I’ve long been a fan of writer, Edith Wharton, so when I came across a reprint of her essay, first published in March 1938, naturally I stopped to read it. In the course of her remarks, she made a number of observations, some of which were curious. What, for example, did she mean when she wrote, “the creative mind thrives best on a reduced diet”? Or that a “tepid sameness of the moral atmosphere result[s] in a prolong immaturity of mind”?
I don’t mean to suggest that Wharton is vague, only that she reflects values of an era which is somewhat opaque to me. I understood her sentiment at the heartfelt level, however, when she admitted it was difficult to catch a moment of time and freeze it for succeeding generations. That’s why museums are mausoleums in her vernacular. Despite their lofty ambition to keep the past alive, they strike her as dead places. “Museums are cemeteries,” she wrote. (“A Little Girl’s New York,” by Edith Wharton, reprinted from the March 1938 edition of Harper’s Magazine, December 2014 pg. 29.) I agree. However glorious the architecture or lifelike the exhibit, I am left sad in such places. Their purpose sucked out of them, objects behind class strike me as little more than well wrought burial urns.
Wharton’s essay came to mind the other day as I was clearing out my home of many years, preparing to move to a retirement center. In the basement, behind a plethora of memorabilia, I came across a box that belonged to my mother. It hadn’t been touched for so many years, the cardboard was damp as if it had been left to sit overnight on the wet grass. Surprised to find it, I wondered what had been left behind as I’d cleared out much of my mother’s belongings when she moved into assisted living. I lifted the lid carefully, as if it might contain a treasure.
It did. Inside, under a covering of tissue paper were 2 pairs of my baby shoes — one pair black and the other white — both sets hardened with age and curled up at the toes. These well-worn shoes told a story of hesitant steps and a mother’s hand to guide me. A lump formed in my throat, I admit. Two pairs of little shoes, the entire cache of a mother’s treasures. What was I to do with this unremembered history? The laces were so fragile they might tear like a delicate gauze.
My hand floated above each pair, these carefully preserved shoes with no meaning to anyone except to my mother and to me. I knew I was saying goodbye as I touched the hardened leather for a last time. The lump in my throat hardened, too. Then I tossed each pair into the trash, swallowing to hold my emotion back. Where does a mother’s love reside, I asked myself, already knowing the answer.
Was I heartless to throw away my baby shoes? Was I showing disrespect for a cherished memory? I think not. Wharton is right. History is a fossil. These relics of the past are nothing compared to the 98-years of love my mother has lavished on me. When she holds my hand or kisses me, that is all the truth I need to know.