First, a story.
I have three younger sisters, and when we each turned 16, my mother insisted we needed a trunk. Not a furniture-store-end-of-the-bed blanket chest, but something old and solid with a journey and a history of its own. In part inspired by the massive steamer trunks passed on to her -- all peeling labels and zig-zagging trips across the Atlantic -- I think she was looking to fortify our domestic stamina, readying us for adulthood, giving us a literal space to store all the handmade things that kept arriving in America from Sweden.
She left her country at 19. If we needed to flee ours, we'd have a receptacle to hold the tangible elements of a life even if none of our trunks have functional locks. None are airtight either. Emotion and memory seep through their cracks. The idea of them forever protecting the items within is just that, an idea.
One sister's trunk belonged to a carpenter; inside are blocked mounts for saw blades and oblong knobs to lock the tools in place. Another's hinges have been replaced and repositioned, leaving shadowy chiseled marks and drill holes from the original hardware. They are utilitarian and square, mended, dented, abused, refinished. My sisters landed trunks with flat tops, able to pull coffee table duty -- despite the hammered-all-to-hell corners and fumigated European worm holes -- able to hold several households-worth of linens each, able to shelter an adult and child if the boogeyman came 'round searching.
Mine is a dome top captain's trunk. When my children were 2 and 4 and messing with the high arched lid, I asked each of them to hold their pointer finger next to a pencil: See? Your bones are the same size. Now everyone stand over there and watch this lid. I let it fall and guillotined that pencil and no one has gone near it since, despite the lure of the little rubber giraffe they know is inside, my impossible little red baby shoes, the doll with the eyelashes that click shut when she's tipped, the three compelling sets of mortarboards and tassels and gowns. Think treasure chest, all wooden slats and strapping and iron end caps, think leather handles, think rivets and black Japanning. It is heavy when empty, a behemoth when full, and serves only one purpose -- to be The Trunk, sitting trunk-like in its trunkiness in every home I've ever had. Actually, I take that back. The cat claw skids on the lid remind me that it served as a launch to reach a narrow 11th story window sill in one teeny Canadian apartment 2 decades ago.
When I was pregnant with my first child here in Alaska, after buttoning my belly into overalls to help scrape acoustic popcorn off our then-house's ceiling, repainting walls and trim and re-surfacing and thinning, I announced The Plan to Empty The Trunk and Jettison Everything. Everything. My husband, God love him, abandoned paint rollers and scrapers to sit with me in the small green-walled baby's room while I piled stacks of linens, doilies, photographs, random silverware and dishes all around my cross-legged self. For as much as he'd grumbled for 13 years of marriage about The Trunk and everything in The Trunk and having to move The Trunk and the fact that there was nowhere The Trunk could ever go and how now The Trunk had dented/scraped/bruised the floor/him, he laid down the rules about the growing discard pile: if a name or date was attached to an item, I couldn't get rid of it. Also, if something in The Trunk was connected to the woman/girl I'd been before marrying him, it stayed. If it was connected to a woman in Sweden, it stayed. If I wasn't sure and probably should phone my mother, it stayed. Those were the rules.
With a thin bag of unidentifiables set aside for the thrift store, I refilled and slid The Trunk back into place. Done. Whatever. Now let's figure out how this baby crib goes together. But lodged in me since then has been the niggling idea of provenance and worth. Somehow a name and a date could lend an object value. Initials on a tea towel or scribbled notes on a doily's plastic bag or a hand-written label on the bottom of a painted cup were the small history of a hand. These gestures, like a painting's signature, lent worth and identified the maker, named the dead, honored the thing and the time it took to make it, whether or not it was useful, needed or wanted.
This last Christmas, 15 of us gathered at my parents' home -- sisters, significant others, cousins and grandmas from extended families. Throw into the mix a couple of road-weary felines, a rescued Mexican lap dog, a grandpa-built go-cart featuring a 1970's lawn mower motor and orange helmet from the same era, several hundred cookies, ditto colored pencils, ditto Legos, dear friends and a brand new adopted baby. All hail luscious chaos, and in the middle of it all my youngest sister -- with a ripping head cold -- was tasked to sort her trunk, still in her childhood bedroom. She really doesn't have room for thing in her current life, certainly doesn't have room for the miscellanea pitched into it over the decades, and while she may not have felt the pull, she definitely felt my mother's gentle, but persistent push.
So I sat with her.
If there was something she was willing to send down the road in a flash, I stacked it in the going-home-with-me pile. Was I a vulture? A rescuer? A judge? I'm still conflicted about my role or if I should have even been in that room at all, but I do know I recognized her exasperation: I've dragged my own trunk from country to country, crammed it into apartments/truck beds/spare rooms/closets, all pissed off or mildly embarrassed by its unusable contents. But my connection to these items strengthens as the original makers age and now my children age. As I age. Deep in the second- and now third-generation-children-of-an-immigrant milieu, there are mysteries about the women we are connected to, but are vastly separate from. Women who have difficulty even stiffly embracing a child, but who will use those square hands to make and make and make for them, then ship via airmail and sit wondering when the thank you cards will come.
So I followed the rules: names and dates meant things couldn't get pitched, and if my sister didn't want them, I would take them. Some of it I will use for my work, but a large portion is now in The Trunk here in Alaska for when she has children of her own. In 5 or 10 or 15 years, I will send these linens back to her. Worth growing up with and passing on, someday she will receive a Box of Mystery from me.
Now, the Boxes of Mystery from elsewhere.
Before Christmas, several shipments of textiles came my way. All traveled so very far. Some are beautiful in their crispness, others beautiful in their decay.
Thank you, Mo Orkiszewski in New South Wales, Australia. I've used a sheer organdy panel like this once before and have been on the lookout for another ever since:
Also sent from New South Wales:
Thank you, Adrienne van Spanje, for the battered and wounded doilies and linens. She wrote, “We don't know where they have come from - just part of many donations we receive. Clearly some are very old and well used. I hope that they can be of use to you with this wonderful project -- or perhaps the next project.”
I'm happy to say that I've used several already -- as batting -- before I could even get this post written:
From Arlington, Virginia, USA:
Thank you Tina Thuermer. If anyone has thoughts as to where the embroidered structure may hail from, I'd be delighted to hear. It looks liturgical and what appears in the photo as black embroidery is actually tarnished metal thread. So compelling.
And the last clutch of doilies was slipped into my hands at a recent birthday party:
Thank you Jeanna Duryee, friend who I've known for many years, who can enter the Alaskan woods and emerge with a medicinal arsenal of plants. One of a small number women I've met in my life who resonate magic and earth wisdom.
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If you, too, would like to contribute the wounded, unwanted or useless handmade items you've stumbled across, inherited and/or just can't bear to throw away, consider sending them to Alaska. They will eventually become something else, maybe a part of something bigger, even if that something is a larger narrative or deeper understanding. Please know I'm working on it and contact me here for further information. Check out the other Boxes of Mystery posts if you are new to this blog and are left wondering what in the hell is going on up there in Alaska.
For more information about why I feel compelled to do what I do, you can check out this recent interview with Jen Funk Weber. Good to have it in writing because there are moments when I wonder what I'm driving at, and lot of it is laid out in that post. The rest I'm still circling around.
Artist in Anchorage, Alaska, sometimes blogging about the collision of history, family & art, with the understanding that none exists without the other.