Relics

Nana had a pink and green velvet brocade wingback chair in the back corner of her antique shop. It never sold, probably because it looked like something that would be in an illustration in a children’s book. Some curved and tuffeted throne, the color of blush peonies and spring moss, Ugly Stepsister style overkill, where Cinderella might have raised her dingy, work-sore foot, likely calloused by clogs and still blistered from a night spent dancing in shoes made of glass, to a princes with a magic slipper (and possibly a foot fetish). I loved it. Poppy, my grandfather, called it Alison’s office, because I’d sit there all day and read.  The chair was situated in front of a Ficus, which was situated in front of a louvered door that contained the shop furnace, blocking the unsightly present so the customers could be lulled into the opulent artifice of two-hundred-year-old inlaid mahogany tables, viney sterling candelabras, delicate chests shaped like ovals and beans, and floors softened by thick Persian rugs in gem-like colors. The idea was that maybe they  not notice they were in an ersatz log cabin, a model home for a never-built Daniel Boone themed development that never materialized,  alongside a divided highway in Southwest Virginia, across the road from a tattoo parlor, just down the block from a gun shop, next door to an exterminator with a upside down Volkswagen Beatle out front, impaled by a giant arrow printed with the company tagline we kill bugs dead.           

They usually didn’t.

I spent a bit of most summers, aged ten to seventeen, with Nana. I went to work with her daily at the shop. In the beginning, before my grandfather, Poppy, died, I had no chores save feather dusting and plant watering. Mostly I drew paper dolls and read stacks of Young Adult novels I was already growing out of because I read them too fast. Later came actual work. I waxed table tops. I polished silver. I made sales. I chatted up ladies with Tidewater accents and Christian names like Hyacinth and Glovinia while they made out checks to my grandmother with diamond-burdened hands. Nana would smile and slide the money into the drawer. I’d attach a SOLD tag to a Rare Library Desk, Walnut, Leather Topped, English Cabinetmaker, after Chippendale, 1780.

Before Poppy died, he added lamp repair to an already-extensive list of Things He Could Do with the notion that he could spend his post-retirement days refurbishing old lamps and creating new ones as sideline to the antique business. He bought a diamond drill, a piece of equipment he bragged about, and with which he could create lamps out of otherwise rare and valuable objects. Nana fitted out his workshop, as well as two display rooms for fluted silk shades of various sizes and pastel hues, carved rosewood bases, racks of harps and tiered racks of fancy finials that resembled fancy candies.

Antique stores, especially antique stories on the side of a highway in Southwest Virginia are often  a muddle of junk, a small step above flea market, where you might find a  primitive pie-safe painted distressed red or a couple of pieces of Depression glass amidst kitsch figurines, porcelain dolls, confederate money, and old Esso signs. This was not Nana’s  shop, which confused and sometimes frustrated the occasional hirsute good-old-boy looking for old guns and fetish collectibles of dubious reputation . Nana was snobbish about her inventory.  She operated out of the particular type of general and uncompromising elitism common (heh)  to those that come from nothing to speak of and nowhere to celebrate.   She didn’t care if customers found her haughty or high-handed( she probably took it as a compliment). She’d say, this is a George II highboy, once owned by a colonial governor of Maryland. It’s in impeccable condition. I outbid two museums to get it at auction. It is a magnificent piece. She wouldn’t say, do you think someone with this George II highboy would ever condescend to handling something so distasteful as a WWII German army helmet or a teapot shaped like a mammy doll?

Which is not to say I couldn’t find the occasional piece of kitsch or niche item tucked amid the glittering detritus of the ruling class. She sold her manicurist’s cranberry-scented potpourri for a while, which smelled exactly like the cosmetics department at Lord & Taylor hopped up on Sea Breezes. And for a while, in an ancient iron and wooden barrel by the door she had a couple of swords mixed in with her umbrella. She claimed she didn’t know where they came from, but I didn’t believe her. When I was about fifteen, I spent an hour or so alone in the store while Nana having hair set, trying in vain to unsheathe the sword in one graceful swoop, like a proper swashbuckler.

All antique dealers are some combination of con artist and curator. They acquire old things and try to convince customers they have great value, often based on some  sideways association or ineffable quality. Their level of success often depends on how sincerely they believed their own stories. Nana whole-heartedly believed in the magical and transformative properties of things. She defined herself by them, which perhaps made her appear selfish, petty, unnecessarily materialist. But I always thought it was something else. She was an acolyte of fancy objects. I sometimes think it was a shame she came up a coal miner’s daughter, in a rural corner of the state, raised in a faith without icons, totems, reliquaries, and shrines, exquisite doo-dads and mysterious whatsits that she could have worshipped without apology. As it is, she created her own peculiar belief system and invited us to revere the  Imari charger, tend to the Regency tea service, and contemplate the unknowable before this grand, three-century-old Phoenix-festooned mirror.

***

Poppy spent his professional life doing the financials for a big lumber company that had worked on a couple of historic renovations. His time there left reserves of knowledge, a sense of how to date a thing by the quality of the wood, a whole glossary of terms—joints, bevels, escutcheons, cut-nails.  How some cabinetmakers would insert a pine peg into a cherry joint because they liked the colors. How others would inlay images as signatures. This is a Philadelphia piece. You can tell by the halfmoons. It came from Mr. So and So’s workshop. The way things were slatted together with wooden nails.  He could always find the secret compartments. The hidden latches. You can date a chest by looking at its drawers. 

There’s a particular charm to the tactile business of antiques. The tiny imperfections. The gully where the blacksmith hit too hard.  The dribble of extra paint on the porcelain. The slightly misshapen filigree on the silver pitcher. A real person made those. I would close my eyes and the moment of creation—the infernal heat of the forge, the delicate brushes in morning light, the precise tools to create the veins in that copper leaf. And then you think about who it was for? A commission? A gift? A little extra artistry on something practical? What harm in making this chair beautiful?  Or sometimes what harm was caused by making this chair beautiful?

I  grew up around old things.  I fidgeted on the crewelwork cushions of Rococo chairs. I pretended orb-topped andirons were robots and talked to them. I hid under gate-leg tables. I trundled along with Nana in the back of her old  red buying van to dusty shops, estate sales, old barns and stately homes throughout Virginia and the Carolinas (and later to England). While she haggled with cash-strapped and feckless heirs who didn’t know or care what they had, I chased animals through formal dining rooms and dusty attics and peculiar outbuildings. I poked around fancy drapes in hopes of shaking out a ghost.  I had plenty of questions, like, how do you pee in a hoop skirt or did George Washington have really bad breath or seriously you guys never had a single, solitary reservation about slavery? Sometimes I’d find a taxidermied pheasant looking eternally surprised to be living under a bubble of glass. Sometimes I’d find a lily clogged gold fish pond or a feral peacock on a rust-stained yellow woven chaise on a weedy terrace just down the road and over the hill from Monticello.

The only thing that ever really upset me was a pentimento, discovered after Nana bought this painting, a 19th century landscape, some sub-Hudson River School type thing, but painted on a reused canvas over a hunting party with men and dogs and a ghostly galleon of a forest moon. Slowly that scene beneath—all its dogs and rifles and torches—was, with time, emerging from the under the innocuous, alpine pastoral dawn, becoming more visible, first as shadows, then as limbs scratching to the surface, a past that could not be painted over, some hungry, bloodthirsty history that could not be painted over into blue skies and peaceful valleys, that would not stay quiet beneath the surface, that lived on under a thin coat of paint. Years later, a therapist asked if I had any recurrent nightmares. I mentioned the pentimento. And she was like, what a metaphor. And I was like, goddamn, the south. And she was like, goddamn, America. And we sat there on the verge of goddamning the whole world but we stopped because she had other clients and I was on the clock.

I suspect places have memories. I don’t mean this in some woo-woo way.  Maybe I do. After all,  I grew up in the South and went abroad when I was still young enough to speak to stones in ruined castles and imagine they might respond if I asked politely. As recently as two weeks ago, I turned off a mossy, lowcountry highway down a tunnel-treed gravel drive on John’s Island in South Carolina and was like, shush your talking, because the past felt so clamorous.  So it stands to reason things have a touch of memory too. I’ve yet to hear a lowboy whisper to me, but that might be because I wasn’t listening hard enough.

***

I spent most of the  summer of my seventeenth year, the last summer I would spend with Nana for weeks at a time, tending to the store, going to the funerals of aging relatives I’d never met until the open casket, and reading Faulkner novels, one after another, like an adventure series, while I sat in that pink and green chair. I wallowed in the filthy past, surrounded by the perfect sparkle and  polish of Nana’s version of history and thought, maybe not for the first time, that I might be genetically predisposed to hang on to things long past their usefulness, and maybe that’s not always a mark in the asset column.

I live in a small house. I have limited space. The things I cherish are the things I cherish for my own reasons. Some may be worth something.  Most have little value at all save to me. Sometimes something kinda priceless shatters at a party and we move on. Sometimes I lose a pebble I slipped in my pocket on Palatine Hill in Rome and worry over it for days.  I’m pretty good at getting rid of things if I need to. I take decent care of the things I have.

There are fewer stores like Nana’s now. We’re all obsessed with the new or at least the retro version of new.  My friends’ houses are full of mid-century modern furniture, some vintage, mostly ersatz. Nana sniffed at reproduction, though she had friends that made it, who hand built solid wood Windsor Chairs and butler’s tables and such with loving precision and original tools. She’d put a few in her shop.  Because you’re not actually going to put your television on a real-deal Jacobean chest, dig?  I can’t imagine how Nana would view a midcentury reproduction. I’d call and ask, but she can’t figure out Skype and it’s hard to convey an eyeroll over the phone.

We were in a shop, not unlike hers, a few years  back, when she was still had the ability to wander through rooms at length and negotiate a better deal on a reticulated Rose Medallion bowl (Qing Dynasty, c. 1850). The store’s owners had  filled their downstairs with straight-up 1955.  Nana made a career of treating anything newer than 1850 as not really an antique and she was befuddled by the Eames chairs, the space age clocks, the chrome lamps, the Formica kitchen table why would you carry this here? At an antique shop? The owner shrugged, no one’s buying the old stuff anymore. Young people with money. This is what they want. Nana was horrified. I tried to be all, you know, styles change. But she would have none of it. She had spent most of her adult life banishing its like from her home, erasing the cheap, the common, the JC Penney easy chairs, the dime store glasses, the mass produced and practical, with the fragile, gilded vestiges of an aristocratic lineage that was not her own. Why would anyone want to evoke Levittown when they could have a little piece of Versailles?

Why indeed?

I mean, I live in an old mill house, not a chateau. My ceilings aren’t high enough for chandeliers. I have my old thrift store furniture, alongside the stuff from Nana, alongside cheap, particle board bookshelves and discount “oriental-style” rugs I bought at box stores.  The old stuff is hard to take care of. It’s not terribly comfortable. You look at those gorgeous, spindly ballroom chairs and think, that might have balanced a tiny duchess in 1780, even a tiny duchess weighted down by wigs and whalebone and preposterously wide skirts. But it can only endure so many of us portly, 21st century plebs in athleisure, with our wide backsides and habit of flopping into any chair like it’s a bean bag in a basement rec room. No one wants to be the one that breaks the relic. No one is even entire sure how it could be fixed, or if it could be fixed, or if it would even be worth it to fix it.  Thus, the chairs get stacked against the wall, in the room you’re not really supposed to go into, look don’t touch, beside the secretary with the damaged back and the chipped crystal and sterling and china engineered to be hand-washed by a legion of servants in a house with a name and two stairways.

Sometimes its simpler to love a thing when it’s too young to have any complicated history.

 I don’t know what happened to the pink and green chair when Nana sold the shop. I probably would have taken it, had it been on offer,  even though it didn’t go with anything in my life at the time, and would have been devastated by pets, parties, and the various destructive amusements of my twenties and early thirties. It didn’t come to me, though. Maybe it went to an auction or estate sale. Maybe someone reupholstered it in  tasteful grayscale linen to make it a better fit in for a modern living room. But perhaps it is much the same, still lulling  some other small person into believing that history is an gorgeous, anodyne proposition, as she reads her swashbuckly novels and settles into the down cushion for a sweet dream of another age no truer than the tale a canny antique dealer is trying to sell you at a 200% mark-up, but, in the moment, almost wholly convincing.

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Burn Out

My father’s father’s family, from whom I derive both my last and middle names, came from a speck on the map in the Mississippi Delta called Anguilla. The Fields of yore lived in a large brick house there and grew untold acres of cotton and both initiated and endured at least some of the Delta’s most shameful history and/or hoariest clichés and endured the malarial torpor of the Deep South, pre-air-conditioning. Generations of Fields, up to and including my great-grandfather, would live out the summer alone in the big house, to see to the fields and the gin (and, given genetics, probably also the Gin, black market or bootleg thought it may have been in the 20s) and survive the various floods and storms  and get up to whatever trouble they got up to there in verdant nowhere at peak sultry.

I’ve visited and lived in the lowland south for enough of my life now to understand why summer heat is both character and plot point in many pieces of southern literature. And I think I have some handle on it. I used to stand in the record store (which did not have functional air conditioning) in a couple inches of water (which appeared whenever it rained harder than a sprinkle) and think of my great- grandfather (who I never met, who died during the Depression) standing at the house in Anguilla in the dead smother of August heat, waiting to see if the storm-swelled tributaries of the Mississippi would breach the levees and flood the fields, the lawn, the first floor of the house. I used to think, What is it about Fieldses and their inexorable attraction toward hot, wet places? Is this a congenital thing? Were we into pain or martyrdom or just some kind of stiff-lipped determination to spite nature by making it work in a place where nature was like, you people should have stayed in the North of England. Could I trace this all the way back three centuries to the first Fields who stepped off a ship from England and stared down July in Tidewater Virginia all bring it, New World, I’m staying. And, in fact, my descendants will one day go somewhere even wetter and hotter and further south. So I’d Wet Vac the store and sweat through gallons of water and raise my eyebrows at the pitiful constitution of customers that complained about the heat and the water, just as I’d indulged relocated friends. I’d think, this is not so bad. Wait until a hurricane knocks out power for a week in August. That’ll toughen you right up.

So, look, it humbles me to tell you that I listened with tears in my eyes when my HVAC repairman told me it could be another few days before I have my AC back in my house in Carrboro, after a lightning strike last Thursday took out the motherboard. And, guys, I can’t. Not when there are any other options. Not when the high today is 92. Not when the interior temperature of my house last night at midnight was 86. So I’m packing up to drive into the mountains of Western North Carolina, to my mother’s house, on the outskirts of Asheville, near the French Broad River, where I can write at a desk, still dry and unpuddled by my own sweat.

I suppose I should feel better, recalling that Mamaw, my great-grandmother, the most formidable woman I’ve ever known, a woman who pulled her family through the Depression, who rebuilt a local economy because one family can never really thrive if the rest of the community fails, a woman who weathered an epic catalog of life-altering storms (both real and figurative) before she was forty and famously told my mother Fields women never cry on her wedding night. That woman? She packed up her four children as soon as the icebox-chilled bed sheets stopped warding off the drowning heat of the nighttime and took the train northeast to the mountains of Western North Carolina, to the outskirts of Asheville, where her own parents ran an inn on the Swannanoa River, and she (and her children) could while away the days in a cool green idyll of a season that didn’t feel weaponized.

I have to remind myself that it’s rational to seek relief, that life is thick with opportunities to experience unmitigated, unavoidable discomfort, that I don’t win extra points for melting into my sheets at night because I’m too stubborn and too ashamed to seek out a cooler place to lay my head, and even that big house in Mississippi has, by now, had air conditioning for decades. And still no one really wants to live there.

Heat: 1
Alison: 0

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