Thursday, October 20, 2016
One of the images that indelibly etched itself into my mind over the past 20 years is that of an old Woodie station wagon parked alongside a dirt back road leading to Shiprock, New Mexico. The doors of the vehicle are flung open and the passenger compartment empty. From the picture it is impossible to tell whether the car has stalled or if its occupants were so stunned by the natural beauty of that stark geography they spontaneously bailed out in order to capture the moment on film.
In the early part of the 20th Century, it was common for those living in the Midwest or East to hire a car such as that and tour the rugged, undeveloped Southwest. Along the way travelers might stop to buy an Acoma pot, a Navajo weaving, an Apache basket or any one of a variety of cultural curiosities. Once home, these items would be strategically placed in their residence to let others know the occupants of the house had satisfactorily completed the classic Southwestern tour.
In most cases, these artistic creations acquired from Native tribesmen were both beautiful to look at and fond reminders of an important time in the lives of the travelers. Not only had the voyagers persevered in difficult terrain, they had met the Natives face-to-face and experienced ancient cultures that were rapidly receding.
As the 1940s turned into the 50s, 60s, 70s and eventually the new millennium, these adventuresome newlyweds became mom and dad, and all too soon grandma and grandpa. When retirement rolled around, the happy couple began thinking about moving into a smaller, more manageable living arrangement, and also started wondering what to do with the tangible reminders of their early years together.
All too often Barry and I meet these individuals as they retrace their footsteps from distant decades and wonder, “What do we do with all the things we acquired?” The easy answer is, “Bring it in.” Barry and I are happy to help find new homes for their art. In some cases we even keep a piece or two for our own private collections. The more difficult answer is, however, actually a question, “Why don’t your children want it?” There never seems to be a satisfactory answer.
My suspicion is that, like the numerous tribes of Native America, we with paler faces are also failing to adequately invest our children and grandchildren with the stories of our past. We are not passing on the wonder and romance that caused us to acquire these items initially and to love them for so many years thereafter. To me it seems we have an obligation to teach our descendants our history, to give them the opportunity to understand our experience and to learn from what we have seen.
Earlier today I spoke with a woman who told me she had inherited two “beautiful Navajo rugs” from her mother. She thought her father had brought them into the marriage, but since both mom and dad were long dead, there was no sure way to know. She said she had photographs of her as a baby playing on the rugs, but she knew nothing of their origin. “What a pity,” she said, “my kids don’t know anything about these weavings. They probably don’t even care.”
In many cases these items define who we are and where we were at a particular moment. Those are not just black pots, they are a reminder of what was important to us at the time, our economic status and what was happening during that phase of our lives. That is not just a Navajo rug, it is an indication of the fondness our parents felt for each other, a memory aid. Just another basket? No, that might be a representation of our support for a particular artist or artistic movement. An undistinguished piece of jewelry? Well, maybe it is all that is left of a particularly romantic evening all those years ago.
If our children do not care about the items we have collected over the course of our lives, then we have failed them, failed to communicate our passions, failed to communicate our histories and failed to invest those children with that part of ourselves that lives on when we do not.
What shall we do with these things our children care nothing about? Why not use them to help our descendants understand more about who you were and who you may become. Then those items will have true value and we will no longer have to ask ourselves what to do with our collections when we close this chapter.
With Warm Regards.