Nostalgia is an insidious drug. I fall into its clutch seated on a low hanging branch in Newport, Rhode Island. From the ancient copper beech’s droopy limb I catch glimpses of a manicured walk and marble pavilion. Birds twitter above me and in the distance I hear girlish laughter. The Merchant-Ivory scene comes easy: parasol in hand an elegant gowned lady, my sister, promenades the vast Italianate garden. She and I own this preserved paradise where we lead charmed lives clothed in finery, our hairs coiffed in subtle imitation of the ivory moulding and curlicued marble balustrade. It is an Instagram feed from the Gilded Age, a vision the sanitized chateaus of Newport fabricate. The renovated gables and remastered dancing halls imagine a bygone era of serenity where glittering balls and dainty tea parties filled the lives of well-mannered inhabitants. The ornate rooms whisper: “You too can experience order with this Limoges dinner service or that Louis XIV escritoire. Perhaps the silken covered love seat or the velvet cushioned armchair will lend grace to your days.” The faded wallpaper and patinated mirrors, however, are mute. They do not talk about the peevish quarrels, the cold silences, or the smashed whiskey glasses.
If a house is the box within which we conduct our existence then should not the objects we display within that box be indicators of that existence’s quality? Most of the frippery belonging to these villas appear to be replicas of oeuvres found in Europe or classic antiquity. They lack sincerity and originality, though I am asked to judge the possessors based on the stockpile of their doodads. A crystal decanter may reveal clues about its owner’s taste and pocketbook size, but says nothing to me about its owner’s character. A baroque dining chair is no measure of the complications in a family situation. I attempt to picture the women who chose these furnishings and artwork roped off with zeal, for these manors seem the domain of nineteenth century matriarchs (their husbands, brothers, and sons relegated to the darkened library or oak-paneled billiards room). The images I conjure are shadows of silver-screen interpretations I have watched. The real women who belonged to these homes remain hidden. Did the woman who preferred Biermann landscapes on her wall play hide-and-seek with her children outdoors? Was the regal dame in black silk lonely when she stared out her bay window?
“What happens to all those memories and hopes acquired in the shape of silver spoons, glass elephants, and terra-cotta vases once the proprietor is gone?”
I consider the monogrammed cigarette lighter resting upon the dressing table, as if its mistress had recently stepped out of the boudoir, pondering what reminisces it incited. When she pressed the igniter did she recall a youthful fling? When the flame flickered before her face did it remind her of a past romance? There is a game my mother loves to play. She will go around the house pointing out her beloved knick-knacks and say, “Remember when I bought this teacup? We were at that flea market across from the pawn shop…where was it? Brick Lane?” Or, “Your father got me this porcelain fan from an old man selling lamps in Hokkaido.” Or, “This is the first gift my sister gave me. She purchased it with pocket-money from selling her hair.” What happens to all those memories and hopes acquired in the shape of silver spoons, glass elephants, and terra-cotta vases once the proprietor is gone? Do the dreams cling onto these relics of ordinary days or do they flee into the ether, leaving an accumulation of skeletal baubles decaying in landfills?
My possessions smack of practicality and provide for a functional life on the move. There is no room for the accrual of sentiment in a wanderer’s luggage. Yet, I have spent an afternoon debating between the merits of peacock paisley and candy striped bedcovers, knowing neither will bring me better repose. The line between love of material and material love wavers so often: a sprinkling of diamonds (or is it cubic zirconia) and a few artfully placed looking glasses ensnare me into futile dreams. If comfort can be found under cashmere blankets and success inside an Aston Martin, there is the possibility that at the right price point we can all obtain our house of dreams. Perhaps that is why I am enticed into gawking through the abodes of the rich and mighty. I am willing to believe in the myth that somehow those expensive things translate into a life fulfilled. Ironic then, how the afternoon sun pouring through the shuttered windows onto the Persian carpet resembles the bars of a cage.
New England sailors traveling home from the West Indies would often hoard fresh pineapples on board. The fruit, rich in vitamin C, prevented them from getting scurvy. Uneaten pineapples were proudly displayed upon gateposts as a sign that the seafarer had returned to his family. Gradually front doors were permanently decorated with brass depictions of pineapples to indicate that all travelers were welcome within. A wander through the colonial homes of Washington Square in Newport will uncover the presence of these miniature symbols of hospitality.
What is the most interesting house you have visited? What objects in your home do you cherish the most?