15 comments on Anchors
4 minutes

Do you have any possessions that connect you to times in your past?

My end tables and coffee table came from a used furniture store just after I graduated from college and got my first apartment. A matched set in the fussy Colonial Revival style, they were inexpensive when they were manufactured, which was probably during the 1940s. They were well used by the time I got them. They weren’t my style, but they cost just $50.

I figured that I’d replace them soon enough with nice, new furniture, but fortunes never allowed. Time and, eventually, two small children were not kind to the tables. I had not seen the tables for two years when I got them back after my divorce was final. The coffee table was so badly damaged that I threw it away. The end tables were missing some trim and the legs were a little chewed up. But they were serviceable and I was broke after buying my new house, so I put them in my family room.


Money isn’t so tight anymore. Recently I bought new end tables and a matching coffee table. I ordered them from and assembled them myself, so they’re not fine furniture. But they’re square and strong, which is much more my style. I was so pleased when they took their spots in the family room.

My older son walked in. “Oh,” he said, disappointed. “I had hoped those were going into the living room instead.”

I asked him why, puzzled.

“I like the old tables. They’ve been around all my life. I hate to see them go.”

I understood immediately. My mind turned to the old family TV I made my parents save for me.

In my room

A 1966 RCA black-and-white console television, partially pictured above, served my childhood until 1977 when Dad finally, finally sprung for our first color set. The old set moved to our basement rec room where it served for a few more years until the picture went out. Dad kept meaning to have it fixed, but the money wasn’t there. Eventually we had gone for so long without it that the family didn’t miss it anymore.

Except that I did, a little. Soon Mom started pestering Dad to dispose of it. I insisted they hang onto it, because when I moved out in a few years I’d take it with me and have it repaired. It would serve again!

The tables and that TV were anchors in our lives, my son’s and mine. The TV was not special in and of itself. But it was a tie to my family and the home my parents made for us, and to some of the feelings of my childhood. I wanted to cling to those feelings by clinging to this object. My son, apparently, felt the same way about those banged-up tables.

Mom and Dad did save the old TV, and I moved it to my first apartment. One of my electrical-engineering buddies from college came out to try to fix it. A nearby electronics store kept a selection of new-old-stock vacuum tubes and a tube-testing machine. The crusty old guys who worked there were very amused to see two 21-year-old kids with a box full of tubes we’d pulled from the TV. We replaced several bad tubes and improved the picture situation slightly – we got a thin line across the screen where there had previously been nothing. But in the end, we couldn’t restore it. My buddy traced the problem to some power inverter thingamabob, or something, that he explained would be impossible to replace. This was long before eBay; I’m sure that such a doodad is available there right now. But back then this diagnosis meant the end of this TV.

I used it as a table for a couple more years but finally, reluctantly, left it at the curb on heavy trash day. I was so sad when I came home from work that night to find it gone. It was as though I had let go of a big part of something good from my past. The memories were still there, but they were somehow less tangible from then on.

And so I empathize with my son, who apparently is enough like me that he laments the loss of one of his life anchors.

I tried to explain to him is that those tables anchor me to a bad time in my life, the time when his mother and I were falling apart. There were too many fights in the living room where we used these tables. Those sad memories overwhelm the good memory of bringing my bargain home and furnishing my little apartment with them. They served well but I’m glad they’re gone.

Things are just things, but it took me most of my life to learn that. Read that story.


15 responses to “Anchors”

  1. Dani Avatar

    In high school, Dad made a lamp that resembles an old-fashion water pump complete with a bucket. All made from wood; nothing fancy. Pump once to turn the light on, pump again to turn off the light. The lamp has followed me from my childhood bedroom, to college, to several apartments and now has a place in our bedroom. Who knows, it may follow me to assisted living some day.

    1. Jim Avatar

      The pump switch sounds very clever! But let’s not talk about assisted living just yet; we have miles and miles to go first. Or so I pray.

  2. Jennifer S Avatar

    Really interesting post. The way items anchor us to the past (great word choice) is fascinating to me. Last weekend, I participated in a series of recorded oral histories with elderly local women for a museum film. I asked each to bring some object that brought back memories… something they could show our photographer and talk about. One of these ladies brought an iron. An actual, IRON iron… the kind you’d put in the fireplace and pull out with a claw and hold with a rag. It weighed about 12-pounds. As a child, she’d helped her mother take in laundry. Part of me was mesmerized by the thought that an IRON was her anchor object… part of me was sad about her childhood… and part of me wanted to ask if she’d donate that iron to the museum. It was an amazing artifact from everyday life. Just watching her handle it will be a tremendous visual for our film.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I’ve seen those irons before. My grandmother used one as a doorstop for her bedroom door. Somehow the image of your interviewee bringing hers, holding it in her hands, makes that iron suddenly seem like not a curiosity, but the tool that it was. Suddenly, that iron is infused with meaning it would have lacked without that context!

      When I was a teenager the Snite Museum at Notre Dame hosted a traveling exhibition of photos from the 1950s from Life magazine. A 1950s Kodak camera from my collection was used in the exhibit; the Snite used artifacts from that time around all those photos to help tie the photos to their time. My memory has grown dim but I think I remember that one of the Life photos involved someone holding that model, or a similar model, of camera, which is why the museum wanted to use mine. At any rate, it was very cool to see my camera on display in a museum with a little tag, “On loan from the Jim Grey collection.” (I paid a few bucks for the camera at a yard sale.)

      1. Jennifer S Avatar

        That’s such a fantastic thing… to have your camera in a museum. And as a teenager. I didn’t realize your interest in cameras, photography and collecting went back that far.

        Can you help me with your opinion on something? The lady with her iron told really heart-wrenching stories about growing up black in the South. As you can well imagine. However, she also had nice things to say about the white people she knew. I’m about to start writing the script for this oral history, and I’m not sure how (or if) to introduce the idea that there was real affection between blacks and whites in this community where the relationships were based on a racist town structure explicitly designed to suppress the black community. Argh. Is there any PC way to say that the whites cared in “their own way”… or is it better left out of the story?

        Many thanks… you’re a great historian and I know you’ll have a useful thought on this.

        1. Jim Avatar

          I bought my first old camera when I was 9. I had more than 100 old cameras by the time I was 25. To make a long story short, when my wife and I split my cameras went bye-bye. I started collecting again about six years ago.

          Whether and how you bring up the nature of relationships between blacks and whites at that time, I think, depends upon the mission of your museum. It probably also depends on the current state of race relations in your part of the country, which I confess not to understand at all.

          But if you choose to proceed, I like the way you put it: “there was real affection between blacks and whites [within a] racist structure explicitly designed to suppress the black community.” I mean, human nature, good and bad, can come out in nearly any situation, whether free or oppressive, no? Are we not built to feel affection, compassion, and caring for the people around us, especially those we get to know over time, regardless of the nature of the relationship? I have only my personal yardstick to measure this by, but over time I come to feel a certain compassion and affection for the people who work for me. The well-defined and -accepted employer-employee relationship sometimes demands I behave in ways contrary to that affection — I’ve fired a couple people I felt that way about because they weren’t getting the job done and my coaching didn’t help them achieve success. I wonder if this is, in abstract, similar to the nature of black-white relationships in that place at that time. Affection was felt, but there was a reality that sometimes played out in ways that was inconsistent with that affection. Another thought about this is that we can dehumanize people in groups, but when faced with an individual from that dehumanized group suddenly we are faced with their humanity and our normal human tendencies take over. What do you think?

          1. Jennifer S Avatar

            I think you’ve hit right on the issue. There was an employer/employee relationship that was sometimes very positive and appreciated. And I think it would do a disservice to the community to paint this picture of a town that was racially divided without making clear that it wasn’t all that bad considering its time and place in history. Some things were tough… but I’d prefer not to fall into stereotypical depictions of white/black relations… everyone knows “The Help” already. However… I feel it’s going to be so, so tricky to write about how white employers had good feelings for black employees (and vice versa) without sounding patronizing. Because the fact remains these women probably would have gone on to college and become highly-paid professionals if that avenue had been open to them. Argh, again. Thank you for your thoughts… you’re helping clarify this for me. Please reply again if anything else occurs to you. Many thanks!

  3. zorgor Avatar

    Yeah man… (that’s the sound of the memory lane you’ve launched me down)

    I’m sure there are several things, I’m trying to think of how much furniture I have in my house that I grew up with and my parents gave me when I moved out. I feel like there are more than I can think of right now. I need to take a walk around the house!

    But I think their whole house does this for me, the house I grew up in. Just the other day I was looking at some odd, custom cabinets and shelves that are original to the house. To me these have just always been there. Only the other day did I look at them and realize how strange they are. One side of them is a coat closet. Short, deep shelves and cabinets on the other side. I’ve always thought they were just shelves on the walls, but now I think they’re a custom “unit” that actually take up part of the room, floor to ceiling. That room is actually quite a bit bigger than I always thought in other words…

    1. Jim Avatar

      My parents’ house is the same for me. They will be selling it this year and moving to Indy for their retirement. That’s going to be hard — not being anchored to South Bend, my home town, via that house, anymore.

  4. ryoko861 Avatar

    “Do you have any possessions that connect you to times in your past?”
    Pfft, please………
    I STILL have my dresser from when I was little. This was also the same dresser my brother had as did my nephew. The matching crib is at my dads. Several smaller dressers are still in use that were my hubands. They’ve since been painted and detailed with stenciling. They are an indispensable! They house a plethora of other possessions we can’t part with.

    It’s scary the amount of stuff we have. We’re not hoarders, just very sentimental. We do part with things occasionally.

    Those end tables above are very cool! And very trendy now!

    1. Jim Avatar

      I had my dresser from when I was little until my boys were five or six. Actually, it’s pictured above, on the left in the shot with my old TV. My boys used it and later we replaced it with some oak dressers for them.

  5. kiwiskan Avatar

    I had an old coffee table that my Mum had always kept pot plants on, and an old china cabinet that used to belong to my mother-in-law. Unfortunately we had a serious house fire and most of our treasured old things were lost. However we did manage to salvage an old mantle clock that had been my grandparents. We took it to a clockmaker to have it cleaned and restored. You can still see scorch marks on the case but that’s just part of its history.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Nothing like a house fire to put an end to treasured things. I’m sorry you had to go through that.

  6. Bernie Kasper Avatar

    Are you kidding Jim…I still live in the same house and have all the things my parents owned when they were alive still in my garage. The same crappy shag carpet and paneling still grace a couple rooms I actually can’t escape it lol !!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Time to remodel!!

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