Belongings

Fern Downing


My father owned a second-hand store. There was not a lot of pride in being pragmatic in the heart of this nine-year-old, just shame, thinking that we could not afford what everyone else could. Our furniture was never new and neither were our cars. Being the only kids in the neighborhood with a horse-drawn carriage for playground equipment diminished the sting somewhat, but not enough.

I was raised on cast-offs and hand-me-downs. One warm spring day I received a brand-new pair of dungarees. Remembering that day, I see colors. The sky was blue and cloudless and the sun shone a brilliant yellow. The grass, new and tender, was the greenest it would be all season. My jeans, the color of the sky, were precious, not only for the rare times I received new clothes, but also for that cerulean blue.

The very first time I wore them, I joined a game of hide-and-seek. Jumping a privet hedge, I slipped on the wet grass and sprawled face down on the lawn. I ground grass stains into both knees. Knowing they were permanently stained, I was crushed, but that was the moment when the jeans became mine. The image of those jeans held my attention for years.

Playing on an upside-down metal lawn chair that summer, I sat on the bottom side of the seat, holding the tubing in front of me. I rocked the chair, my head jutted forward, and the chair lunged back, cracking the tubing into my mouth. Warm blood and grit from the shattered tooth stuck to my tongue. A painful string dangled from the tooth; the nerve adjusting to its modified home. The sharp tooth cut my tongue and lip as I learned to accommodate it.

Nearing fifty, my chipped tooth remains. My grandmother had a chipped tooth as well, and so, I look in the mirror and see remnants of a grandmother I have not had since I looked in the mirror and saw unblemished teeth. My grandmother, not much older than I am today, was a poet who looked into herself for richness in life. I like seeing her chipped tooth and hope the resemblance goes beyond that. Eventually these stegosaurus plates will be surrendered for dignified, manufactured caps, but not for now. My teeth are record-keepers; they remind me of that nine-year old girl and my grandmother.

Ten years ago, at age thirty-seven, I married. My husband, then thirty-one, shaved every other day. His body was hard. His face did not reveal the life already lived. Today, tiny crow's feet in the corners of his eyes are as innumerable as the smiles that put them there. His hairline is slowly receding; he is starting to go bald. The soft downy fuzz that now grows in the margins between hair and baldness reminds me of the fuzz that grew on our son's head when he was a newborn. I enjoy the changes that life, our life together, has left on his face. Love of many years wears us down like stones in water, at times raw from grinding, at others, smooth and calming. This love has depth and meaning for me.

When we married, my mother-in-law gave us the three-season cottage next door to her house. It had four rooms, cheap paneling, and a shifting cinder block frost wall beneath. It was also a home several of her grandchildren lived the first years of life. It was filled with spiders and memories. Both Joe and I came into the marriage with children, and soon had one more. The only way we could have the space we needed and pay our bills was to repair the house ourselves. This immense undertaking has made the house ours, in every sense of the word.

Unsatisfied with plain, dull walls, I started drawing on them. At the foot of the staircase in the entryway I drew a seven-foot tarot card. The Hermit, IX, stands alone on a snow-covered mountaintop with a staff in one hand and a lantern in the other. He is draped in a black hooded cloak that covers him from head to foot. It started as a sketch; I have since painted him, but I am reluctant to finish. Painting the lantern strap and adding a tint to his face would finish it, but it would change our relationship. I am not ready to part with him yet. He is the centerpiece of a room I have taken as my own. Between the framed family photographs that cover the other walls I plan to add script, a collection of quotes and poems. I moved a desk and computer there so I can write in relative quiet.

I like to own books rather than borrow them because I write in the good ones, the ones that inspire. I am most excited about finding thoughts that lead me to the exact conclusion as the author. Parallels in thought, exact words I might use, ideas I have a kinship with, I comment about in the margins. I underline favorite sections. Asterisks are my highest compliments. The books I struggle to finish, if I finish them at all, are clean, lifeless.

Many times the things that come to be mine are worn, have a patina showing the passage of time, reflect a life already lived. New things become mine after being marked or damaged in some way, imprinted with life, with me. Unlike that nine-year-old, I like my second-hand life. I have ceased to want the pristine. I find comfort in, and preference for, the second-hand. It brings a complexity, a sense of time, and a belonging. Like the growing plant for which I am named, I grow best surrounded by decay and humus.

I wrote these disjointed ideas sensing a connection just below the surface of my conscious mind, niggling at me. Like a dream half remembered, haunting me in a quiet moment, I sense this is about ownership. Then again, it may be about belonging, as much as it is about belongings. The border between possessor and possessions is blurred. We belong to the things we own as much as they belong to us.


© Fern Downing

Fern Downing lives with her family in Ossipee, New Hampshire and works as an interpreter for the deaf in public school. She is currently working on a degree in English at The College for Lifelong Learning.


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