The statement, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” is often attributed to Sigmund Freud. Whether or not he said it, I disagree with the basic idea. I believe most objects are jampacked with meaning, history and emotion. I know my possessions are. (None, I hasten to add, prompt comparison to male reproductive organs.)
Jews, of course, understand the symbolic power and beauty of objects. How else could a simple and rather tasteless piece of flatbread, a matzah, acquire such meaning for our people? Or an etrog, a Chinese fruit, become a symbol of Sukkot?
On a much more personal level, I live in a house overflowing with items that provide more than mere utilitarian service. For example, the chair I’m sitting on as I write this story belonged to my husband’s mother. It is one of just three objects my husband hand-carried from his childhood home after she died. He didn’t take pictures, dishes or books. Just two scrapbooks and this chair. This chair where she sat every day in her later years, watching The “Wheel of Fortune” and eating sunflower seeds. This chair where she sat when he visited and they talked.
Often as I walk through my house, or as I dust, I feel as if I’m in a museum, like I’m a docent, silently reciting the history — the provenance — if you will, of a paperweight, a picture or a plate.
“On the right, you will see …”
In days past, I complained about how uncomfortable Grandma’s ornate walnut-carved couch is, the one I inherited when she died, the one she brought back from her one trip home to see her family in Hungary in 1929. Now, however, I think about how ostentatious it was of her to buy this elegant, impractical piece of furniture, and how she obviously was showing off to her innkeeper/peasant family how well-off she was in the “New Country.” So much “baggage” attached to this rickety old couch.
It has gotten to the point where I have attached labels to old photographs, with the names of the relatives, so that “after I’m gone” my kids will know who is who and why they should hang on to pictures.
It’s the same with the family jewelry. It’s not that the jewelry is so valuable. It’s just that it is old, handed down from grandmothers to mothers to daughters — and next to my children. Not “The Crown” old. Not “Romanoff” old. Not even “Mayflower” old, but Galatz and Kirschen family “old,” and I, as the daughter of a gambler, am proud that it wasn’t pawned off to pay casino debts.
I recently misplaced a sentimental piece of jewelry. Each day when I dress, I reach for it, and when I don’t feel it, mourn its loss anew. I am tormented by my carelessness in misplacing it and also, by not knowing where it is.
This “not knowing” reminds me of the scene from the movie “Harold and Maude,” when Harold gives Maude a ring and she promptly tosses it into a lake. Aghast, he asks why she would do such a thing.
“Now I’ll always know where it is,” she replies.
This notion of jewelry, hidden and lost, comes to mind in connection with a famous collection — the Colmar Treasure, medieval jewels hidden in a house wall by 14th-century French Jews who died of plague or persecution during the Black Death. (It was the subject of a recent show at the Met Cloisters.)
The jewels and a cache of coins were discovered in Colmar, France, in 1863 by workmen renovating a confectionary shop. As the Bubonic Plague swept over Europe in 1348, an unknown Jewish family in the town hid the coins and jewelry, including garnet, turquoise and emerald rings, within the walls of their house.
To me, these long-hidden pieces truly tell a poignant story — one even gifted historians will never fully discover.
It makes me appreciate how even the objects I own hide their stories from me. For example, my mother’s beautiful engagement ring. How did my father, an electrician, afford it? When did he buy it? They married as teenagers, just a few years after the Depression, and struggled for money. So, when and where did the ring enter the matrimonial picture?
Most people my age are obsessed with decluttering and downsizing. Me? I’m into labeling and categorizing. I want more shelf space to display. I want improved lighting for those displays. Maria Kondo me not!
And about cigars … When I see a cigar, I think about my father’s passion for Macanudo Prince of Wales cigars — pricy, stinky stogies we kids would buy him each holiday season — and my mother would banish to the backyard to smoke.
Karen Galatz, who wrote recently about her genealogical finds, lives in Berkeley, Calif.