By Jane Carol Redmont
I have been thinking recently of all the things I’ve lost.
Eighteen months ago there was the turquoise and fuchsia chiffon scarf, a gift from my mother, which blew off my neck at a professional conference in San Diego as I was on my way to lunch and whose absence I did not notice till a minute or two later. My companion and I retraced our steps near the waterfront, queried the local shops and stands, searched the ground. Nothing. I went to two lost and found booths, at the conference center and in the immediate neighborhood. A day later, I had to leave town. Back home on the East Coast, I kept thinking of tracking down the scarf. I still miss it.
A few years ago there was the Russian shawl, black with bright flowers in tones of pink and red, made of light wool fabric, breezy enough for spring but warm enough for winter and fall, a vast and beautiful square that dressed up slacks, my winter coat, and the proverbial little black dress—the accessory to end all accessories. I wrapped it over my shoulders, safely draped or casually knotted. Only a few times did I wear it slung over one shoulder, and the last time I did, I lost it, walking in a park in Brussels in animated conversation with an old family friend. Suddenly I noticed it was gone, surprised I no longer felt its weight. We retraced our steps, forty minutes’ worth, through the park which was acres wide and full of trees and benches and lawns. We never found the shawl. Someone had taken possession of it, no doubt. I want my shawl back. Not an approximate replacement, not one of the shawls I have seen in slightly different colors and smaller sizes and not quite the same flower pattern, readily available in Russian goods stores on the internet. I want the one I lost, the one my parents gave me, the one they bought 30 years ago, in the Brezhnev era, during their three years in what was then the USSR.
Further back, in college, there were the stolen rings. In my senior year it was the emerald ring, my birthstone –perhaps synthetic, perhaps real, I never quite knew or cared. It was a gift from my paternal grandmother, who emigrated to the U.S. in her teens and was not a woman of means; presents were part of our relationship, but small ones, never lavish. This was an exception. The ring disappeared from my dormitory room along with a few other pieces of jewelry. In the first semester of my freshman year (we still called women freshmen then) the stolen ring was carved obsidian in a silver setting, a hand-me-down from my mother, who had gotten it the year she and my father were married in Mexico. It was a stylized face with a chipped nose, impossible to replicate and easy to identify. After several long visits with a new boyfriend in another dorm, I saw the ring on the hand of a classmate who lived in that building. I asked for it; she lied and said it was a gift from her brother. I was, at seventeen, scared and barely in college for six weeks, afraid to contradict her. I still have fantasies of tracking her down –it would be easy enough, through the alumni association– and writing in a note: “All is forgiven, but give up the ring. Let my mother see it on me while she is still alive.”
And then there were the books. In their move back to the United States after nearly three decades in France, my parents had to leave some of my childhood books behind. I was an adult already, not living with the books, but secure in knowing I could visit them, like old friends. My parents did ship paperback editions of French and English and American classics — the books of my adolescence— and the hardbound literature anthologies from my French public school curriculum. They also kept the large illustrated books of fairy tales. But the other books of my childhood had to stay behind: my copy of The Three Musketeers, the French-language children’s biographies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Marguerite Plantin, daughter of the Renaissance-era printer Christophe Plantin, and especially, especially, a book that belonged to my brother before it found its way to me, a history of Paris for children, a book I long to read again and whose stories I loved.
It is through this book of history and legends that I learned about the Parisii, the tribe that gave Paris its name. Under the Roman conquest of Gaul, after 52 B.C.E., the city became Lutetia, but the Parisii came first and it is their name that endures. The book was also chock-full of tales of the saints, two of which I still remember: Denis, martyred on what became known as Mons Martyrium (later abridged to Montmartre) and carrying his head in his hands all the way to what is now the town of St. Denis, and Geneviève, the 5th century shepherd girl who prayed away the Huns. I cannot hope to track down my own copy of the book but in these days of the World Wide Web, it is possible to find a book that has long been out of print. Every so often I search for the title on the Web, and last week I found it. Someday I will order a copy for myself, but for now I am just happy the copies exist and moved to have seen the cover again, with its red color and its picture of the boat that is the symbol of the city of my birth.
This spring I lost one of my favorite rings, the only one I have worn with any consistency in the last half dozen years, a plain silver flat coil made by a Navajo artist. A couple of months ago, I put it on in the morning and it slipped off my finger somehow before I left for work. Unless I dropped it down a drain while washing my hands, it is somewhere in the house, but I do not know where. I even tore open a vacuum cleaner bag three weeks ago in hopes of finding it. No ring. Perhaps the cat has used it as a soccer ball and it is beneath the couch in the place I cannot reach. Yes, I am talking to St. Anthony about this one. It should have been easy to locate.
I am embarrassed and irritated at the regret and longing I feel for these things. I ask myself why I hang on to their memory, why their absence hurts. They are, after all, only things.
My first layer of answers has been a combination of two responses. In the first, I chide myself for being a materialist, unable to let go of possessions. In the second, less judgmental, I remember one of Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths, that desire is the root of suffering: attachment to things is part of that desire.
Only recently have I started to layer onto the first two responses a different set of reflections.
The scarves and rings helped me to feel beautiful. The books told me stories. The silver coil was a consolation, a gift I had bought myself in New Mexico before a week of workshop facilitation, in the summer following a painful break-up. I was attached to these objects for their beauty and for what they added to my life.
But nearly every one of those lost things, besides being beautiful, had been a gift from a person I loved, usually a family member. The thing spoke to me of that person, of our relationship, and of the place from which it came, a place with significance in my family history. As a family, we are emotionally close but geographically spread out. Because of professional occupations and life partnerships across cultures, we are at home in several places, comfortable in more than one country. With this diasporic reality also comes longing: to be at home in more than one place is also to miss the place where one is not and the people who live there. The things I lost felt like extensions of my body or of the bodies of my loved ones, arms around me, protections, talismans.
In the preoccupation with objects, there is also loss and anticipatory loss. My parents are nearing the end of their life. My brother, who is one of my closest friends, lives an ocean and a continent away. My grandmother died three decades ago. Is it easier to focus on the loss of objects than on the loss of relationship that comes with distance and death? Probably so.
There is more. Almost all of these items of clothing or jewelry were lost or stolen or flew off my neck in places and times of instability or transition. At college, four thousand miles from my home, when I was first settling into a strange country, and later, in the “what next?” phase of my senior year. At an academic conference where my colleague and I were interviewing sixteen candidates for the third position in our small religious studies department, vacant after a difficult institutional struggle. In a public garden in Brussels, as an old friend of my parents’ and I walked and talked and argued about the rights of immigrant Muslim women to wear headscarves and what the headscarves signified in modern Belgian society, after passing some women wearing hijab.
Transitions and migrations are everywhere among us. I knew and saw this before my visit to the stunning “Migrations” exhibit by Sebastião Salgado and its related children’s photos a few years ago, but Salgado’s photographs crystallized this for me. As the number of migrants and refugees increases around the world, I look at their pictures and remember my forebears who came to the U.S. as immigrants, some in the 19th century, others in the early 20th like the paternal grandmother who gave me the emerald ring. Most of all I notice the faces, but I note also what people wear and take with them. I wonder what I would take if I had to leave my home in a hurry, not for college or work but in the duress of emigration or the trauma of war.
This preoccupation may come from belonging to a people –most of my ancestors were Jews— who often had to run: inquisitions, exile, pogroms, trains to the camps, emigration to a safer and more promising land. But in the U.S. especially, all of us have displacement in our bones and disruption in our histories: descendants of immigrants from Europe and Asia, internally displaced Native peoples, enslaved Africans stripped, literally, of every object and piece of clothing. For those who were able to migrate and take a few things, there was always the question: What is portable? What do we choose? Most of us, whatever our origins, end up with both the useful and the beautiful, a mix of survival and sentiment. I have seen pictures of immigrants at Ellis Island carrying not just suitcases but large baskets, jars, blankets, spectacular hats. A family of Hungarians, preparing to enter the new land, looks out from a picture, the children dressed in their cleanest and best. More than a century later and on another soil, a refugee family in Burundi stands together in beauty, clothed in shimmering colors.
I probably have thought about objects and transitions more than before during this year because of an attempted break-in at my new residence during Thanksgiving week and a precipitous move just before Labor Day after a tree destroyed part of my house. Mercifully, once the disaster recovery team cleaned the rubble, little of what was inside had been damaged or broken, with the exception of my grandparents’ bed, one of the few heirlooms I owned. Now, at the end of a strenuous academic year, I think of summer travel and begin composing in my head the notes to the house-sitter: how and when to feed the cat; what to guard from intruders and weather; what to grab first and save (after the cat) if there is a fire.
Given the choice, I would grab –after the passport and the cat—the picture in the slightly battered frame on the wall of my study. Given to my mother by her mother’s cousin William, born in the German Rhineland, it is a lithograph by a printer in Alsace, on the other side of the Rhine in France. It was, William wrote on the back, a “prayer director,” an aid to prayer, with words in Hebrew and images of biblical scenes—a rarity in a tradition with a prohibition against graven images—created sometime in the first half of the 19th century. On the back is a translated list of biblical sayings and an identification of the images, numbered and written in neat block letters in Cousin Willie’s hand.
“And I shall dwell in the midst of the people Israel,” the list reads. “The Ten Commandments.” “Know before whom you are standing.” “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, etc.” (Yes, he wrote “etc.”) “From the rising of the sun to the setting thereof, the name of the Lord is praised.” The images, in tones of blue and brown, are the Tablets of the Law, Moses striking the rock, the binding of Isaac, the blessings of Jacob, and the wise judgment of Solomon.
William came to the U.S. in the 1920s, much later than the rest of my mother’s maternal family, who had arrived during the second half of the 19th century. The lithograph left Germany not with him but with his sister Mathilde, who left in the late 1930s, not a moment too soon.
The wall hanging, William wrote on the back, was given to his grandfather, who served as a civilian provisioner to an army post during the Franco-Prussian war, “for his good deeds.” William does not say who gave the lithograph to my great-great-grandfather, but it was probably a gift from his congregation: William’s inscription notes that prior to the gift, the “prayer director” hung on the East wall of the synagogue in the family’s small town in the Baden region.
In the mid-1960s, toward the end of his life, Cousin Willie gave the lithograph to my mother. After the translations and descriptions on the back of the frame, he noted that the “prayer director” had hung on the East wall of its recipient’s home and later on the East wall of the home of his son, William’s father, in the city of Speyer. William then wrote, “Brought to Los Angeles, Calif. in 1938 by my sister Thilde” and added, on the next line, “To perpetuate,” and signed his full legal name.
Judaism and Christianity, the religions of my ancestors and of my choosing, are steeped in memory and materiality as well as in the freedom of hope. Memory teaches. It teaches through things, through the stories we tell about them, and through the stories they tell us. It walks us into the future.
Let not our things own us: ultimately they, and we, belong to God. Still, our things are bound up with our histories and our flesh. This too can be holy: To stop and think about how we live with our things and our memories. To know, when we cling, why we cling. And to tell the stories. To perpetuate.
Jane Carol Redmont grew up in Paris in a family of American journalists and moved to the United States at the age of 17. A former member of the Massachusetts Governor’s Commission on Refugees and Immigrants, she chairs the Bishop’s Committee for Racial Justice and Reconciliation of the Diocese of North Carolina. Her latest book is the new paperback edition of When in Doubt, Sing: Prayer in Daily Life (Sorin Books, 2008). She teaches at Guilford College and blogs at Acts of Hope.