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“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner
When I was a kid, my brothers and I spent a couple weeks at my grandparent’s house in northern Minnesota. We spent most of our time out on the lake or catching frogs in the high grass along the dirt road. But rain meant indoor time and confinement to the unfinished basement where stored boxes of what seemed like ancient relics were ours to explore. We rooted around trunks of old wooden and tin toys and handmade dolls and stomped around in clothes that smelled of faded cedar and were heavy with dust and nostalgia. To us kids, it was a way to pass the day, but looking back, it was our family’s past. It was our story.
I think about those days in my grandparents’ basement as I watch one of the few shows that I look forward to each week: “Antiques Roadshow.” It’s a refreshing break from the hysteria of politics and a peek into the history of families all across America. If you haven’t seen or heard about it, the series airs on PBS and features local people who bring their antique treasures to appraisers who specialize in different fields such as sports memorabilia, fine art, arts and crafts, music and instruments, weapons, toys, just about anything. Before an estimated monetary value is placed, the provenance and history of each item is discussed. Every week is a new surprise at what people manage to find in the attics and basements and dumpsters of America.
The show travels across the country to small and medium-sized cities to cover a wide swath of America. Billings, Montana; Chattanooga Tennessee; Newport, Rhode Island; Green Bay, Wisconsin; and Bismarck, North Dakota are few notable stops. It features everyday people hauling in anything from mid-century, clear acrylic chairs someone found in an alley to an heirloom pocket watch brought over on an immigrant’s journey from Europe. There’s usually a porcelain doll or two (which I always find a bit creepy), baseball cards scarred with the tiniest, miniscule crease or bent corner as its fatal flaw, dropping estimated values by the thousands of dollars. I always fall for the old adage “One man’s junk is another man’s treasure” when a hideous piece of pottery or an unfamiliar artist’s work bought at a rummage sale for a crumpled $20 is worth more than a year’s mortgage payment. This is probably why I’d end up in the blooper reel thinking my latest garage sale trinket was made in the Old World, when it was really ‘Made in China.’
The draw is anticipating the ‘big find.’ Someone has a ceramic horse figurine from grandma that none of the other grandkids wanted, and it turns out to be worth a small fortune. The owner then proclaims he hopes his siblings are watching! But the real nourishing aspect is the stories and history lessons that fit hand-in-hand with each person. Many have family heirlooms and their owners recount the lore attached to the piece, passed down with the object. The appraisers do an excellent job and seem endlessly knowledgeable about the period of their expertise and bring an illumination that shines a new light for both the owner and the viewers. One episode featured portraits by John James Audubon. I had no idea the man who created “The Birds of America” did portraiture on the side as he was starting out. Apparently there wasn’t much money in bird paintings in the 1800s even though an original can top six figures now. A pendant passed down from a grandmother was revealed to be a brooch smuggled out from Germany in the 1930s. A last remaining treasure from a family devastated by the Holocaust. These artifacts are the stories of us – of America. They capture the essence of what we all carry with us from our past, and our parents’ past, and their parents’ past, whether we came to this country in the 1700s or the 2000s.
Antiques Roadshow is a reflection of America: a nation made up of distinct regions all with people having distinct characteristics, but managing to find a common humanity. I laugh at the North Dakotan who gives a quintessential Midwestern response upon hearing her heirloom quilt is worth close to $10,000: “Well, I’ll be darned…not bad.” And the regionalism shows through in the artifacts: a colonial desk in Boston, a Confederate rifle in Alabama, a Native American blanket in Arizona, and a set of lumber spikes from Oregon. The objects may not have much of a resale value or catch the eye of an auction house, but they are treasures nonetheless. They tell the stories of immigrants coming to the New World; of the heroism of a father or grandfather fighting in war; the delicate reminder of an age where possessions were handmade and meant to be passed down through the generations; memories of an eccentric relative who collected oddities from worldwide travels. They have no replacement value because they are irreplaceable. There is a tangible difference between the giddiness of someone who brings a bargain item from a flea market and the gentle earnestness in the voice of someone describing a relative who originally owned or passed down that particular possession. Sometimes there is a brimming pride, other times there is a mournful yearning that the item is the last connection to a loved one since parted. The stories about how people came to find a home in this country are as diverse as our bloodlines. But we all have a story and they’re worth saving, and sharing. It’s a way we can connect where the social chasm seems too wide to overcome. But we all feel love, despair, happiness and sorrow. It’s this story of a father whose cherished possession- a guitar his dead son left him – helps us remember there is more to our neighbors than their political identity.
When my husband and I moved into our first house shortly after we were married, my mom gave us a set of copper Norwegian bells to hang over our door. They are made of a simple hammered copper. The three cowbells hang delicately from the scrolled arm connecting them to a weathered, heart-shaped backing attached to the wall above the door. My great grandfather Olav came to America as a teenager, alone, not speaking English, and not knowing a soul. He settled in the plains of North Dakota and soon turned around to fight in France during WWI. But home was where the bells rang, in America. And it’s the same for me, three generations later. When my door opens, they ring out. The ornament hangs not above the more formal front door, but as my grandmother’s did from outside the kitchen to signal when family and close friends entered. It’s part of what makes my house a home and connects my own family with that of my grandparents. Hopefully when I have children or grandchildren of my own, I will pass the bells on to them. Because sometimes when we are so caught up in the pressing business of our present lives, it helps to have tangible objects to remind us where we came from. And remind us that when we feel so divided from each other along political and cultural lines, our histories intertwine and create the fabric that is America. Because if we lose sight of where we came from, it’s harder to see where we’re going.Published in