When I was a little girl, antique stores were like time travel. I would enter through the often dusty and dank doors, and I would immediately be hastened to another era; to a period in our history that I could only imagine, but never fully comprehend. An antique store was like a ticket to a ride on a time machine; by touching the things that graced the parlors of yesteryear, I was able to taste the essence of what once was.
I loved those crowded rooms, brimming with chipped teacups and silver cigarette cases; with gilded birdcages and parasols. I would stare at each object, trying to imagine it sitting somewhere, long ago. I would trace the surface with my fingertips; I would smell the fabric; I would try to use every sense available to glean a more pragmatic picture. History teaches us, and I have always been eager to learn.
I loved the romance of the Victorian era. I would encounter a blushing pink fringed lampshade, and I would imagine it casting a light over a young girl’s bed. I would stumble on a red velvet Fainting Couch, and I could imagine a young lady swooning; whining weakly for her can of snuff. I would see a tiny fabric pair of shoes; and I would try and fathom the foot which could fit in such diminutive encasements. I would stumble upon an ornate Armoire which held the sepia toned secrets of a family history; I would stare at the portraits, trying to discern the emotions and personality. A stain on a French chintz chair told a story. As did a faded bottle of Castor Oil. Their surroundings were far more elaborate and flamboyant than our modern times, but in other ways so much more simple; their cooking recipes had no more than three ingredients; and in every way, they had less choices.
These tattered objects seemed to hold the footprint and memories of the families that owned them. Like holding a conch shell to your ear and hearing the ocean, when I touched a wooden child’s toy, I could hear the reminiscences of days gone by.
The antiquated Christmas decorations would hold my attention the longest. I would embrace a vintage glass ornament of an angel, and would gasp at the old fashioned lead tinsel still caught in its hook. I would stare at an archaic ceramic Santa, perhaps with only one eye, and I would imagine it on someone’s mantle. I could hear the Victrola playing Christmas music; I could hear the laughter, and imagine the mugs of wassail. I could smell the pungent smell of Christmas pudding wafting from the beaten rafters. And this old Santa Claus with only one eye observed it all. And now it would give me a portal to see it too.
As a child I loved antique stores. It was a visit to a time before MY time. And suddenly, this past Saturday afternoon, that entire concept shifted, as if overnight.
This past weekend, I explored several antique stores. And I certainly encountered all of those objects of yore; of a time I’ve only read about in History Books. But things had changed. I encountered a John F. Kennedy commemorative plate. An antique Star Trek toy in a yellowed box. An Elvis Presley liquor bottle. An “I Love Lucy” lunch box. Advertisements touting the health benefit of smoking cigarettes. Something was different.
I encountered a row of milk bottles, and remembered when they were delivered to our front door, ice cold with the cream on top. I encountered a troll doll, and thought back to my collection; dozens of flesh colored plastic gnomes, with a shock of blue, yellow or purple hair, which I would tie into hairstyles. I came across an old phone, and I remarked to my boyfriend, “this is exactly like the phone we used to have.” Suddenly, an older woman approached me; she overheard my comment and was intrigued.
“Pick it up!” she said, enthusiastically. “Remember how HEAVY phones used to be?”
She directed this comment to me. This old woman was asking me to remember; and it was apparent that she thought me old enough to have such a memory. An old woman was asking me to reminisce with her, about the “old days.” And as I stood there stunned, trying to grasp this remark--because, after all, I’m really still a girl-- a strange realization enveloped me. I DID remember. I remembered the antiques that surrounded me. The store was no longer a place that housed things before my time; it now housed things IN my time.
My boyfriend pointed out an ancient meat grinder, remarking that he had one identical to this when he was a little boy. I said, “do you remember the old COFFEE grinders? I still remember the one we had. It was a little wooden box, and you poured the coffee in at the top, and after you ground it, it came out in a little drawer.” Even talking about it out loud seemed foreign, because the object in question SOUNDED like an antique. And moments later, when we rounded the corner and I saw three of those exact coffee grinders on a high shelf, I felt almost blindsided.
I turned to my boyfriend, and said, “We’ve become antiques.”
I wasn’t amused.
The shift happened so slowly, that it was almost imperceptible. I spent an inordinate amount of time being a young girl, standing at the doorway to the rest of my life; all of it ahead of me; my dreams still possible. Then, on my 50th birthday, blowing out those many candles, I realized that I was middle-aged.
The term “middle aged” gets twisted up on my tongue, as if I had just tasted a teaspoon of poison. I think to myself, it can’t possibly apply to ME. I certainly do not feel any of the things that middle-age seems to imply. But in actuality, the term is more than fair; in fact, judging by the average life span, I was middle-aged a decade ago.
The image of being middle-aged doesn’t conjure up a withered rose to me. I am not completely in denial; I am definitely past the crisp tight bud of a flower I once was. But I still envision I am a fully blossomed rose; utterly bursting, and still vibrant; with perhaps a few yellowed petals near the stem. I cannot think of myself as still blooming; but a bloom nevertheless, fully opened, begging for the last vestiges of summer. I know those roses, and how big and lush they appear, covering my bushes. But I also know how the flower appears shortly thereafter. I am writing this on the last day of summer, and my roses look brown and crispy, like bits of brown paper bags that were caught up by a breeze and got stuck in the branches.
When I was a child, I wrote a poem entitled “Mortality Mocks Me.” In some conscious way, I always knew that time was the great destroyer. It devoured youth, despoiled beauty, depleted vigor and diminished health. Eventually it would emerge as the Grim Reaper, swinging its scythe, cutting down dreams like thick underbrush. Then ultimately, it would snuff out your very existence. To me, understanding time is to appreciate that everything will eventually disappear; and while the first half of life is ripe with hellos, they lessen, and later life becomes more and more a long series of good-byes.
I have never believed in regret, as I truly believe we make the best decisions we can with what we know at the time. But looking over a half century of choices, I can see each wrong took I turn with glaring accuracy. If only I had known then, that with every selection one makes, that we begin to write a resume’ of our life; a history that we can never change; and the longer that resume’ grows, the more difficult it becomes to change courses, I might have done everything differently. We are given this one life, but ironically are not handed the tools to live it well until it is nearly over.
Youth is filled with embarrassment, ego, selfishness, and a preoccupation of self that is agonizing. And once you become middle-aged, you don’t care what others think; you are primarily interested in what you think. You are freed from naïveté; from self-image; from society’s expectations. It is the time you can truly create; it is the time when you can make a difference; it is the time you might be able to shift this world for the better.
At this crossroads in my life, my existence has suddenly taken on a poignancy and urgency that I have never known before. Now that I have walked to the summit of the mountain, and I can peer down the other side and see an end, it has never been clearer that the choices I make today have never been more important. I am 50 years old, I am unemployed, and I am at a threshold of something else.
In a sense, death is a safety net. One day it will catch all of our wishes and turn them magically into unwishes. It will pity our poor flesh and will free us from this churning torture; from this excruciating gift. So there is nothing more important, there is nothing we have to do with more urgency, then simply to live. To smell fermenting strawberries. To allow another to see love in your eyes. To cry instead of hide. To indentify beauty. To hold hands with the crazy person. To acknowledge the moon. To sing and paint and laugh. I can not alter my past, but I can have an effect on my future, and I want something better. I have spent too many years doing what I thought I was supposed to do, and finding it miserable. It is time to follow my passions. I am no longer your slave. But most important, it is time to embrace what none of us can change; that ageing is inevitable, and so is our final waltz.
When I left the store, I remembered why I so appreciated those antiques in the first place. Because the longer you live, and the more history you have knowledge of, the wider the world seems, the more sense it all makes. I am proud to remember history; the way my parents and grandparents used to remember. Because they knew how things had changed, they could now anticipate how things will change again. And now I’ve been given that gift.
We purchased a bright red Fedora from the antique store. It is in fine shape, and is as stylish today as it must have been once, perched on the head of a fancy gentleman. I smell the brim and try to imagine the heads that have worn it. The inside is white silk, imprinted with a picture of a top hat, white gloves and a cane--an image of an elegant time; when Dickens roamed the world and wrote about mistletoe and pudding. When I put the fedora on my head, I remembered that I, too, am in fine shape, and I’m as stylish as ever. And this Christmas, I’m going to decorate this red hat with green holly leaves, and it’s going to remind me how ripe my life is today. It is going to be a symbol that represents my acceptance of what I can not change, and my renewed vigor to change what I can.
I am ripe with possibilities. And we all know that it is only through experience, and the process of ripening--which in some cases is great suffering-- that growth takes place. Time brings seed to fruition and ripening. And as King Lear declared in Shakespeare’s play of the same title, "Ripeness Is All."