Tuesday, July 13, 2010

My Own Toy Story

Moving time again. After six years in this place it feels like the right time. But how did the closets generate so much stuff on their own when I wasn't looking? Throwing out boxes of the detritus of everyday life feels liberating and brings to mind the free spirit of the Tang Dynasty zen monk Han Shan (Cold Mountain):

Thin grass does for a mattress.
The blue sky makes a good quilt.
Happy with a stone under head
Let heaven and earth go about their changes.
(trans. Gary Snyder)

Han Shan was a favorite figure of my Korean mom, whose big laugh was better than any zen monk's and whose rationalistic iconoclasm terrorized our best friend Harrie, the art historian/Catholic priest.  Like Han Shan, mom was big on the doctrine of non-attachment to material things.  Except that she collected things.  Antiques. Early American - especially toys and all manner of useful objects.

Like this antique tin goose. When you turn the key, it noisily lurches across the table in a most ungainly fashion. But there's the delicate design, just enough to hint at the wings and a kindly face. And there's the lovely blue color, the ample feet to support such a large body, and the rust that shows its age.  It's seen a lot and taken a lot of falls.

A lowly shoehorn with exquisite color graphics "Shinola -The Wonderful Shoe Polish" serving both as useful object and advertisement.

A real prize, the striking orange cast-iron car with sturdy black wheels that still go.

She left many tin boxes, this one is adorned in gorgeous color illustrations of Aesop's Fables.

Here's just a sample of wrought-iron objects, now modern art: a measuring device acting like a zen circle, a tiny screwdriver with curves to the max, an old pan-scrubber made of connected ringlets.

When mom died six years ago, I cherished these carefully chosen objects like sacred relics and displayed them and the paintings and furniture she left all over our Riverdale apartment, just north of Manhattan.  Both my husband and I loved to be surrounded by these things, so colorful and beautiful in themselves, but even more precious because they embodied my mom's spirit.

But now we want to be back in the middle of New York City, to feel its pulse and walk out to coffee, music, theater, art, film at a moment's notice.  And to be closer to our jobs, of course.  We found the perfect apartment in a financial district high-rise.  It's tiny, but with floor-to-ceiling windows and panoramic views of Manhattan and the rivers.  But all those windows means there's no space to hang or display my mom's antiques.  They must be packed and shipped up to our small rental upstate, where they will wait for us on weekends and maybe, if lucky, be taken out of their boxes and displayed or handled.

Six years ago I couldn't have done this. I couldn't let go of these objects just as I couldn't accept that my mom, my best friend, was gone. But time heals, and I gradually realized that she wasn't really gone.  All those years I spent with her she was teaching me how to discern the real from the fake, in people and things. What is art and what is uninspired craft. It's a way of seeing that I could never master, but I can hope to approach, and even in my hit-and-miss fashion enriches my life considerably. When I marvel at the beauty of ancient Japanese pottery or the fine curve of the most humble wooden antique cutting tool, I'm doing it because she instilled a perspective in me, one drawn to truth and beauty. If I paused long enough to think about it, I could also see her in my own big laugh - especially when it's triggered by the puncturing of the pompous and inauthentic. She's a part of me and my perspective.  And the objects themselves are no longer sacred.

It's okay. They can go in the box.

As Han Shan asked in a poem:  "Who can leap the world's ties and sit with me among the white clouds?"  Me, mom.  I'm ready.


  1. What a lovely post. Looking forward to reading more.

  2. I was fortunate to read Cold Mountain with Burton Watson at Columbia. He had a remarkable appreciation for the truth and simplicity of the text, and patient humor with our adolescent contortions as we tried to understand it. That was one of those things that I didn't get until way, way later.

    The lesson you draw from your mother, and into your life, feels very wise. This was beautifully said and simply written. Thanks.

  3. My mother passed away eight years ago and unfortunately, some of her possessions got taken to Goodwill without my knowledge. I was devastated. But as you said so well, it gets easier with time. I've held on to some things - nothing collectible, just personal. And I'm glad I have them, even if I don't look at them every day.

  4. Time does heal, and our parents teachings are with us forever. The objects they left us that carry their spirit are precious, but not as precious as what of them we carry within us. My dad walks with me every day; the meaning of his life and his example—his spoken and unspoken teaching—continue to grow within me.

    This is a beautiful post. I wish you, Mr H, and Darwin a bon voyage on your way to your new apartment.

  5. A lovely post. Jack Kerouac, also a Han Shan aficionado, once said, "If you own a rug, you own too much." I try to remember that.

  6. What a lovely post, what lovely objects your mother collected. It is a great gift that she has left you with. Thank you for sharing and for starting this blog!

  7. You should call up American pickers, they would buy all sorts of stuff like this :-)

  8. Your story hits home.
    When my mother died suddenly, I took half of her furniture and her collections. When my aunt, her sister, came to live with us, she brought many collections along with some furniture as well. I couldn't say no. They collected together. Now my aunt has passed away and I am trying to filter through many things of hers to decide what I will keep and what I will surrender. It's a tough task.
    I also am downsizing at the same time. So, some of my own things have to go. It's Herculean, but freeing at the same time. My dream is to be free of the burden of so many 'things' and be able to pursue my interests.
    Best wishes to you and your family in your new perfect abode. It sounds wonderful.

  9. Thank you for sharing your beautiful "toy story". After two years, the pain of losing my Dad is a little more bearable. Being an only child, I truly thought it would be impossible to live without him in this world. He collected bluegrass music, oil company toys, signage, gasoline station advertising gifts,and knowledge. The most meaningful to me "thing" of his is a pair of leather gloves, which he wore when shoveling snow (his and the neighbors). Which reminds me of one of Dad's Reno and Smiley recordings ..."If You Don't Love Your Neighbor Then You Don't Love God". I love that song. It is a part of me. It is some of who I am, because of Dad. Thinking of it is like being with Dad a little... So, Mom is also a collector of toys, and beautiful glass. We need to open a curiosity shop. Honestly, I don't even know what to do with all the things I have accumulated, but boxes are good, especially, if you collect dust,too, like I do, or if you are moving! Best wishes on your move, it sounds like a dream to me. I've tryed to respond to your post since earlier today... it took me back, but since it tenders a way of going forward with similar things, I am glad I saw it. Thanks once more for sharing.

  10. So beautiful. I'm so glad you have a blog now! After following your wonderful dialog on Twitter I am not surprised your insights and perspective.

    I love this: "All those years I spent with her she was teaching me how to discern the real from the fake, in people and things."

    Thank you!

  11. Hudsonette: When I marvel at the beauty of ancient Japanese pottery or the fine curve of the most humble wooden antique cutting tool, I'm doing it because she instilled a perspective in me, one drawn to truth and beauty.

    Or, as John Keats put it:

    'Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'

  12. Wow. Rip my heart out why don't you? Beautiful blog and very fitting for today. I know exactly how you feel - somehow mom's don't leave, they become a voice in your head urging you on, telling you to do your best and never give up...

  13. Those beautiful vintage toys should not be stock inside the box. You won't find a kind of toy design like this elsewhere.

    toy stores online