Yesterday, my wife Cathy was sorting through her purse when she came upon her now-expired YMCA membership card.
“I guess I don’t need this anymore,” she said.
Indeed our membership cards are now relics of a before-time that no longer exists, that time when COVID had yet to arrive. During the pandemic, we bought our own home gym equipment and eliminated our need to go to the YMCA.
I’m curious now about what other objects might be considered relics of a past life altered forever. What will we dredge up in the future that will remind us of a time when we didn’t have to worry about COVID? What have we shed that future generations will look at with curiosity or wonder?
My first home was an old farmhouse that had been in our family for years prior to my birth. I remember the old flat irons we used as doorstops. I remember how heavy they were, particularly for a little boy to lift. These flat irons were relics from a time before rural electrification when the only way to iron clothes was to get a few of these irons hot on a stovetop and then use them in rotation, making sure there was always a hot one at hand. The ones I’m recalling had detachable wooden handles, thereby giving a cool surface by which to hold the heated iron. These irons were suggestive of a life that had gone on in that house before I arrived, as were the strips of cloth wound into balls from which my grandmother had sewn rag rugs, and the oil lamps, and the Hoosier cabinet now used for storage on our wash porch. Other people had walked the floors of that house and had lived other lives before sickness or age or death had passed them along to other ways of being.
What are the relics of your own or your family’s or your invented characters’ pasts? Emily Bronte once wrote, “Any relic of the dead is precious, if they were valued living.” The things we leave behind are never merely things. They’re containers. Those flat irons, for example. I didn’t know when I was a child that they were also known as sad irons. A synonym for “sad” in nineteenth century dictionaries was “heavy,” and as I’ve already said, these irons were exactly that. When I think of these irons today, I see how they’re emblematic of the sorrow that was often our companion after the farming accident that cost my father both of his hands—how they hold that sadness and how they speak of the burden we carried from that day forward. When I think of the weight of those irons—when I see the boy I was trying to lift them—I feel in my body the story of my family. This is what objects from the past can do for the writer of memoir and of fiction. They can open up the life lived in the before time and allow a more palpable expression of what the people in your nonfiction or fiction carry with them onto the page.
Recalling or inventing these objects can be a great aid to portraying characters. Regret, shame, longing, joy—a wide range of human emotions, some of them probably contradictory, can help us add depth to our characters, can even create narratives and lead us to a deeper understanding of what it was like for this person or that character to live a previous life, one altered by choice or by circumstance. There’s always a before and an after for the people we put on the page, and the relics from the past can clearly define the journey between the two.