I passed it up my first time down the aisle.
Something made me stop, turn around, go back for a second look.
It was just a small glass box, perched delicately on a crowded metal shelf in our town’s thrift store. Hidden in plain sight amid the jumble of life’s discarded treasures, the tiny trinket box was wedged between a worn and weathered Christmas wreath and a broken egg timer. It winked at me as I waltzed by, on my mission to ferret out finds of the day. The Box merited a closer look.
Self confession: I am not exactly a hoarder. I consider myself a collector; a purveyor of the past. I hail from a long lineage of those who find pleasure in acquiring things. For me, I have an affection for remnants of history, pieces of people’s lives. In my hands and on my shelves, what’s old is new again. I appreciate the nicks and scuffs that mark time and provide a glimpse into where the items have been, the dusty roads they have traveled. I love their stories – or what I imagine them to be.
For my grandmother, collecting meant bolts of calico in all colors, stored in a cedar-lined chest, the colorful bundles lying pristine in plastic until plucked from their darkened lair when my grandmother freed them, unfurling fabric for her next project. She would lovingly unwrap the crisp cotton, carefully laying out patterns on her iron bed. After pinning the tissue-thin paper to the fabric, she’s snip the material into confusing, puzzle-pieced shapes. Under my grandmother’s wrinkled, but steady hands, the material would feed under the needle treadle. With a quick pedal pump, the old Singer would whir to life. My grandmother, was indeed, a material girl.
For my mom, who captured life on canvas before Alzheimer’s captured her creative spirit and held it captive inside muddled days and starless nights, collecting was, generally, centered around her art. Bookshelves were crammed with coffee cans of horsehair paint brushes and tiny tubes, bursting with burnt umber and raw sienna. Canvases crowded closets. Empty frames stood like steadfast soldiers waiting for the paintings-in-progress leaning on artist easels, basking in the light of her upstairs studio.
Later, when the demon disease stole more of my mother’s dignity, she collected paper and Styrofoam plates, empty fast food cups, stacking them, willy-nilly, on her kitchen counter like a scene from The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. After the 10 o’clock news, we’d sneak in like burglars. Armed with plastic trash bags, we’d whittle down the piles to a manageable bulk. In the morning, we hoped she didn’t notice and deny if she did.
My dad, too, had his small, but trusty stash of humble acquisitions. Dog-eared paperbacks by Western writers like Louis L’Amour littered his nightstand; leaning stacks of unread books towered beside his recliner. Full-tilt in his chair, glasses perched mid-nose, my dad escaped into a world of words. My father was no professor. He was a hard-working, blue-collar electrician by trade, a cattle farmer by family, and a voracious reader by choice. He read cookbooks and gardening books, how to manuals and histories, war memoirs and travel journals. He dreamed of traveling to Switzerland. He spent hours thumbing through a table-sized book with glossy pictures of snow-peaked mountains and idyllic villages. In his final years, my father never traveled farther than the state line. Perhaps my daddy’s many books took him far from the tall East Texas pines, country streaked with red dirt, and the rumble of tractor motors.
Yes, I come from a family of collectors.
My husband, who used to work on-air in radio, has a fondness for antique radios. Massive radio boxes of past decades decorate the bookshelves that flank our fireplace. My cousin, the most sensible of the brood, collects thimbles. My daughter, a statuesque beauty with a wild raven mane who can pull off wearing a paper sack as couture fashion, has an affinity for shoes. Imelda would be proud. My oldest friend has recently acquired a slight obsession for designer undertogs. I’m not sure, but at last count, I think his quest has yielded unopened packages numbering in the hundreds.
Yes, I am a collector. My family members are collectors. Friends are collectors. I nurture my obsession with frequent trips to area thrift stores, scanning the aisles for the unusual, the unworthy, the unloved. I brave Texas temperatures to swelter in hot summertime garages for a chance meeting with yet another trinket destined for a ride in the back of my Saturn wagon. I scrawl my name on estate sale e-mail lists; I am Facebook friends with auction companies.
I have been known to arrive at my office, huffing and puffing from my hurried trek across campus. I am running late because I had to wrestle a trestle table — snatched from obscurity from behind a dirty dumpster — onto my luggage rack. My roadside assistance includes rescuing relics curbside and delivering them to my house for a second chance; a reprieve from the landfill. So, this fateful meeting with a small box was really not unexpected.
The box. That’s where we started this tale, right? The box.