Every year when I take down the tree decorations, I think about “Mrs. X," one of our former parishioners. Once on a visit to her home, Ed and I discovered that she loved Christmas ornaments. She told us that in fact she had every Hallmark Christmas ornament dating back years and years, all their special editions, and before I could express awe at this collection, wanting to ask whether she alternated various ornaments each year, or whether she used them all at once, or whether she had them displayed in a cabinet somewhere, she informed us with great satisfaction that she had every ornament in storage in its original box under her bed, never used. This increased the value, she assured us.
Mrs. X would probably be aghast at our motley collection of tree ornaments - things the kids made when they were little or inexpensive but meaningful ornaments given to us by friends. She would have been particularly disgusted by our poor little feather-bare birds, a few cardinals which have seen better days, and one seemingly drunk naked partridge who must think he’s a bat - he refuses to perch upright on the branch and maneuvers himself to hang upside down. I do have a few more expensive, fragile ornaments, such as a glass-blown head of Lincoln (with lipstick, it looks like), but I would never think of putting them in their boxes and never using them.
I believe things are made to be used for their intended purpose. I remember when I was a little girl that some women (maybe they still do) were given beautiful nightgowns as gifts, but put them away “in case I have to go to the hospital.” Some of those women died without ever even having tried on their pretty new gowns.
When I was a teenager, with several years of piano under my belt, my musical tastes were eclectic. I couldn’t afford much sheet music, but I enjoyed going to the library and borrowing everything from Chopin to Broadway to Strauss to Cole Porter. I would play anything. One day an older, wealthy, very genteel lady in our church named Mrs. Stacey gave me an large, old music book. I think it was from the 1800s, and I know it probably belonged in a museum somewhere, but she knew I enjoyed playing piano and she was generous enough to give it to me. It had that distinctive old-book smell. It never occurred to me that it might have been valuable.
It was an oversized book and as such was reluctant to sit upright on my piano, and it wouldn’t stay open on its own, so I was constantly having to stack heavy books on both sides as I played the music. The music was not easy, it was very challenging, but it was lovely and different, and best of all, it was mine. Soon the fragile pages started to tear. Some of them would crumble when I touched them. Other pages would just fall out of the binding, yet on and on I played. I played from that book until it was a crumbly, unidentifiable jumble of torn paper. I had played the very life out of it. Then I threw it away.
Every so often, I think about that old book, wishing that I had taken better care of it, wishing that I had not used it so much. It probably was valuable then, and 40 years later, I imagine even more valuable today. But do you know what? I used that book for the exact purpose for which it was published. I played its glorious music. Things that are well used don’t last forever.
As a quilter, I have frequently read that antique crib quilts are hard to find, because their very purpose ensured that they would be used - dragged, spit up on, washed, dragged some more - therefore, few antique crib quilts exist today, especially in good condition. It’s the same with toys. If you watch Antiques Roadshow or read about the antique toy market, you will soon learn that a toy that still has its original finish, no broken or missing parts, and - particularly - its original box, is one of the valuable ones. Every time I hear that, it saddens me. A toy that is in such pristine condition is usually one that hasn’t been deeply loved by a child, and that, after all, was its purpose, just as the crib quilts were meant to be used and loved. In their purpose lies their destruction, but in the process, the pleasure and joy they bestow upon their owner(s) is what determines their value, not how much they are worth monetarily.
My old music book, my Chatty Cathy doll without a string or her original clothes, our bedraggled Christmas ornaments - they are all testaments to a life of love, each broken piece or torn page evidence of the pleasure they gave. Oh sure, if I made a gorgeous quilt for my grandchild, a part of me would love to see it delicately preserved for generations to come. But on the other hand, if it’s dragged across the floor and spit up on and washed until the patches come undone, then spends the rest of its ragged life as a dog blanket, that’s fine by me. It was used completely and ultimately for its intended purpose.
Now if we could all discover what our purpose in life is (and we are each called to a life of love and service, I think) and steer our lives toward fulfilling that purpose, I think the world would be a happier place. The remarkable difference between humans and things is that the more love we give, the more we have to give, and though our bodies exhibit the wear and tear of lives well lived, our souls are still able to demonstrate purpose, generosity, and compassion. I want my quilts to be used, and I want my life to be used. That’s my prayer for 2008. I wish all my readers a Happy New Year, and thanks for being a part of my ongoing journey!