some of your own possessions hanging on somebody’s wall a hundred years from now. Tell me how it feels.
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