The Artifacts of Everyday Life

We have lost Christopher Robin’s mother recently, and her estate and all her things must be settled. CR is back in England taking care of it. As you read this, I will photo-83be on my way.  It’s been challenging to stick to my writing schedule, worrying and feeling the upheaval, and that was my first thought for today’s blog—that I would talk about getting work done, making progress even when life turns upside down.

But it would be false because I haven’t been writing very much at all. I couldn’t tell you what I have been doing except taking a lot of walks and cooking like a crazy person. One night I sat down to a genuinely beautiful bowl of French onion soup, which happens to be one of my favorite comfort foods. The broth is a rich, deep vegetarian stock I’ve finally perfected after months of trying, the depth imparted by very slowly carmelized onions, and I was quite pleased as I admired it in the soup. Then I realized that I’d also baked the bread, a simple French bread that doesn’t keep well, so I make several baguettes and cut them in half and freeze them for later.

Such a cook I am! I thought to myself, digging in.

What has that to do with writing? It has a lot to do with my writing, actually. I seem to find stories in food and nourishment and the way we bring food to each other, the way we feed and coddle each other, the way some of us cook to heal or think or find connection to the simple act of feeding ourselves, creating something all in an hour or a day.

Cooking is what I do when I’m sad or lonely or need to think about a book—all of which I’ve felt here and there over the past week.

I’ve been thinking about the stories women leave behind, and how we can find them. I made sure CR knew to put aside all the photos until I got there, but I forgot to tell him to leave the kitchen alone. I want the chance to go through her cookbooks and recipes, make sure to gather her recipes, the ones she wrote by hand, anything that her mother might have written down, all the tidbits and notes women tuck into their cookbooks.  I don’t mean this to be sexist in anyway, but Gina was of a generation that took pride in cakes prepared just so for summer gatherings, and fluffy white rice dotted with fresh green peas.

Imagine my distress when I learned that CR’s brother had been in the kitchen all day today, “throwing things away.”  My dismay must have been written all over my face (we were Skyping), because he hurried to add, “The good news is, I’ve traded a tea set for stories from a WREN in the war.”

Which didn’t entirely allay my dismay, but it will be a very sweet afternoon. I’ll gobble her stories like cream from a cake.

Women leave their stories in different ways.  Often, they are left behind in the record of the splattered cookbooks they used over and over, through the decades.  I have a cookbook that my grandmother gave me when I was married, and she wrote in it in several places, noting a recipe that reminded her of childhood.  My ex used the cookbook a lot, and it ended up stained and marked by twenty years of fried this and gravied that.  It reminds me—kindly, warmly—of both of them now.  Our own Jael McHenry wrote powerfully and poignantly of the power of the recipes left behind in The Kitchen Daughter.

My grandmother left behind a cedar chest full of letters, hundreds and hundreds of them, all handwritten. Some were even from me and my siblings and my mother. There were a few from my grandmother’s mother, who died when my grandmother was very young.  It was eerie to see her handwriting on the page, talking about normal things.  In some letters, the women talked about keeping the children in because of a polio epidemic.  The swimming pools were closed, and the movie theaters and everyone was hot and irritable.   Those letters are a treasury of ordinary life, just as recipes and cookbooks can be.

I’ve kept a thousand million words of ordinary life (often cranky or petty or small, but now and then beautiful, kind, inspired, thoughtful) in journals I’ve been writing since grade school.  I sometimes considered burning them all, but my eldest son was absolutely horrified and begged me not to ever do that.  They contain my story, he said. He doesn’t want that story burned.

The journals go along with my recipes and the cookbooks, some now abandoned as I move to new cuisines, new ways of doing things. The history is in their existence. The French phase, when I was teaching myself with Julia Child. The Rodale phase, when my children were small and I took care to keep processed food away from their rosebud little mouths.

The history of our lives is found in the artifacts of every day life. As novelists, our job is to tease stories out of the things left behind, or scattered over a garage sale tale.  Or sometimes, you can get lucky and get a woman’s story for the trade of a tea set. I’ll have to let you know how that goes.  (A WREN! Imagine!)

Do you see stories in cookbooks and artifacts? Do you have artifacts—family or found—that beg you to tell their stories? What artifacts do men leave? How do we piece the stories of their lives? 

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About Barbara O'Neal

Barbara O'Neal has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life, which landed her in the Hall of Fame. Her latest novel, The All You Can Dream Buffet has just been released by Bantam Books in March. A complete backlist is available here.

Comments

  1. says

    My family owns a house on the historical register (for those interested, pictures are here: http://anamericandowntonabbey.blogspot.com/2013/02/in-my-fathers-house.html). The house was built by my great-grandfather. He was a dry goods merchant with really good taste, so he picked all the furnishings. The house has never been remodeled, and all the furnishings are still there, right down to knitting his daughters left in a drawer.

    I used to always think of the house as one of those you’d find in a mystery novel, and maybe one day, I’ll do one set there. But I’ve used it as a boarding house in my current novel, and it was the basis on the idea for the next novel.

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  2. Jeanne Kisacky says

    Hi Barbara, sorry to hear of your loss. In my family food was always comfort, and cooking it was part of the grieving/loving duality. So I’m totally with you on the interest of family recipes and cookbooks.

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  3. says

    Barbara, you are a wonder … treasure all these things. I have very few artefacts from my family. Immigrants have precious little they carry with them, but the stories and family recipes remain. I often make comfort food for when I miss my mom, her roasted eggplant was the best. And I am passing these on to my children.

    When we moved to SC, I threw a huge stack of my journals. Yes, it’s ordinary, daily stuff, lists, ideas, prayers, rants, ravings, but it’s for me to process my thoughts. My blog serves as a journal for our family/writing life, things I am willing to make public. Some of my family stories have been published in magazines. Others not. I hope to make a little book of them some day for my kids. I still have all the letters my husband and I wrote over the years to each other. We still write daily letters and I suppose in this day and age, either nothing will be preserved due to changing technology or everything, even the things we do not intend to.

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    • says

      How touching that you and your husband write letters to each other every day!

      Thank you for the immigrant perspective. A lot of us are far removed from those times in our own families, and that adds a layer of preciousness to everything that does actually make the journey.

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  4. says

    Barbara-

    What’s left behind when loved ones go are things, which in one day turn from clutter to treasures. They contain the power to evoke memories, mostly good, and store emotions the way batteries store energy.

    Under the bed in my mother’s house are flat storage boxes filled with her children’s Kindergarten art, class photos, report cards, Scout badges, programs from school plays and more. My whole childhood is there, ready to be recalled.

    I’m saving memory boxes too, scraps and artifacts of my adult life. There are commemorative plates and ties from ocean sailboat races, ticket stubs for plays seen with ex-girlfriends, a painful journal of the last desperate year of a failed relationship, and of course many, many photos.

    Places hold memories too, as do pressed flowers, old clothes and even books. I recently downloaded online a picture of rural Oley, Pennsylvania, near Reading, and instantly details of my Great Uncle Locker’s sheep farm came flooding back. I could smell the furniture polish my Great Aunt Margaret used on her heirloom pieces.

    Memories are powerful, and powerful tools for the novelists especially when they yield details that bring the past alive. What I’d add to your rich onion soup of a post, Barbara, is that it’s also important to remember that we don’t live in the past. We’ve all grown.

    The past is potent but only important when it’s a place from which characters must finally depart. In stories, the past becomes most powerful in the moment of letting it go.

    Gather those recipes from the women in your family, yes, but don’t forget to write down your own. It’s your recipe for happiness that matters, Barbara. That’s the one I want to read.

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  5. says

    My husband’s mom gave me a priceless gift: the same wartime cookbook that my mother used all through my childhood in Mexico.

    The two women never met until our wedding, and then only once or twice afterward when my mother visited us in the States, but when I saw the cookbook that had all my favorites – oatmeal cookies anyone? – in MIL’s basement, I was startled – and she kindly signed over to me a cookbook that HER mother-in-law had given her!

    My mother-in-law just died, and I was telling the story to my only daughter – who will now receive the cookbook when she has a more permanent home than college.

    Funny the things that tie us women together, isn’t it? Funny – and lovely. Especially when they come with stories.

    Please accept my condolences – this is a hard time.

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  6. says

    Between your wonderful post, Linda’s link to her (gorgeous) house, and Don’s great reply, I am reminded of our second house. It was a 1916 Craftsman Foursquare, previously owned by one family, of which three generations lived there, ending with one elderly widow, who finally passed away, leaving the house available for us to buy.

    The best part was the standup attic, which had been the widow’s father’s, then husband’s office. The walls were wallpapered floor to ceiling with WW2 posters and newspapers with banner headlines. The attic was also full of boxes of photo albums and loose photos and memorabilia. Being both a history buff and just plain nosey, I pored over it all (we actually owned it, but it still felt nosey going through it). Besides all of the documentation of the widow’s departed husband’s service in WW2, we found delightful pictures of the ex-GI running and pushing his daughter on her first two-wheeled bike ride in front of our house, complete with early fifties model cars parked along the roadside–both of them grinning. I also found the same little girl’s wedding photos, taken at the house, complete with a string quartet set up in our foyer.

    We presumed the widow was the last of the family, with no one left to claim this treasure trove of memories. But later our realtor told us the daughter was alive and well, and living in Arizona. She’d been contacted about her mother’s things, but told the realtor’s office to have it thrown away. Luckily they just left it (we later donated much of it to the local historical society, and left the rest with the house when we moved). But it begs the question. What had happened? Why didn’t the daughter want these treasures? Had she, as Don suggests, simply found a way to depart the past–to let go? It such a sunny house, and the pictures were so Ozzie and Harriet. But it seems like something dark must’ve been there to make her want such a severe and absolute departure.

    Ah, the power of story. Even someone else’s. I’ve always thought it would make a good novel. We always want to know more, don’t we?

    Sorry for yours and CR’s loss, Barbara. Lovely post. Thanks for sharing your recipes for savory writing.

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  7. says

    I’m so sorry for your and CR’s loss. I can really relate to this because I’ve kept all my grandmother’s recipes and postcards and photographs and letters and from time to time (like yesterday), I’ll go through them and find something that brings back a story we shared together. Mostly, I commented to tell you I’m a kindred spirit, that I too find the history of our lives in the artifacts and ephemera. What a beautiful post, Barbara, thank you for sharing.

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  8. says

    What a wonderful post. Thanks for this.

    I’m still upset whenever I think of the great box of old letters and photos that was my grandfather’s, that was lost (cast away) shortly after his death. I had that box in my hands at one point but didn’t want to claim it without discussing it with anyone, and then next thing I know it’s gone. Among the relics was a letter written by Robert Kennedy (or more likely a secretary) to my grandfather, who was a local politician, thanking him for having him over to my grandfather’s house for a game of poker. Imagine. That house with the creaky porch and the winding stairs that always worried my grandmother (at least where her grandchildren were concerned) once played host to a Kennedy.

    Riley has already put in a claim for all of my recipes, for later, and I’m glad.

    I hope you’re able to retrieve those kitchen notes, Barbara. Even if you aren’t, I suspect you’ll find some compelling stories on your trip. All best to you both.

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  9. Melissa Lewicki says

    I have my grandmother’s old recipe box and the notebook she used in junior high to record the recipes she learned in Home Ec. My favorite recipe is one for a fruit cocktail cake. She says to top it with brown sugar and “a 49 cent bag of chopped nuts.” I laugh every time I make it.

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  10. says

    I loved reading your post, Barbara, along with the comments. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around why I collect memorabilia. What will I do with it? I’m not sure my two children will be interested so what will happen when I pass away? These are questions I have refused to think about for many years but as I grow older, I know the issue has to be addressed. I have many, many photo albums which I find almost impossible to look through because it’s painful for me to realize how time has flown and I want to go back to when my kids were babies. But I cannot, though I continue to yearn for “that time”. I’m hoping one day to be able to look through the memorabilia and not cry for what was. Maybe that’s why I am grabbing onto the newest mindfulness motto of “living in the moment” – it keeps me away from looking at my past.
    Hmmmmm.

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  11. says

    What a beautiful post. And while I am not one to spend any more time in the kitchen than required, I do have a handful of recipes that are cherished. Thankfully, I have a husband who loves to cook so they might actually get used. But for me, the part I cherish is that they are handwritten by my mother, by my grandmother.

    There are so many memories of being in the kitchen with my grandmother, watching her cook, nibbling on the tidbits she would share with me. I remember her slicing cheese and sneaking me pieces long before dinner. And the same for my mother — the things that she made for us, because us kids liked them.

    I also look at the artifacts that I collect for my son — his first Halloween costume (a more adorable bumblebee can’t be found), his baby teeth, his drawings, cards between his father and me…things that I want my son to have when he’s older and recalls his childhood. Sometimes, it’s the most insignificant things that tell the stories of our lives.

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  12. Bernadette Phipps-Lincke says

    When I was a child, I grew up hearing stories about my Uncle Shane. He was poet, a scholar and an athlete, who joined the Irish Brigades and somehow ended up as a paratrooper in WWII. He died at the age of 26 when the Germans greeted his platoon with machine gun fire as they jumped from the sky. After the war, my grandmother received his watch, and a letter from a German woman who had nursed him during his last moments of life, he’d crawled into her barn to die. Uncle Shane, a shadow, a legend.

    The year I entered high school, I discovered in a box a books in my family’s garage, a volume of Keats’ poems with a pasted certificate inside from an English boarding school stating it was a Prize for being first in the Latin language. Shane’s name scrawled underneath in his own hand. Uncle Shane became real for me in that moment. Keats has ever since been my favorite poet.

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  13. says

    My father left behind a screwdriver and a small hammer. He used them both to “fix” things. His method was to stab at the problem item first with the screwdriver and when that failed to work (which it invariably did) he’d pound away with the hammer until the uncooperative thing broke into pieces. Then he’d chuck it in the trash, wiping his hands of the whole business. My mom, on the other hand, was a glue freak and all her flower containers and Japanese figurines are held together with gobs of glue. But after many years, when you pick one of her repaired items up, it usually comes apart in one’s hands. Their charming frailties always bring a grin to my face as I relive their hapless times trying to “fix” stuff. God love ’em!

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  14. says

    Barbara, condolences on your loss. Times such as these bring us to a halt to consider the people and artifacts around us, for sure.

    Due to timing and moves from here to there, many artifacts were lost along the way. I do try to recall, visually, some of the items that my mother shared when she was alive. One special item that I recall was a black-covered binder in which my grandmother had stored her favourite, hand-written recipes. This binder was filled with manilla-coloured lined sheets of paper looped through metal rings. There was no spine to the binder, just black binder covers for front and back, well over 100 years old, it drew my attention like a magnet when I was a child. Not sure where it went when I went off to university. Mother died when I was 23 & no one else recalls this little gem.
    Thanks for sharing your take on artifacts!

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  15. says

    Thank you so much for sharing. I have too little, it seems, but the heartfelt value I place upon each item in my possession is beyond dollars. The oldest items I have are the manger my grandfather handcrafted and many family photos, including the group shot where my young grandfather and others are posing with Edison. It pains me that I have little of my mother’s, though I have some of her jewelry, her sewing box, and treasured pictures. I lost my father less than two weeks ago and now can hold the policeman’s badge he wore when I was little look at the many pictures of him standing atop the mountains he loved so dearly. Things, I guess, are memories to help heal the grief.

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  16. says

    I am ashamed to say that this is the first post on WU that I have taken time to respond to. Not that I don’t want to, but I always have a lot on when checking my email first thing. I leave things dumped on the stairway of my mind to pick up later… Your post today made dump everything else on that stairway and respond immediately after reading… and a little marveling.

    I wish very person particularly parents, of any age, could read this. I have always kept diaries and journals, I taught my children and all my friends to write. I bought or made them their first journals, and still buy them for my grown up little people. My own are in books I have made from old envelopes and recycled mail, or on the scraps of brown paper bag at the bottom of a drawer.

    When my older daughters were eighteen I gave them the journal I had kept at the time they were born. I wanted them to know the joy I felt when words were not big enough. My second daughter who is only just about 19 is expecting my first grandchild in 4 weeks… and I cannot imagine what this experience will be like for me… but I will try and get it on paper…

    Thank you Barbara, I am sending this post to everyone I know.

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  17. says

    I know what you mean about cookbooks. My mother didn’t have any, she had a staple of recipes she knew by heart and that was it. My father was the cook, the explorer when it came to food.

    My M-I-L has an old cookbook that was given to her when she got married. When she goes(hopefully, not anytime soon.) I want that cookbook. I love going through it and thinking of the favorite recipes she made over and over for her kids.Each recipe has it’s own story. Most of what I learned of cooking I learned in her kitchen.

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  18. Patricia says

    My mother’s battered, crumpled copy of a cookbook: Recipes on Parade – 2000 World Wide Favorites of Military Officers Wives. It will touch your heart and make you smile. The idea that an officer’s wife had to quickly make a meal for unexpected guests, and also her family while stationed somewhere far from home, whether in the USA or overseas. Printed in 1964, it contains a recipe from Mrs. Jackqueline Kennedy and the current First Lady at that moment, Mrs. Ladybird Johnson. I wouldn’t part with this book for anything.

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  19. says

    Barbara, my condolences. We recently lost my 90-year-old mother-in-law and twelve months earlier my 89-year-old mother passed away. My sisters-in-law had thrown away all their mother’s papers etc, but my Mum was a hoarder and there were some amazing things in her pile of papers – an invitation to my aunt’s 21st (a tiny gilt-edged printed card), a fold-out black-and-white postcard depicting an Outback town in the 1930s, and lots of letters. We didn’t get to go through these papers until weeks after she left us, but at the wake after her funeral we put her many boxes of photos on the table for family and friends to go through, and it was amazing the joy these brought. Cousins I hadn’t seen in years shared memories that were new to me, my brothers recalled happy moments when pics were taken.
    A friend who had also lost both her parents said to me, “We are now the brains trust of our families”. Hopefully I can leave a wonderful legacy for our kids.

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  20. says

    Wonderful blog, with great comments. Like many of the other writers who have already commented, I too have stacks of journals from childhood and letters from old boyfriends and photo albums…After our father died my brother took all of the letters my father wrote back and forth between his parents during WWII. He copied them for the grandchildren–all 4 volumes. A labor of love. But like Donald said so eloquently, it is what we create out of the scraps of paper and photos in our lives that now matter.
    Thanks for sharing this. Next up–how about your recipe for onion soup?

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  21. says

    For the past year, I’ve subscribed to a menu-planning service: they send a week of dinner recipes with prep and a grocery list, and I don’t have to think too hard on soccer or band practice nights. It’s bursting out of the binder. After dinner last night I shuffled pages around, and my high-school-aged son came in to ask questions. In what format did I get the week’s plan? How was it sorted or stored? How did I get back to that chicken casserole recipe when we wanted to make it again, and was he going to be able to take this with him to college? These aren’t the recipes of my grandmothers (or even my parents) but the householding is (even some of the pots). I’m more touched that I imagined I would be to see my son put the pieces together and get some pleasure from it.

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  22. says

    This post reminded me of a Reader’s Digest anecdote from decades ago, which still makes me smile, and which says much about the art of decoding cookbooks.
    A housekeeper was hired to look after a family while their mother recovered in the hospital. When the mother returned, she said to the housekeeper “My kids said you made all their favourite meals! How did you know what to cook?”
    The housekeeper said “Easy. I just opened the cookbook and found the pages that had the most splatters and stains.”
    Thank you for writing this blog, Barbara.

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  23. says

    Beautiful post, Barbara. My sincerest condolences to you and CR.

    When my mother was down-sizing a few years ago, I took possession of a box of my father’s things (he died in ’79). One little
    treasure is a journal of minutes from a “gang” he and six other friends had in their early teens in Howard, KS. They called themselves The Seven Sinners. In one of the notes, they comment disparagingly about “the sub-debs.” Priceless!

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  24. says

    I can absolutely empathize as I lost my mother last September. After asking her for years to write her and my father’s life story – she had managed some before passing. These pages coupled with my father’s letters to her and numerous poems are a treasure without compare for me & my siblings.
    Cherish every word, stain and crumpled note.

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