My mother had a stroke in 2005 and I moved her in with me. I was then tasked with cleaning out her house, which had been continuously occupied by my family since its construction by my great-grandmother in 1908. Everything that went into the house in 1908 came from the farm we’d owned for 70 years prior to that. Nothing had been thrown away. The house was filled with treasures: art and folk art made by family members, quilts and needlework, antique furniture, dishes, and tools. There was also a large library begun by my great-great-grandfather and added to over the generations. The most unusual items were the folk art created by my great-grandmother: a hair wreath in a seashell and pine cone decorated frame, a feather wreath in a seashell decorated frame, a “memory jug” covered with buttons and tiny bisque dolls, and picture frames and shelves decorated with leather shaped into fruit and flowers. The oldest things in the house were a set of 4 straight wooden chairs, an ogee mirror, and a clock labeled by my grandmother as having been moved by oxcart from the Mohawk Valley to this area in 1829.
My mother collected art from fellow artists. She also collected coins, stamps, postcards, sheet music, and rocks. My parents came of age during the Great Depression, which explains their penchant for saving everything. My mother would quote a saying from that time: “Use it up, wear it out. Make it do and do without.” I, on the other hand, grew up resenting much of the stuff in the house because it took up so much room, and I am now the opposite of a packrat.
As I sorted through everything, I saved bits and pieces of stuff which would normally have been thrown away: pieces of wood and metal, scraps of wallpaper and linoleum, old spectacles, broken toys, ephemera, and costume jewelry, etc. From all this flotsam and jetsam, I created a series of collages and assemblages called “My Family Home.” Everything in the series came from the house, including the picture frames for the collages and the wooden fruit crates for the assemblages. I had never done assemblage before, so working in 3-D was a new challenge for me. The assemblages had specific themes relating to our lives. One was about our childhoods, which contained old toys. Another one was dedicated to items belonging to my late sister. “Our Foremothers” and “Our Forefathers” are homages to our ancestors. Creating this series helped me process the ordeal of the cleanout and having to part with the house after so many years.
I did selectively keep some things from the house, including the beautiful mahogany parlor furniture my great-grandfather had purchased in 1851, my mother’s collections of stamps, coins, and postcards, hundreds of old family photos, and thousands of letters dating to the 1830s. I kept a pipe my great-grandfather had carved from a laurel root during his service in the Civil War. I also kept the art books and favorite books my mother had read to me, books she had had as a child. My favorite possession is my great-grandmother’s piano, which every female member had played since 1895.
After my mother passed away, I sold more antiques, art, and folk art. Having grown up with such a rich heritage, it helped form the person and artist that I am. I decided to sell these items because I had internalized their value and no longer felt the need to possess them any longer. Parting with the treasures was liberating, as I no longer had to make room for them or take care of them. They are, after all, only inanimate objects and are a poor substitute for the loss of my entire family.
~Jane Evelynne Higgins
Here we highlight featured stories from the archive, contributions by fellow writers and artists, as well as reflections and comments on the value and impact of discarded objects in our world.