June 01, 2005

What objects would you want to be remembered by?

If you could choose just five objects to be remembered by, what would they be?

The question is hardly trivial. Indeed, it's one that many people down the ages have pondered.

After all, the objects with which we surround ourselves tell much about our lives. Since they will outlast us, they may be the best shot at immortality we have.

• • •

An old friend conducting genealogical research recently discovered a photograph of my great-great-great-great grandmother. The photo intrigued me not just because it was the first picture I'd ever seen of Nancy Place but also for the few objects she chose to have set around her.

At her feet is an Irish setter. To her side are two porch chairs, used by her husband and she. To another side is a rocking chair, apparently pulled from the house behind her. Then there is an axe and a hoe, her husband's implements.

The objects form a sort of still life in which she is at the center.

I do not know of any tales about her setter, what she and my great-great-great-great grandfather talked about (if they talked at all) while sitting on those rocking chairs, have no idea what vegetables he took the greatest pleasure in raising. For that, I am the poorer.

But I do know much about what guided them through their days together.

• • •

The picture reminds me of an old painting by the Dutch master Jan Van Eyck, "The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami." The painting serves as a wedding portrait of the Italian merchant and his bride, but unlike today's photographs of such events that show only smiling, perfectly groomed faces, it surrounds the couple with several symbolic objects: a carpet and slippers, a rosary on the wall, a little brush beside the bed, fruit on the window sill.

It is as if we are paying a visit to the Arnolfini home.

We learn much about the Arnolfinis through these objects. The fruits on the window ledge stand for fertility and the Renaissance belief in man's fall from Paradise. Discarded shoes signify the sanctity of marriage. Another symbol is St. Margaret, the patron saint of women in childbirth, whose image is carved on a chair back.

Art long has been a way to preserve a bit of our beliefs and personal stories. The pharaohs inside their tombs included elaborate paintings that told of their exploits. Archeologists use them today to create an outline of what life was like thousands of years ago.

• • •

Even today, high school seniors often select a prop that hints at their unique personalities: a basketball for the athlete, a musical instrument for the band student, a hat for the bohemian. Years later, a quick glance at the photograph shows classmates something far more than a youthful face.

Those who understand the power of image and what it connotes are keen to surround themselves or their clients with the appropriate prop and scenery.

Should there be any surprise that during the last presidential election George W. Bush and Al Gore wore virtually the same colored suit, always over a crisp white shirt, brightened only by either a power red or a federal blue tie? Or that those stumping for the new Homeland Security Department did so with an American flag or pictures of firefighters and police officers behind them?

In the age of television and the 15-second sound bite, becoming cynical about such iconography is easy enough.

Yet, we should not fault the image-maker any more than those who respond to such images.

After all, if we were not moved in some way by the pictures of saluting children and amber waves of grain, the image would not have been used.

Self-awareness of what evokes emotion and passion in us may be just as important as the ability to reason through an argument.

• • •

What five objects would you chose to be remembered by?

Most of us make such decisions subconsciously, I suspect.

A columnist from Sioux Rapids recently sent a family snapshot so her photo could run with the op-ed. It showed her, her husband and their two children sitting on a picnic table in a verdant backyard, cornfield and big sky behind them. Her husband, an army reservist, wore his military fatigues. One of the children had the logo of a recent NFL playoff team on his shirt.

It was just a snapshot, a quick family portrait taken with a Polaroid.

Or was it?

• • •

Gazing upon the grainy picture of my great-great-great-great-grandmother, I try to imagine what message she left for me from decades ago.

Was the dog a sign that friendship and loyalty were respected? Is the pair of porch chairs a symbol of fidelity and companionship that comes with marriage? Does the axe and hoe represent their constant struggle with nature to survive? Or perhaps they show the tools one needed to find a balance with nature in order to survive.

And passing the framed pictures of family in my hallway, I wonder what clues to my life and our times those images may hold for my great-great-great-great granddaughter.

I only can hope they offer the right lessons of life, should she choose to look for them.

(originally published June 1, 2003)

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