Thursday, February 3, 2011

Remains

In the blue-black earthenware vase that we got while on our honeymoon, there's a fragment of the sweetgrass rose we bought for one of our girls while on vacation last summer. Gold craft paint was sprayed all over the original rose, which was woven from sweetgrass, a palm leaf of some kind specific to certain weavers in Charleston, South Carolina. Now there are only a few flakes clinging to the stiff and straight remains of the stem. It's like the flaking mermaid's toenail we collected on the beach that same summer---the fragile remnants of oyster shells that have a fool's gold sheen and look precisely like what a mermaid's toenail might look like, should she have feet. These remains are what we have in lieu of hours of family video. What we have in lieu of a mermaid sighting. We have fragments of sun and laughter and fun.

The vase itself is a remnant. It was originally part of a set that included salt and pepper shakers. I'm still not sure how the vase is related to the shakers, but they were all fired in the same glazes and so made a set visually, if not practically. We've lost the salt and pepper shakers to time and half a dozen relocations. But the vase clings to our household like the humid memories of our decade ago honeymoon. I remember the cluster of artisans' shops in Barbados where we took a break from the beach and hunted tourist treasures. We walked in and out of the crowded stalls picking up things and showing them to each other across the aisle or across the room. I'd say that I liked something, noncommittally, and wait to see my brand new husband's response. It was early days and I didn't yet know we could like different things and function successfully as a couple.

Before marriage I had collected many more things, assigning value and purpose and gravity to trinkets and bits as varied as paper bookmarks and thrift shop kitsch. I retained items of sentiment that I no longer cared to look at or play with. Things that were the shrunken symbols of the larger acts of living. Even now my high school varsity letters are still floating around my house, moving from arbitrary receptacle to arbitrary receptacle because they don't warrant a place of honor but I'm not ready to let go of what they meant to me, even though that meaning is fast becoming irrelevant. I've achieved so much more than a varsity nod in cross country by now; it's hard to recall the pride in that triumph.

My husband has trophies, too. He's got a slice of fiber optic cable, encased in Plexiglas, that was given to him by his father back when the phone company was a pioneer's endeavor. I think it's interesting to watch my kids play with it, or to move it out of my way while I dust and realize that, for me, it's neat to look at, but for my husband it's like looking at his father from a different angle.

My kids will sometimes inherit things from people that are heavy with memory and import. My mother-in-law stayed with us over Christmas and brought carvings that her husband, my husband's loved and missed father, my children's Poppy, made with his own hands, a block of wood, and his eye on something the rest of us would have to wait to see. These things have value to her still. And when our children took possession of them to play with and possibly nick, crack, or break, I was willing to snatch them back and return them. I didn't think, for the first few moments, that I could let my children have something so precious. A covenant of memory. But then, if that promise to remember isn't put into new hands, the memory languishes.

I can't possibly keep the physical remains of every experience in the space I have available. I can't keep them all in my crowed memory banks, either; some of that is already spoken for logging PIN codes, and the birth-dates of my kids, and the kind of hair pomade my husband uses. Instead I collect trimmings of the life I've lead. I keep the scraps, the vessels of the covenant of memory. I have our last vacation, full of the sound of my children laughing, the taste of pecan pralines and ice cream, the itchy feel of sun pink skin, and the smell of sand and sunblock.That's lacquered into place with the last golden flake on the stalk of a sweetgrass rose whose only purpose is to carry intangibles.