Somewhere back in the mid 1970’s my mother decided to attend night classes at our local junior college. I encouraged this ambition in the hope (futile, as it turned out) that she would get it out of her system before I graduated high school, as I was not altogether thrilled at the idea of finally starting college only to find my mother already there. Since I had recently acquired (on the second try) a shiny new driver’s licence, it became my job to drive her the mile or so from our home to the campus a couple of nights a week.
While my mother was in class, I roamed the college library, at that time housed in an ancient and dignified old structure far too small for the purpose. Although the two main rooms were cavernous spaces packed with mouldings and fixtures of old oak and polished brass, the fiction shelves were relegated to a low-ceilinged attic over the offices, accessed via a spiral staircase of wrought iron, its treads polished to a sheen by a century of continuous use.
At the back of this dusty garret was one small window, maybe four feet high and three wide, set into an embrasure that would almost have been deep enough to sit in, had it not already been occupied by a plant, an angelwing begonia, probably as old as the building itself.
The stems of this grandparent of all houseplants were long, snaking, sapless cables, wrapped around the frame of the window, each tipped with a tiny cluster of leaves. One evening, on some strange impulse, there between the shelves marked “Ga-He” and those labeled “Hi-Ju”, I pinched off a two-inch piece of that venerable vegetable and stuck it in my coat pocket.
By the time I remembered the stolen cutting, a week later, it was bruised and leafless, and only a certain sense of guilt at having committed such an act of vandalism in the first place prompted me to poke the sad little thing into a pot of damp peat moss and set it on a windowsill.
Where it thrived.
Within months the plant was a sprawling mass of bronzy-green leaves and pink flowers. When I moved away from home a few years later, the begonia — by then five feet tall and in a pot weighing twenty pounds — was one of the few possessions that accompanied me in my titanic foil-green Buick Electra. In the almost four decades since, I have been forced to abandon the parent plant several times, but I’ve always managed to take along a pot of cuttings with which to carry on the tradition.
The Roman lar was often portrayed as a young male figure, dancing on one foot, with one hand raised over his head. Aside from the lares familiares who watched over the home, there were lares of the field, of the community, even of roads. The lares grundules, or “grunting lares” were a legendary litter of thirty piglets supposedly given a shrine by Romulus.
In Roman days, before the advent of Christianity, every household had its “household gods”, its lares and penates, guardian angels that watched over the family and shared its home. Some were the spirits of revered ancestors, others were the objects of tradition handed down through generations, origins lost in history. There would always be a shrine of some sort, however humble, to these companions, with a painted image, or a statue, or just a dish of water or a pile of polished stones, where the head of the household might light a candle in thanks for a year of comfort and security, where an adolescent daughter might pray that a mother learn to tolerate the unsuitable boyfriend, or where a mother might beg for the patience to cope with the stresses of parenthood.
The household gods didn’t shake the earth, or bring storms, or cause the sun to rise and the grain to ripen, they were simply there to offer luck in the small things, to bring comfort in times of need. They were a presence, a focus, a link from the day-to-day life of ordinary people to the invisible world beyond.
From an abandoned house in Winslow, Arkansas: you know there’s a story here.
There are always certain items in every home that we have long since identified as irreplaceable: a souvenir snapshot of a last family vacation; a dessicated corsage in its plastic bubble; the family Bible; an old doll — something that we know we can never replace. Sometimes the object is so patently worthless that we don’t leave it out on display for uncaring eyes, but we know where it is, always, and if there were to be a cry of “Fire!” we would have it in our hands before we were even aware of having heard the warning. We don’t choose these things: they choose us. The relationship is organic, subterranean.
As with most people, I suspect that my lares and my penates would seem a bit silly to someone else. A plant that I’ve been dragging around for thirty-seven years; a wooden sculpture of an angel’s head that’s been with me for thirty; the first book I ever bought with my own money, a paperback science-fiction novel — disintegrated now to just a bundle of loose pages in a zip-lok bag — purchased off the swivel rack at Ray’s Drugstore forty-five years ago. Even to me, these things seem foolish, but I know that my life would be diminished by the loss of any of them.
Here in Winslow, a community that has seen more than its share of ups and downs over the last hundred-odd years, there are a number of houses that now stand empty. If you peek inside you can often see furniture, clothes, bric-a-brac — the detritus of a home whose heart has fled. Sometimes you find objects that seem so strange, so absolutely meaningless, that you know the owner of the house must have died: under no other circumstances would these things have been left behind.
Sometimes, an old clock or a book or a snapshot are just things, objects to use and forget; but sometimes — they’re family.
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