[Arti]facts of Life

A tea towel, embroidered by my husband's grandmother + a cookbook I found at the farmer's market = a story waiting to be written

It’s that time of year when the world thinks of things, of gifts gifts gifts gifts, the over-commercialization of Christmas, bells that jingle and fully-decked halls. Physical items start to seem more important than they do the rest of the year: the bike you wrote to Santa for, the ornament your daughter made in second grade, the divinity candy you have to make though only you and your dad really like it because Grandma used to make it every year. Every string of lights or holiday platter bears memories, or the promise of memories yet to come. These things are artifacts of Christmases past, endowed with meaning that accumulates like dust as the boxes sit in the garage, far enough out of sight and mind to make them seem that much more important come December.

It seems the longer we leave an item alone, the greater the emotion it carries. This can make for some pretty interesting stories (if you’ve written one, Hayden’s Ferry Review is accepting submissions for their “artifact” issue right now). Dawn Raffel explores her relationship to items from her past in a series of short essays, quite a few of which appeared in Willow Springs 67. Each essay is titled for an item that carries a story–“The Prayer Book,” “The Bride’s Bible,” “Garnet Earrings”–and uses these objects as windows into Raffel’s past. It’s a concept that interests me greatly, and though I’ve yet to focus a story in that way, I’m always interested in a story’s physical world. I am fascinated with the specific details that help develop a character, and especially their belongings: the type of socks they wear, what’s in the trunk of their car, where they got their earrings. I sometimes write so many of these details that I have to erase quite a few (was it Coco Chanel who said, Put on all the accessories you want, but then remove one?), but it feels good to write them in the first place, to develop those quirks. And when reading, I always attach to those types of markers. I’m currently reading Hunger by Lan Samantha Chang, and the first image that pops into my head when I think of the book is of rice bowls, kept in a yellow carpet bag in the closet. When I think of Mary Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior, I think of jelly beans. Blue Angel by Francine Prose: a rotten tooth. And so on.

Have you ever watched a TV show, movie, or play where the actors are holding coffee cups and gesturing wildly, as if there were no hot liquid inside? Because there isn’t any. It’s just an empty cup. But if they were doing their job right, we would think there was hot liquid in there, heavy and easily spilled. There’s a concept called “endowing your props,” that’s very important when the cup is empty, the gun is made of plastic, or the baby is just a doll. You must make the audience believe that the baby is alive and squirming, that if you drop it, it will die. You must make the audience believe the gun is dangerous and unwieldy, an object of fear. If these things weren’t important, they wouldn’t be there. It was Chekhov who said that if there is a gun onstage, it must be fired. If we’re going to give our characters props, there has to be a reason.

Call me a nerd, but one of my favorite shows currently on television is on the SyFy channel (they spell it that way now), though it’s more like fantasy wrapped in a scientific gauze. It’s called Warehouse 13, and it focuses on a strange government agency that collects dangerous artifacts: items that have absorbed certain aspects of their former owners’ personalities, that give their next owners supernatural power. Mata Hari’s stockings give their wearer a deadly sex appeal. Sylvia Plath’s typewriter exudes her depression. Ornaments made from bullet casings gathered during the Christmas Eve ceasefire demand Christmas spirit at any price. This concept fascinates me because it takes every storyline from an object and its true history before pushing it into the fantastical realm. It acknowledges the importance items have in our lives, and how a pair of glasses or an upholstery brush can carry a lifetime’s worth of stories.

My husband and I have bought at least one Christmas ornament a year, since our first Christmas together. These ornaments are building a timeline of our life. This year, we bought a Statue of Liberty ornament on our trip to New York. When I was in line at the gift shop, I found myself pulled into a conversation with the woman next to me, who happened to be from Colfax, WA–fifteen miles from where I live now. Last year, a traditional Danish ornament from Solvang, CA–one of our many stops on a road trip to visit my parents in San Diego. Maybe one day I will write about them. Maybe not. But our tree will be teeming with memories, stories to tell our children. Every year the cat seems to break at least one meaningless glass ornament, and the next year it is replaced by something sturdier.


  • Laura says:

    Incidentally, late last night, I found a very interesting artifact while digging through a box of photos. It was one of my favorite pictures of my dad, napping on a sleeping bag in the Sierra Nevadas next to my childhood dog, and on the back was a phone number and the words “Eric in Rehab.” At first I thought, who the heck is Eric and why was he in rehab? And then I remembered something I’d pushed to the back of my brain: this was the number for the hospital, scribbled down when a friend of mine was hit by a drunk driver and lost one of his legs. The photo must have been the only paper available. Now all those memories are trickling back to me, and I think it might be time to write a story about it. Maybe even an essay.

  • Ann says:

    Great post, Laura!! I think about the things in my parents’ house most often when I’m anticipating going home, and seeing all these things that “mean something” to me, and they do, but I don’t think about them as much at other times of the year… Interesting!

  • Ericka Taylor says:

    Cool post, Laura! You’ve not only reminded me how much more attention I need to pay to artifacts when I’m writing, but you’ve encouraged me to do some serious poking around among my own artifacts. I’m going to spend a good deal of this break in my parents’ garage and their various “junk” closets.

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