other people's heirlooms.

I have a giant space of wall in my house that is meant to display something grand. It's high up on a wall in the living room, such that you need a tall ladder to hang anything there. There is a small light that we never use that is pointed directly at that wall. Clearly, it's meant for something large and impressive, something that you wouldn't mind feeling like it was watching over you. If my house were haunted, it would be a huge portrait of some ancestor, and the eyes would follow you. Josh's dad has a huge picture of the Beatles when they were young. Maybe he would hang that picture there. John, Paul, George, and Ringo watch over us all.

Ever since I moved in, I've known that I wanted to hang my grandfather's map there. It's of South America. It reminds me of Kansas.

Do you like maps? My sister asked me that once, a couple of years ago when we were trying to get to know each other as adults. She said that she and her husband loved maps, and I pictured them snuggling on a bear-skin rug in front of a roaring fire with an atlas in their laps. Since that didn't sound like something that appealed to me at all, I said no. My tone said, Are you crazy? Then a week later, I found some prints of 16th century world maps at a yard sale and bought them all up like they were printed on hotcakes. Only then did I understand what my sister's question meant, and I realized that I do like maps. I felt bad for acting like she was crazy, because I like maps an awful lot. Aside from those old prints, I also have a topographical map of Western North Carolina and Eastern Tennessee (which gets lots of compliments). And I have my grandfather's map of South America.

Why do we like maps? Because they're neat, duh. Maps are simplified representations of things which are too big for us to look at directly. We need something smaller and compact so we can understand. The world is a vast and confusing place, and maps simplify it on at least a physical level. We can all appreciate some simplicity now and then. Old maps are doubly neat. The frequently have beautiful illustrations of the world's peoples and places. They are snapshots of what the world looked like back then, or more accurately what we thought it looked like. A map is as much a picture of our perceptions of the world as it is of the world itself. But also, and maybe most of all, maps remind us of places. What is the first thing that anyone does when they see a map? Find some place that has a special connection to them. They point at it and tell you about it, sharing their memories.

See? Maps are neat.

I have no idea if my grandfather thought maps were neat. Sure, he had a giant one of South America. It's a classroom map, one attached to a spring-loaded wooden bar at the top, so you can pull it down when you want to see where Paraguay is and then roll it back up when you want to write down some factoids about some major exports of Paraguay (soybeans, cotton, edible oils, electricity) on the blackboard. It's from 1939. My grandfather used it as a screen; he showed home movies on the back of it. Maybe he liked maps, but maybe he just wanted a way to watch films without needing a big blank wall.

For being seventy years old, the South America map is in pretty good shape. The spring on the rod still works, and the picture is almost perfect. There is a crease in the middle which I am hoping will disappear as it hangs. There are only a few tiny spots where the image is flaking off the canvas backing. Part of the bottom had escaped the lower bar and someone had attempted to repair it with tape. At first, Josh wanted to do another tape-based repair. But I stubbornly said no, because the previous tape job had peeled away some of the print. We were going to fix it right. So we very carefully separated the lower bar, slid the bottom edge of the map into place, and replaced the tiny nails to hold it there. I am not generally a perfectionist, but some things are important. We got out the giant ladder and the studfinder and hung it up. My taste is not for everyone, but I think it looks amazing, just the right size for a blank expanse of wall. South America watches over us all.

While it would be nice to say that I remember watching movies on the back of this map, I never knew anything about it until a couple of years ago. We took a trip to Kansas to move my grandmother out of her farm house so that she could come live with my parents. This was a sentimental trip for me, the last time I would ever visit the farm that had been the setting for so many childhood memories (if ever you and I found ourselves looking at a map of Kansas, I would point out Great Bend to you). I very much wanted Josh to see it, too, so that when I told him a story about some summer long ago, he could get a sense of the way it looked and smelled and sounded. It was very important to me that he get just a glimpse of it before it was gone.

All that mushy stuff aside, the yard saler in me knew that the farmhouse was full of the stuff from multiple generations of my family. If I saw an ad for a sale that said they were cleaning out a two-story farmhouse (with storm shelter), a barn, and a garage after several decades of accumulation, I would be there when it opened.

In terms of stuff, the trip did not disappoint. Josh rescued a bamboo fishing rod and antique fly rod to give to his dad, which made us both heroes come Christmas. He also got some old ammunition containers and a bunch of old belt buckles. I got a teapot, a pocketwatch, and a 1939 classroom map of South America. My parents got a buffalo skin and a tiny old lady to come live with them.

But even I could not keep all the stuff. We took truckloads of stuff to the Salvation Army in town. This was a decision of necessity. You can't keep everything. Not every little thing owned by my grandparents can become a treasured heirloom. You have to pick and choose. I'm sad sometimes when I see people selling beautiful things owned by their recently deceased family members. They are making that necessary decision, too. But I promise, it's okay, because there are people like me who will buy those things and treasure them anew.

I have a house full of heirlooms: linens, jewelry, furniture, glassware, etc., etc., and so forth. While I love them for their history, I am aware that the history is sort of disconnected from me. They are other people's heirlooms. But this map is mine. It was passed down in my own family (well, I guess I passed it down to myself). If I had found it at a yard sale, I would have bought it anyway. Because I love maps, because I love unusual decor, because I love old everyday things. I would probably still hang it in that blank space of wall with the spotlight pointed at it. When people came over and noticed it (they might not compliment it, but I assure you, they would definitely notice it), I would tell them about where I got it, like I do with pretty much all of my things. However, this way, I can explain to them why a map of South America reminds me so much of Kansas.

Sorry this picture is so terrible. It looks great in person, I promise!

1 comment:

Carla said...

I'm doing a big catch-up session on your blog. I did a much-needed wipe of our computer at the end of August and I forgot to redo all my blog subscriptions. So here I am, 6 weeks later, having to catch up. Anyway, I am glad you have come around to my way of thinking. On this subject at least. :) Though we both like the old maps for their aesthetic appeal and all, Doug and I are of the geography nerd flavor. We like to look at maps, pretty or not. I do not recall ever snuggling on a bear skin rug looking at an atlas, though.