April 9, 2020

The Soul of Secondhand.

Memories are viscerally stored in leaded crystal.  

Marie Kondo directs us to the joy of giving every item in your home its own home, by way of tidy compartments or canisters. 

I follow her instructions liberally, and buy leaded crystal bowls and baskets from the thrift store to let my Chaga tea rest in its own fancy nest. 

Our thrift store has its own section of crystal and another for silver. These are things that nobody wants, but someone deemed valuable enough to donate, for someone might want a leaded crystal basket. These things mostly sit on the shelf in a state of semi-permanent abandonment—ignored until I stand in line to purchase a crystal bowl or basket. 

Crystal in my hand, it is no longer an unwanted item, and therefore sets hearts aflutter.

The ladies in the store approach me. I am a curiosity.

They want to know what I will do with this, how I will use it. They delight in seeing a “young person” purchasing crystal, and expound on the virtues of my identification of quality and longevity that seem to be lost on the others in my generation. They express curiosity about the idea of purchasing such a thing rather than waiting for it to be received as a gift. I hear stories about their wedding presents or their grandmother’s crystal decanters, even though I have never purchased a crystal decanter.

I actually don’t see how anyone stores their tea in plastic. Plastic from the dollar store has no story, no memories. Plastic sets no hearts aflutter.

I have always preferred old things to new things. 

In my childhood, my sister and I would tiptoe into the abandoned pink stucco farmhouse on the property to creep ourselves out and look around. Someone had left behind glass pop bottles, an old telephone, and two gumball machines. A house full of treasures from another time. 

Who’s life was this? What was the reason these items had been deemed good enough to keep but no longer relevant for use? Why had they been abandoned here and not somewhere else? Like the customers in the thrift store, my sister and I left these things where they were laid to rest.

In Toronto, I became a customer of a now-closed vintage dress shop called Cabaret. When I stepped out from behind the fitting room curtain, it was common for another customer to ask me what the occasion was.

There wasn’t one.

Life itself is an occasion worthy of a 1940s silk dress.

I didn’t understand how anyone could pass one of these garments by or claim to need an occasion.

I lifted these pieces from the rack, from their remove of a closet or attic, and gave them life. The dresses danced and sang and twirled with strangers in their new life. Sequins sometimes scattered or a seam ripped, but I preferred that to death.

Whilst wearing these gowns and garments, and strangers approached with the same marvel and wonder, it is clear that it’s not just crystal that sets hearts aflutter. 

A decade later, when I opened my business, a private fitness studio, I returned to the abandoned farmhouse. The treasures tucked away since my childhood now had a use, a function, a purpose. The wooden apple crate became a storage container for medicine balls, the crate marked “ammo” the storage space for extra springs to my Pilates machine. 

More items from a second abandoned farmhouse I’d discovered came to life in their new studio home. My great grandmother’s kitchen drawers now held Pilates mats rather than the egg beaters and spoons they once contained. I transformed the wood cupboards into custom-made picture frames to house my certifications. Nobody notices my degree, but they notice the frames.

These items had been retained for years, their goodness and value recognized, their purpose a brief mystery, and new life emerged. This time, unlike the dresses or the crystal, their lineage and story were retained.

My mom’s aunt’s leather vintage suitcase now houses props rather than vacation attire. My aunt Ruth was the first dean of nursing at the university and I’m hoping her determination slips through to my clients.

I have a wooden sign with my last name mounted above a doorframe. This sign once marked the rink of my dad and his brothers, high-level competitive curlers. Now this is done by way of LED panels, but everyone’s last name looks better on wood than it does in lights. People feel compelled to ask why such a thing exists, for it’s not every day that one contemplates such items from the past.

My grandma Edith’s typewriter sits by the door, chatting liberally with visitors as she once would have. These items contain the soul and stories of their former owner.

My studio space is as interesting to newcomers as the pink stucco farmhouse was to me. Stories of my family live there, and it strikes the eyes and heart just as passionately to onlookers as my crystal treasures at the thrift store.

We tend to wait for occasions to use the good things.

Or we just don’t bother with the good things at all.

We wonder if there could be a use for something so fancy or something so old. How to maintain such an item.

We claim to prefer new things.

Yet our eyes and our hearts know the difference. We know when something is old, something is quality, something is special. We can tell the difference between crystal and plastic or between a dress from Zara and one from Zelda’s dress shop circa 1949.

Our practical nature says we don’t want to bother. These things are fussy or dusty or high maintenance. These things cannot her overnighted by way of Amazon.

Our souls know the difference. I’ve never purchased a new item in a store that brought me flocks of women. I’ve rarely had on a purchased “new with tags” dress that generated the response that my Hudson’s Bay jacket from the 1950s does: that of strangers literally running after me at the airport to share, connect, discuss, reminisce.

There is something deeply embedded in our psyche when we see something that hasn’t been in use for years alive, walking around, reignited with life.

It sets our hearts aflutter.

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