Over the last couple of weeks, I have written two articles about my evolving relationship with technology. In the first, I discussed the reasons for my reluctance to purchase a cellular telephone for my middle-school aged son while, in the second, I talked about why I am opting to use what many people have told me is a substandard workaround to play digital audio through the factory stereo in my new-to-me Nissan Hardbody. Although both essays were intended to be short and simple, I found them difficult to write. The second piece was especially so as, to get at the truth, I had to acknowledge the fact that I have a history of making poor choices and that I have, over the years, been incredibly wasteful.
But even though I struggled to write that second piece, I understand that many people my age are in the same boat. To paraphrase one commenter, the entirety of Generation X came of age during a period when, thanks to the pace of technological advance, our music collections became obsolete again and again. He’s not wrong. Virtually every machine I included as proof of my poor decision making abilities was superseded by improved technology and, because I am not an early adopter, that happened only when the machines were so outdated that it became difficult to find new releases on the old media. It turns out, then, I had hung onto things! But that led me to another question: Which of my possessions is the oldest?
It might seem a simple question, but to get the right answer, one needs to define what “oldest” really means. If we are talking about the oldest item I possess in terms of raw years, I can say that without a doubt there are rocks in my driveway that are millions of years old. Case closed, thank you, but that solution is particularly unsatisfactory so I kept on asking. Should the oldest thing I possess, be the oldest human-made object? Should it be the oldest object that has significance to me and my family? Should it be an item that I personally purchased new or something that was purchased for me specifically as a gift? Where should the count begin if I purchased an antique?
In my case, it turns out that these questions required very little extra thought because, even as I sit here surrounded by an entire house filled with “stuff,” I realize that very little of what I own today connects me to my personal past. One reason for this is easy to understand, my family and I frequently relocate for work and, because of the limited amount of household goods we are allowed to send, it is impossible to drag around things like heirloom furniture.
The other reason is uglier and requires me to examine a time just before I came to Japan as an English teacher in 1999. While I was struggling through an extended period of unemployment, living with my mom and resigned to sleeping in my childhood bedroom, I sold almost everything I owned in order keep gasoline in my tank and my job hunt alive. As the weeks turned into months, I sold away much of my youth – hundreds of books I had managed to collect over the years, my music collection, musical instruments, most of my firearms , my home stereo equipment, old toys and God knows what else as I tried to keep my head above water. The process left me embittered and, even today, I feel the sting when I recall those times.
Without a great many things to consider, I can confidently say that the oldest item that I own, that would have been purchased new either by or for me, is a Hot Wheels Porsche 911 that came into my possession sometime in the mid-1970s. Today, my son has a large collection of Hot Wheels, Matchbox and Tomy cars, but even in the midst of so many others, I know this exact car is mine because, as a kid, I meticulously scraped away the creamy coat of perfect white paint and then left it in bare metal. It remains that way today, a true survivor of the very worst that the 8 year old me could dish out.
If we expand the scope of my question to consider the few heirlooms and antiques I own with special meaning to me and my family, the calendar rolls back further. In the closet, still in the original tube addressed to my maternal grandmother, is a certificate dated November 16, 1944. Next to it, in a velvet box, is the Purple Heart that accompanied it, awarded to her son, my uncle, who left his life on a battlefield in France just six months before VE day ended the killing. It is, perhaps, the most important thing I own. Predating that by somewhere around a decade, although when it was manufactured is hard to be sure, is an antique mantle is a clock that my brothers, sisters and I purchased for our parents in the 1970s from a man at church whose hobby was restoring antique clocks. The oldest personal item, however, is a British Mark III Lee-Enfield, chambered in .303, with a 1916 date stamped onto its barrel that I purchased as my first rifle sometime in 1991. It is not with me at the moment, of course, but it is safe in storage back home and awaits my return.
While the oldest actual item that I have owned and used in a familiar way is just slightly older than a century, the oldest human crafted items I have go back almost two millennium. In those days, of course, everything had to be handmade so items are necessarily few and far between. But it turns out that I do possess some things that were mass produced – coins. Ancient Roman coins to be exact, but it’s hard to recognize them as what they are because all that remains of most of them is little more than a jagged metal slug. They were given to me in the early ‘90s by a little old lady I worked with whose husband’s hobby was buying and meticulously cleaning ancient coins frozen together in large concreted chunks. He kept the best for himself, of course, but his wife was thoughtful enough to offer some of his cast offs to me. I have preserved them, along with coins from every country I have managed to visit across the years, in a large beer Stein that my sister brought home from Germany when I was in high school.
But that’s where my search ends. Any of the old cars I’ve owned over the years have long since gone to the bone yard, their parts and pieces scattered to the winds. My childhood clothing would have been passed on to those who needed it while virtually everything else I have ever owned sent away to be buried in a land fill or, more hopefully, recycled. In my weaker moments, I still think about the things I’ve lost and struggle with the urge to replace them. I’m fighting that urge but sometimes feel as though I spent the first half of my life using things up and am about to embark upon the second half wherein I try to replace them. You know, for old time’s sake…
Thanks Thomas, I have a new appreciation of the loss of family momentoes that can come from frequent moving and financial distress. I have been more worked up lately as we pass things to our young adult daughter that she realize their history and importance.
I gave her a 50s card table that is still solid as heck and darn useful in a young persons apartment. I had to chastise her never to get rid of it. In my parents love notes that my mother saved they was strategizing over having other couples over for bridge and how they were going to make sure they win the pocket change stakes of the game, played on the same card table. Worth nothing of course but the history to me makes it a real heirloom.
You know, I don’t think my grandparents really left my parents anything. After her mother died, my mom and her little sister were secretly dumped at an orphanage by their father when she was 8 and it took a few months before one of her older sisters was able to locate her. Thank God for large, Irish Catholic families. Before then, she lived in abject poverty and the only memories I have of visiting my grandfather was an ancient man in a filthy house. Other than the purple heart, there was nothing of value to get.
My father’s family was only slightly better off, but we had moved so far away that when my grandmother finally passed there just wasn’t any way to get out there and get stuff. I think we got a photo of my grandfather in his WWI suit but my silly sister in law destroyed when she decided the mahogany frame it was in needed to be used for something else. There may be a few other things, maybe one of my older brothers or sisters – who were a lot closer to my grandparents – managed to score something. All I have left are hard feelings over some of the things my grandmother said to my father when I was away for my part of Operation Desert Storm. I;m fine with that, it keeps that fire inside burning.
When I was at Leavenworth, I did visit Horton where my grandparents used to live only to find that their old house had burned to the ground. I visited their graves but that was about it. It wasn’t rapprochement, but I think that would have made my dad happy. I’m glad you have happy memories of your folks to share with your daughter. It’s nice to keep that sort of thing alive.
I have and still use my Ace Hard Rubber comb that I bought June 1989 at a greyhound bus station en router to DC, the bus ride where high school ended and adulthood began. I have older things than that but they don’t see constant use like that comb.
007 pocket knife left behind where a relative waited tables….old enough to be ‘made in japan’ which became today’s ‘made in china’.
This was a great read, Thomas. So many things we buy are ephemeral, even cars – but I still have and treasure the paperbacks I purchased as a teenager. Mostly Fantasy or SF by Lieber, Schmitz, and Heinlein, and nothing special in cover art variations or the quality of paper or binding. They’ll sit until I’m gone and probably be tossed shortly after. C’est la vie!
Some time around the seventh grade, I decided that I was going to keep every book I ever read. I was a regular at the used book shops around Everett and over the years built a library with hundreds of books – mostly Sci-Fi, but also with a large selection of Bantam War Books that are damn difficult to find these days. Selling those books was the absolute low point, I read so many of them again and again and losing them was like losing a part of myself.
Once in a while I decide to go looking for a particular book and, thanks to the internet, am usually able to track them down. I haven’t done it very often because books are heavy and our household goods shipments are limited by weight, but it’s pretty satisfying to have those tiny pieces back.
In the final analysis it’s all just stuff; however, that doesn’t prevent us from becoming sentimental. In this regard I am ever more keenly aware of my maternal grandfather’s practical perspective toward material goods. He was a farmer and there were few items he and my grandmother owned that didn’t have a purely utilitarian function. When he passed on I received the English Smith-Enfield mantle clock they purchased in 1939 at the outbreak of WWII. One of my earliest memories from the late-1950s is the chiming of that clock as I lay in my child’s bed upstairs in their farmhouse. Sixty-plus years later the clock still does its thing, with our grandchildren listening to its steady beat and hourly strikings. Ultimately, life isn’t about objects but rather about such (hopefully fond) memories.
That’s exactly why I have a couple of chiming clocks around here. The old mantle clock from my parents had some issues a few years ago and I had to have it rebuilt. They didn’t do a good job and now it keeps time poorly and makes some unsatisfactory gear noises. I’m thinking that when we get home I’ll take it somewhere else and have it rebuilt again.
The other clock is a modern Seiko that makes nice noises and looks like an antique, but inside is entirely electronic. It sounds and works great, but it isn’t the same…
My dad’s old 1973 Advent Loudspeakers wake up every evening to some great music while we make and enjoy dinner. Just as they did when I was a kid, and they still transmit from a Yamaha stereo receiver (albeit, now from 2013 and not 1973). Nothing fancy, but keeps the memories alive for my kids.
Good speakers are one of the best investments you can make. Back in those days they were crafted and not just “made” .
A guy on local Craigslist has a set of 4 KEF mid-towers made in 1994 for sale… I so badly wish I could justify them somehow!
The thing that I have owned for longest would probably be my Atari 800 and the games for it. My mother threw away everything of mine she could at every opportunity. The computer survives because I took it to school with me on a whim. If I recall correctly, I got the 800 before Christmas of 1983. I was probably eleven years old at the time.
The oldest things I have are Roman coins, same as you.
The oldest things I interact with on a semi-regular basis are the eighteenth-century editions of Johnson and Boswell in my bookcase.
The oldest things I use on a constant basis would be my 1975 Honda CB550 (although I stopped riding it this past summer) or my 1995 Porsche 911 (same).
because my ancestors didn’t move often, i am blessed to have a number of old things from my parents, grandparents and beyond. yes, i have my father’s gold omega but more interestingly i have his boyhood copy of “just so stories” by rudyard kipling and “the morgan dennis book of dogs.”
what troubles me is how quickly we lose the context of these things. i have become obsessed with my family’s photo albums. i have several photos from the early 1900s that got mixed up in a box and i have been only able to separate some of them into mother’s side and father’s side piles. i’ll be damned if i know the names or my relation to many of the people pictured. i like to play sherlock holmes and figure out what’s going on in each shot. there’s a guy i think is my my maternal grandfather’s dad but i’m not sure. he rarely appears but he is always impeccably dressed. in one shot he appears awkwardly in a tailored three piece suit while everyone else is in shorts and sleeveless t-shirts on a summer day. i surmise that he is such an infrequent guest at his son’s home that he didn’t know to dress casually, or perhaps he is deliberately overdressed to set a proper example for the rest of them?
This is why archaeology is such an imperfect profession, and the study of history doubly so.
I have a couple items from my grandparents but not much. I do have some surviving pictures that are going on 100 years. Now that everything is digital this is a little anachronistic, but do your descendants a favor and label all your freaking pictures. I have a family portrait of someone that I am directly descended from but I have no idea who it is.
It is amazing how quickly that common family knowledge goes away. I have an copy of my great grandparents’ family photo taken around 1910. In the photo are my great grandparents and their seven sons. I think I can identify three of the boys. While my father would have known them all, where they went and what became of them, that knowledge was not passed down. Now they are just ethereal faces in looking out at me from a fuzzy photo.
Given how often we move and how isolated we are from my brothers and sisters, my kids will know even less about my family. To combat that, I spend a lot of time talking to my kids about my brothers and sisters and what it was like growing up in the big woods. Still, I suspect that when I;m gone the disconnect will be sharp.
The one I was specifically thinking of is a family portrait with a bunch of kids and I think one of my grandparents is in the picture but I have no idea which one of the children she is. My dad and his brother cut off all their cousins after my grandparents died. From what I know about it I am not saying they were wrong to do so, but it is a little lonely sometimes.
Having moved four times tends to help you cull things you really don’t need. Before our move from Atlanta to Grand Rapids, the storage unit we had flooded ruining many keepsakes. Having just recently purchased what could be considered a tiny home (847 sq. ft.) after 20 years in a house of 1700+ square feet, downsizing has been the watchword. We’re STILL winnowing things we find we don’t really need. Next on the block? My 1000+ diecast collection.
Hang on to the important things, the rest of it really is just stuff.
Great article, Thomas.
My favorite thing about old stuff that I love is juxtaposing it with new stuff that I love. Like watching my 11-year-old son fire my 1910 Swedish Mauser. Or seeing my 1-year-old daughter snuggle my favorite stuffed dog from when I was her age. Or ploughing a groove in the grandfather clock I’m building with a Stanley #45 from 1870-something. It’s a humbling thing to so manifestly connect the past and present like that.
Thoughtful and direct as always Thomas .
At least you were allowed to choose what to sell over time .
I have very little from my childhood or even the late 1960’s sad to say .
My Son doesn’t seem very interested in anything from my past .
Just before Pops died I visited him and he went through hundreds of old photos I’d never seen before, a few I remembered when they were taken .
He said ‘when I’m gone share these amongst your selves’ to the six of us Siblings .
There was one photo of me I wanted, I was wearing a sailor suit when I was maybe 4 years old, I’d never seen it before .
He died and there was a mad rush of five down the hall to his room then noises like feeding time at the zoo ensued for a long time, I just left .
His Wife found a few photos lying on the floor and sent them to me, no baby in a sailor suit sad to say .
Life goes on .
I bet you have things from when you were married and your Children were little ~ I have a few faded things my Son made when he was in grade school, no one touches them under pain of death . he wants them taken off my refri, AS IF .
The sheer volume of paper that my kids’ school sends home is beyond overwhelming. I am sure that someday I’ll want to look at the cute things they did at this age, but 99% of it goes in the recycling bin. It feels terrible but also necessary, ya know?
We do that too. You have to pick and choose or you just get overwhelmed. Every doodle isn’t a work of art worthy of preservation, but a good parent knows when something rises to the occasion.
My aunt said to put the stuff in a plastic bin, then cull them from bottom to top/oldest to newest as it fills up. Some of it is cute, some of it is even good, but the sheer volume is overwhelming.
I don’t have any heirloom items. I’m honestly not sure that my parents do, either. I guess I come from a line of people who are not very sentimental…
The oldest thing I have is also the oldest thing I use and that’s a ’78 911SC. It was part graduation gift (parents fronted me a down payment) and it was near bottom of the barrel for price at the time of purchase. It’s the only vehicle I’ve felt emotional attachment to. Actually, it is one of the only objects where that’s the case for me.
I do have cases of notes from school. Ostensibly for reference but I should get rid of them.