There are two old fashioned hurricane lamps that sit on the mantel of my living room. They are electric and they still work but I know that there are some broken spots in the glass where it sits into the base and I know that the bottoms of the bases have to be handled just so. The brass is a bit worn and, in truth, could probably use refinishing and they don’t really seem to be in keeping with the more contemporary feel of the room and yet, they are in the place of honor like the precious items they are to me.
Those two lamps are the most important to me of the few physical items I have that came from my parent’s house. They sat on the buffet in my parent’s dining room for as long as I can remember and they were the only thing I took when we cleaned out the house after my father died. The dining room was a favorite spot of mine. The furniture was dark wood, massive and had carvings on the doors of the cabinets and around the table. I loved to look at my mother’s collection of teacups in the china cabinet, deciding which one was my favorite of the different patterns. I often sat on the floor, back against the cabinet and read, tucked in by the wall to the living room. And as a small child, I loved to look up at the prisms of the huge crystal chandelier and see the patterns the light created on all of the walls.
So when my dad died, the lamps came home with me, wrapped in bubble wrap, cushioned with towels, treated as not just fragile but irreplaceable. They have moved with me more than once and each time they are an item that the movers cannot touch, that only I can pack and that must be carefully transported in a car, never a moving van. My kids know how important these lamps are to me, in fact, my youngest once wrote a college essay about them.
I thought about those lamps last week when I was talking with a friend going through a very difficult time. She lives in Nebraska and was forced to evacuate her home. I asked her how she decided what to take with her, having literally just an hour to decide. The short answer—she just went into a sort of “automatic” mode grabbing necessities and valuables as best she could. The question stayed with me for days—what would you do, how would you decide what matters and what doesn’t?
When I came home, I looked around and realized that there were certainly things I would be sad to lose and sure to miss but there is little that is more than just “things.” Important documents, family photos, sentimental items, those would be at the top of my list. Would I take my mother’s lamps or would I say goodbye and hope they were there on my return? They are a symbol of my history but the history is really the story I have to share.
Bringing this into our world of older adult services, when we move our loved ones into a community setting do we ask them which items have the most meaning? Do we capture those stories and their history? For, without the urgency of an imminent flood, we are asking them to walk away from their possessions, to walk away from their memories. How do we save them for ourselves and for future generations?