My coworker, Clarice, frantically motioned me into her office as I walked towards the copier. She barely looked up from her computer as her hand rapidly waved me towards her desk.
“Isn’t this Italian antique walnut burl carved armoire beautiful?” she asked.
“What?” I asked in response. I wasn’t even sure she was speaking English.
She turned the computer towards me, pointed to the photo, and waited for me to be awed.
“Oh.” I said. “Where I’m from that’s just a wardrobe.”
“You have one of these?” she asked with a slight smirk.
“No, but I have a cedar wardrobe that was my maternal great-grandmother’s.” I answered.
“Oh, of course. My uncle owns an antique shop in Baltimore.” she said as she turned the computer back towards herself.
“I like old stuff.” I said as I left her office to continue to the copier.
I do like old stuff and I have plenty. The stuff isn’t just old, each piece once belonged to someone in my family. Various things from both sides, passed down, and down again, until fortunately they landed with me. The old stuff I have isn’t that valuable in terms of dollars, but whether furniture, rug, picture, or simple trinket, each has a story that was told to me when I received the item. When I look at each of these things I imagine the person who first owned them, touched them, where in their own house they might have kept them, and if they could have ever thought that so many years later a relative would look at them daily and be grateful to have them.
The armoire that Clarice showed me in the photo was a pretty piece of furniture but it meant nothing to me. I would rather have my great-grandmother’s cedar wardrobe than all the armoires in Italy, but I don’t know antiques. I only know my old stuff.
When I invited coworkers to come over one evening after work Clarice was the first to say yes. She was quick to tell me she couldn’t wait to see my antique armoire.
“It’s a cedar wardrobe.” I reminded her.
“Of course.” she said.
Everyone arrived that day after work and we chatted about families, the weekend, and office gossip. Clarice walked instantly to the cedar wardrobe to inspect it. As she stood beside the huge piece of furniture she looked down beneath her feet.
“This is an American antique hooked rug from the 1930’s I would guess.” she said as she stepped aside to give it a closer look. “Is it from a specialty shop?”
“No, it’s from Mama’s hallway.” I said as I laughed. “One day I commented that I liked it so she picked it up and gave it to me.”
“Of course.” Clarice said as she noticed a small piece of furniture in the corner. “What an absolutely beautiful vintage telephone table!” she said. “Did you find that at an auction?”
“No, my paternal grandmother gave it to me. It was in the upstairs hall of her farmhouse for decades.” I said. “She really did keep her phone and phone book on it.”
“Of course.” Clarice said as she stepped across the room to ask about a bowl and pitcher she noticed on a washstand. “This bowl and pitcher might be ironstone, I think. Did it come from a dealer?”
“No, it came from my maternal grandmother.” I answered. “It was on her dining room table every time I ever visited her. She gave it to Mama, who gave it to me.”
This process repeated for the next few minutes, then several times throughout the evening as one thing or another caught Clarice’s eye. She flitted from room to room asking about everything from the cedar wardrobe to my grandmother’s old handheld pruners that I keep on a shelf simply because I like to look at them and remember. Her every comment ended by asking if a particular item came from a shop, auction, estate sale, or dealer. My every response ended by answering that it came from a grandparent, great-grandparent, uncle, or aunt. I followed with the story I knew for each item that she pointed out.
As this process wore on, it became clear that Clarice realized the difference I meant between antiques and my old stuff. She began to be more interested in the story behind each piece than she was in the piece itself.
Clarice’s husband came with her that evening. He told her he liked the cedar wardrobe and had also noticed a large enamel pitcher I had in the kitchen. He asked, “I don’t suppose you bought this either?” as he pointed towards the pitcher.
“No, that hung under the steps of the two-story porch on my grandmother’s farmhouse. She gave it to me one day for helping her pull corn.” I said.
“Does everything have a story?” he asked with a grin.
“Of course.” I answered.
The evening came to an end and coworkers and I had a great time laughing and talking about many other things besides the old stuff I had sitting around everywhere. As they left, Clarice’s husband stopped her at the door. “Maybe we should check out a few antique stores tomorrow. I’d like to look for a cedar wardrobe and maybe a ceramic pitcher or two like the one in Stuart’s kitchen.” he said. “One can never have too many antiques.” Clarice looked at her husband, then glanced around my living room one more time.
“We have enough antiques.” Clarice said. “I wish we had old stuff.”
Stuart M. Perkins