After living in Boca Raton for nearly 30 years, my grandmother has moved back to Chicago. She brought 64 boxes of her most prized possessions with her, from the small kitten-shaped cookie jar to ancient, odorless potpourri satchels. My family, believing that she simply needed reminders of home, helped her unpack these items and find space for them in her cozy, one-bedroom apartment. After we hung the familiar paintings of Jewish men in the Old Country (there must be at least 10), and got a whiff of Grandma’s signature scent – mothballs and Estee Lauder Azureé - it finally felt like she was home.
Reminders of home, however, were not exactly what she had in mind. No sooner had we unpacked those 64 boxes than Grandma began giving everything away. To me.
I’ve become accustomed to her new greeting each time I come to visit, “Hi, did you eat? Do you like this vase? Take it! It’s an antique!”
This particular vase was gold, with a floral motif. I asked where it came from, hoping to hear that it came with my great-grandmother when she immigrated from Poland, or that she and my grandfather picked it up in Austria when they went to visit his relatives, but instead she told me that friends of hers picked it up somewhere in New Jersey.
I asked, “Then how do you know it’s an antique?” She waved me off as if my question was ridiculous. After all, if it’s old, it must be an antique.
Since Grandma moved here in February, I’ve picked up a new silver (ish) bracelet, a tiered serving dish that may have been attractive in 1952, a chipped lox and bagel platter, a window crystal, a plastic, neon green bowl and a package of doilies (because a good hostess is never without them – what if the neighbors stop by?). After I returned from a spring trip to Israel, Grandma surprised me with paperweights etched with the image of the Western Wall. I tried to explain to her that, had I wanted paperweights with the Western Wall on them, I would have purchased them myself. In Israel. But she insisted I take them. After all, they were antiques.
Part of me cringes as I take home each “antique,” knowing my husband will look at the item and ask me if I ever plan to use it, and where I think I’m going to store it. Even though most of it would be considered junk in other people’s eyes, I can’t bring myself to refuse anything. The items may not have any monetary value, but they’re my grandma’s, and she wants me to have them.
Prior to my last visit to Grandma’s, she called to ask if I had enough picture frames. Even though I said yes, she had a stack waiting for me in the living room, and said that if I wanted any, I could just remove the photos and take the frames.
The frames were falling apart – many had lost their hooks and had been hung on a makeshift string, some had lost their stands and were propped against books – but what interested me more than the frames were the photos inside of them.
One black-and-white photo captured my grandma’s niece, Barbara, laughing at something or some one behind the camera. As I studied it, my grandma told me that Barbara was always smiling, always happy. I never knew that about Barbara, who had been my mom’s dear friend, and who passed away before I was born. Looking at the photo made me smile, too.
An older photo featured a young couple posing with a toddler. “That’s me,” said Grandma, pointing to the baby. “Believe it or not, I wasn’t always this old.” I was shocked to see my great-grandmother in her 20s; in my mind she was always 98-years-old. Yet here she sat with her young, handsome husband, not quite smiling, but certainly not looking like the old lady I remembered.
I told Grandma that I’d take the frames, as long as she’d give me the photos. “You like those old photos? Look at the albums in the den and take what you like.”
Together we pored over the old photo books. One picture featured my grandfather’s mother, who was killed in Auschwitz. Another showed my (now divorced) mom and dad the night before their wedding. Someone in the room must have said something funny, because the camera caught them looking at each other and laughing. My favorite photo was of my mom at her graduation, with blond hair to her waist and wearing bell-bottoms -- yet looking exactly like me.
I took home four framed pictures, two albums and a magnetic beaded necklace that night. The enthusiasm I demonstrated for the photos likely means there will be a fresh stack waiting for me next time I visit. If it means I also get to hear family stories and spend time with my grandma, I’ll bring home a set of novelty coasters and an “antique” brooch if she wants me to. Looking around my own living room, I’m starting to realize her tchatchkees add a bit of charm to my otherwise Crate and Barrel-filled home. And if someone asks where I got that crazy vase, I can just smile, shrug, and say it’s an antique.