Material History and A Victorian Riddle Retold

tags: Material History, dementia, personal history, Victorian history

Amy G. Richter is an Associate Professor of History at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts and the author of At Home in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History (2015).


I spend a lot of time thinking about things. This is not to claim that I am unusually reflective or deep: quite the contrary. I mean this literally. I think a lot about stuff. 


I am fascinated by the ways objects and spaces shape us, reflecting and communicating our personalities. And, of course, I am not alone in this fascination. Anyone who has crashed a realtor’s open house to check out the furniture or plans their evening strolls to view their neighbors’ décor through lighted windows, appreciates the pure joy of pretending to know others through their domestic goods. Leather or chintz? Marble tile or oak plank? Curated minimalism or unstudied clutter? These are the choices that reveal us to family, friends, guests, even ourselves, giving clues about how we behave (or hope to) in private. CSI meets HGTV.


For me, such musings are both busman’s holiday and occupational hazard. A historian of nineteenth-century American culture, I study the significance ordinary women and men gave to furniture, art, and decoration. I want to understand how they made sense of the world and assume that, like me, they did so through seemingly mundane choices: Responsible adulthood embraced in a sturdy sofa; learnedness telegraphed, if not always realized, through a collection of books; love of family chronicled in elegantly framed photos grouped throughout the house. 


After all not everyone in the past wrote a political treatise or crafted a memoir, but most struggled to make some type of home for themselves, no matter how humble or constrained their choices. Less concerned about personality than character, nineteenth-century Americans believed the right domestic goods were both cause and effect, imparting morals as much as revealing the morality of their owners. For them, tastefully hung curtains indicated an appreciation of domestic privacy, but also created a private realm in which such appreciation and its respectable associations might thrive. For almost twenty years, I have lost myself in this Victorian chicken-or-egg riddle: Which came first, the furniture or the self?


My practice of home décor voyeurism, recreational and academic, was tested when my 88-year-old mother walked out of her home of fifty years without a backwards glance. She had told me for years that she wanted to die at home, but a new type of anxiety was supplanting the comfort of domestic familiarity. A night of confusion, punctuated by fits of packing and unpacking a suitcase for a routine doctor’s visit, convinced us both that her increasing forgetfulness was something more than the quirky charm of old age. Within a week, she moved from New York to Massachusetts, to an assisted living residence three minutes from my home. She arrived with a suitcase of summer clothes and a collection of family photos. No riddle here: My mother came first; the stuff would come later.


Dementia evicted my mother from her home and then softened the blow by wrapping her thoughts in cotton gauze. As I emptied her old home and set up the new one, I marveled at the unpredictability of her memory. She did not recognize my father’s favorite chair twenty years after his death, but knew that she had picture hooks in a drawer 170 miles away in a kitchen that was no longer hers. 


Visiting my mother in her new apartment with its temporary and borrowed furnishings, I wondered who she was without her things. This was not a moral question as it was for the long-dead people I study, but an existential one with a healthy dose of magical thinking. I told myself that there must be some combination of furniture, art, and tchotchkes able to keep my mother with me. Could I decorate her into staying the person I knew? With this hope, I would make her bed with the quilt of upholstery fabric her father had brought home from work, long a fixture in her bedroom. Next I would give a prominent place to the Tiffany clock presented to my father on his retirement and cover her walls with the lithographs, drawings, and paintings collected from the earliest days of my parents’ marriage.


For several months, I brought my mother more of her own things – a sustained and loving act of re-gifting. First her living room furniture, then the silver letterbox with the angels, then the entryway mirror. I replaced the borrowed lamps with ones from her New York bedroom. When she started losing weight, I showed up with a favorite candy dish and refilled it almost daily. She greeted each addition like a welcome but unexpected guest, a happy surprise and an opportunity to reflect on when they last met. As in dreams, every guest was my mother, walking in and taking a seat beside herself, peopling her own memory. Looking around, she would announce that her new apartment “feels like my home.”


But this was only a feeling – no more than a passing tingle of recognition on the back of the neck. Where exactly do we know each other from? Among her own things, she would ask when we needed to pack to go home. I answered, “This is home. Look at how nice your art looks on the walls. The clock is keeping good time.” Every object a metaphor: a time capsule for my mother to discover, an anchor to steady her in place, a constant silent prayer: This is home because your things are here. You are still you, because your things will remind you of what you loved best: beauty, order, family, me. 


My job is to know what my mother mercifully does not understand: Her home, the apartment of her marriage and my own childhood, is empty. I emptied it. Even as I assembled my mother in her new home, I dismantled her in the old one. No matter how many of her things are with her, still more are gone – passed on to family, sold, donated, thrown away by my hand: her memories in material form, scattered and tended to by others. They are like seeds blown on the wind to take root in new soil or the whispered words of a game of telephone transforming as they pass down the line: ready, beautiful metaphors for losing parts of my mother. 


Six months after her move, my mother came to dinner and didn’t recognize her things newly placed in my house. The good steak knives beside my everyday dishes, the Steuben bowl now filled with old Scrabble tiles, the hatpin holder with a woman’s face set on the mantle… I recycled them into my own. To be fair, they looked different now, less elegant and more playful. Sitting in my living room, my mother told me that I have such a warm home. And the next day on the phone, “I can feel the warmth of your house here in my apartment.” For the moment, we had outsmarted the riddle; each of us living with her things and concentrating on what comes next.

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