Friday, November 7, 2014


"In purist terms, and according to the U.S. Customs Service, an antique is an item with at least 100 years of age under its belt."
I enjoy wandering antique shops, guessing at the age and purpose of objects, imagining the stories they could share if only they possessed the gift of speech. We have a few old things in our home, but I hesitate to call them antiques because the 100-year definition above seems to fluctuate depending on the source, and because I don't necessarily know the age of everything in my house.
My mother once told me when she and my father married in 1947 her telephone desk was one of their first purchases. At just under seventy years old, it is likely not an antique, but that is of no importance to me. I see my mother sitting at that desk each time I walk past it. I see the heavy rotary phone with its tangled cord and the tooled leather notepad holder she brought back from Mexico beside it. And I hear the shattering ring throughout the large house of my childhood. My mother's telephone desk with its sideways seat and deep slot for a fat phone book is useless in this age of mobile phones and the internet, but it has a permanent place in our home.
My husband and I bought our West Seattle "war box" almost a quarter of a century ago from the estate of the original owners. The basement was full of junk, most of which we carted to the dump. But a few items we held onto: the small bookcase I still use in my writing room, the old wall cabinet that now holds my jewelry and a small item I thought was a pipe holder. The "pipe holder" remained stashed in the basement for years. During one of many remodeling projects we've done on this "starter home" we never left, my artist husband pulled it out and set me straight.

"It's an inkwell," he told me and stuck it on a bookshelf in the basement.

Years passed and the so-called inkwell remained forgotten. Yesterday I was moving things around as I tend to do with each change of season. I came across the old inkwell, dusted it clean, and set it on the fireplace mantel.

"That belongs on your desk," my husband told me when he saw it.

"If it's really an inkwell, I wonder if I can find ink bottles for it," I said.

"Maybe I'm wrong," he said. "I mean, square ink bottles?"
I got curious and googled antique inkwells. To my surprise, I found two items very similar to the inkwell on our mantel. One on eBay was labeled "Antique Civil War Victorian Wood Portable Inkwell" and another on Pinterest was dated 1906. I also saw loads of little square ink bottles. So maybe this thing on our fireplace mantel is an inkwell. And maybe it is an antique. But what I find intriguing is this writer's inkwell was in our home when we bought it twenty-three years ago. It was stashed away somewhere a dozen years ago when I began writing. And now as I begin revisions on my fourth book, I understand its secrets.
When my daughter was a little girl, we read aloud every evening. The Secret Garden was one of our favorite books. On one afternoon of antique store explorations, we came across a wicker wheelchair.

"That's just like Colin's wheelchair!" my daughter exclaimed.
"It would make a fun chair for the living room," I said without thinking. 
To this day my husband enjoys telling the story of pushing our daughter home from the antique store in that wheelchair. As he hit the hill, he realized it had no brakes.

Banned from the living room, the wicker wheelchair has held court in every room of our small house through the years. It's too big and it just doesn't belong, but I can't seem to get rid it.
Whether an antique or not, whether worthless junk or hidden treasure, I really don't care. I cling to the stories the telephone desk and inkwell and wheelchair hold. My mother will be with me each time I pass her telephone desk or sit down to put on a pair of shoes. I will search for ink vessels and pens for the inkwell and wonder about the stories or letters prior owners may have written. And despite the space it occupies, I remain unable to part with my wicker wheelchair.


Mindy Halleck said...

You've been to my home, everything here has a story either from family heirlooms or collections, from WWII or our 1700's Chinese ship captain's bar, or the Victorian era pieces I've collected. I love antiques! My favorite thing is to roam antique stores and estate sales. You found some great stuff in your house... What treasures.

mary rowen said...

What a lovely post, Arleen! I especially love your mom's telephone desk. Sometimes I miss the days when a phone call was worthy of a special place to sit.

We live in a house built in 1805, so despite the fact that most of the furniture is modern, I like to imagine the stories the house itself might tell if it could.--mary rowen

arleen said...

Your home is full of treasures, Mindy. And I imagine yours is a treasure, Mary. Maybe a story told from the POV of the house or the object?