Material Culture & Daughters


You will die. You will not live forever. Nor will any man nor any thing. Nothing is immortal. But only to us is it given to know that we must die. And that is a great gift: the gift of selfhood. For we have only what we know we must lose, what we are willing to lose… That selfhood which is our torment, and our treasure, and our humanity, does not endure. It changes it is gone, a wave on the sea. Would you have the sea grow still and the tides cease, to save one wave, to save yourself?
—Ursula K. LeGuin

Disheveled and disgruntled as only an 11 year-old after a tedious school day can be, Abigail flopped into the raveling thrift-store chair opposite my desk. It’s everyone’s favorite chair; threadbare on the arms, an earthy green brocade with sea-blue weft threads, thick and heavy cushions worn to the shape of humanity with time. She stared over my shoulder out the window, opened to the unseasonably warm January afternoon.

I let her be, alone with her thoughts, keeping one eye on her as I quietly wrote. Her gaze shifted to the wall over one of the bookshelves lining my tiny office. A linen tapestry hangs there, embroidered with blue morning-glories. “Did you make that mom?”

I look at the piece of needlework, flashing briefly through dozen different walls in my homes on which it has hung. “No, I didn’t. I bought it at an estate sale decades ago.” I have reached the point in my life where I still feel young enough, but it’s possible for me to say a sentence like that and for it to be true. Decades ago… I have lived enough time now that decades ago seems close enough to touch.

“Why would someone sell that?” she asks, admiring what surely is familiar to her. It’s hung nearby her whole life. The fine linen square, once intended to cover a small table, is now covered in late-afternoon rainbows from the prisms hanging in the sunlit window.

“Hmmm.” I stop typing quietly and regard my daughter. Her hair is deep brown like her grandmother, but she has my wild cowlick on her hairline, splitting her bangs forever into disarray. Her eyes appear brown, until they are hit by sunlight, where they show their true deep green. I think the Punnett square precludes a brown-eyed daughter from two green-eyed parents I smile to myself. “I don’t know why anyone would get rid of something so pretty. And it’s not just that it’s pretty, it’s an example of material culture. By material culture, I don’t mean fabric—though it is fabric—I mean the things women make that denote their own histories.”

As I suspected this would, it piques her interest. She is so bright, and so interested in what is happening around her. She moves through the world in a bit of a cyclone, trailing bits of paper, glue, ink, rocks, sand—anything that has captured her imagination this week. We discuss women’s history, and how the gatekeepers of what we know as history have often been men, and women’s work is historically quieter, harder to find, but it’s there. And this is why I buy linens and samplers and recipe cards at estate sales. Some people don’t recognize this for what it is: women’s history, speaking just as clearly as the trumpeting of men, but quieter, and requiring eyes to see it.

She looks at me, her mind visibly rolling these stones over. “Is this why you write, mom?”

My heart flutters. “Yes. This is why I started writing, for certain. I was a young mom at home, not even pregnant with you yet, and I wanted a connection with my grandma. I missed her, and while I have things that belonged to her, I didn’t know what she thought, what she felt, when she was home with three little girls. So I started writing.”

“It’s kind of weird that there’s a record of every day of my life on Dandelion. I mean, I like it, but I don’t know anyone else who has something like that.” She is relaxed, staring out the window again.

I smile at her over the tray of pens and papers and candles on my cluttered desk. “Yeah, I guess maybe it could be weird. But it belongs to you, this story.”

“I like it. I like reading back over the stories of when we were little. I like the memories that are there. I like knowing dad is there, too.”

I nodded at her, resting my chin on my hand and closing my computer.

We talk quietly for a while about history—mine, hers, her great-granmother’s, and about my idly imagining someday, maybe someone, would find what I thought would be a humdrum life interesting. She laughed. She already knows that’s not exactly how things worked out.

“I’m hungry.” She peels herself from the great green chair and circles the desk to lean on me, her version of a hug, and kisses the top of my head. Our enormous dog trails behind her in hopes she will bless him with scraps of her snack as she heads downstairs.

It’s time to introduce her to Laurel, I think.

6 thoughts on “Material Culture & Daughters

  1. Seriously, how many almost-12-year-olds are ready for Laurel? I’m still trying to get Oliver to read any non-graphic novels. (Though I keep supporting graphic novels too… but it’s killing me that he has no love for words).

    • Neither Jeff nor Bean are big readers. I can get them to if I really insist, but there just isn’t a natural love there. I have to shrug, and be content with the fact that books were read to them, made abundantly available, and from here on out, it’s up to them. Abby, on the other hand… when she gets in trouble, I don’t ground her, I take her book. I love that she loves to read.

      And yeah, I think she might be ready for Laurel. But Abby hasn’t ever been a typical kid.

  2. Tracy, this is lovely. I come from a long line of women who have been curators of our family’s material culture. My china cupboard, my cedar chest, and my bookshelves contain objects treasured by my foremothers, some more than 150 years old. They are valued for their beauty or their monetary worth, but far more important are the stories they tell of the women who made them, chose them, and loved them.
    I read an article awhile back about Baby Boomers’ dilemma as they downsize and discover that their children have neither interest nor room for their books or formal wedding china. With your daughter, I wonder how such things can be sold out of a family. Don’t they realise that they are losing their history, selling their birthright for a mess of pottage? Sometimes things are just things, but sometimes they’re much, much more.

    • MLE, I read that same article. I have mixed feelings, mostly because my mom is a super-collector. While I would welcome a representative piece or two, I don’t want her entire collections. What I really do want and will preserve are the photographs, the cookbooks with notes in her own hand, the stained glass she made to help support us when I was little, the things that are *personal* and not mass-marketed goods. I hope I am not giving up something important in making that distinction. I wish to preserve my mother’s stories, as much as she will allow me. But I don’t need 300 Radko Christmas ornaments—even though I know she loves them!

      For what it’s worth, she and I have talked many times about this, and even laughed about it. She knows what matters.

  3. As we move from country to country, it is with purpose we collect the things that go into our home here in Utah. I don’t want a ton of things from each country – I want things with meaning, like the Japanese wedding dress hanging in our office, or the American flag that few over the Embassy in Zimbabwe…these are things that are dear to me.
    As for writing – recording history…that is why I write the weekly letters, publishing them into books. Alex has discovered them and pours over them, loving being able to read over her childhood. The boys have not discovered them yet, but my hope is in the future, as adults, they will love that their history, from birth, has been fully recorded, country after country, challenge after challenge, joy after joy.

Comments are closed.