The Big Picture: What We Leave Behind

By Regina Connell.

What is this stuff that surrounds us and what does it mean?

This subject’s been on my mind a great deal, as I sort through the things my mother left behind.

It’s been so interesting a journey on so many levels. I don’t mean that cynically or snarkily or as a euphemism for feeling awful. I mean it’s been truly interesting: an education in the notions of value, of enduring design, of taste, of what the things you choose to surround yourself with say about you.

It helps that I’m a little analytical, not terribly sentimental and that I have the distance that comes with a complicated relationship and lots of therapy. And it helps that I have an abiding curiosity about what objects reveal about their owners and their times.

Let’s be clear that by “things my mother left behind,” I’m not talking about some reality show-worthy hoarding problem here. I am grateful that I haven’t found a house full of tons of scary “stuff” (with the exception of a deeply vile 1950s fox fur collar that I can’t even bring myself to write about). I am grateful that for the most part, I had a sense of what was there. Except for a few things, she had no aversion to editing throughout her life. She threw stuff out every year, and thank goodness for that.

Nonetheless, the shadow of her “stuff” is long.

It's never why you think it is

It’s never what you think it is

What makes it truly interesting is that my mother came from an arty family and had a strong sense of aesthetics. She had what many called “good taste,” was conscious of what she brought into her life, and had money – not gobs of it by a very long shot – but certainly at middle class levels so she could afford to buy quality. In most ways, my mother favored old-fashioned luxury, where it was about the maker, not the marque. Instead of ready to wear Schiaparelli or Dior, she liked things that were designed and created by local designers. And until she developed a thing for Elsa Peretti’s pieces from Tiffany, she preferred the work of that lovely little White Russian jeweler who had fled both Russia and Shanghai to set up shop in Hong Kong. Instead of vintage Knoll and Eames, she had a thing for custom furniture that worked for her, was of exceptional quality and was made by the unsung little guys of local furniture making.

Oddly enough, all this taste complicates things because our culture (as in many other ways) is really geared for the high and the low but not the more subtle middle.

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