My philosophy of possessions reads thusly: Accumulate only what you need, or — occasionally– desperately want, use it enthusiastically and care for it tenderly. After the years have taken their toll, give your inanimate loved one a last laundering or spit-polish and deliver it to the thrift store where, enlivened by the affection of a new owner, it may eke out a few more months of useful service.
There are, however, exceptions. Among these are heirlooms and artifacts — material pieces of the past so compelling they render service through their very existence. Failure to accumulate these items constitutes a kind of impoverishment, a de facto denial of the long line of love and loss that has brought us to this moment and, soon enough, will leave us behind.
My collection includes two ancient bullets — a musket shot and a minieé ball — from Gettysburg, Penn., where more than 39,000 soldiers fell in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. On a long-ago family vacation, my father and I rose early on a morning so shrouded in mist that the foundations of battlefield statues were obscured. Dozens of stone soldiers rose from the spectral fog and advanced, eternally recalling three summer days in 1863 that made a grim graveyard of once-peaceful Pennsylvania pasture.
Those bullets keep company in my home with larger antiques: a folding oak cavalry payment table from the late 1800s, a primitive hutch that belonged to a Cripple Creek mayor during the Colorado mountain town’s gold-boom days. My TV sits atop a wooden table scarred by trails from the pattern tracer of an unknown long-ago seamstress, and a worn pine toybox my grandfather built for my brother and I now serves as my coffee table.
With few exceptions — heirlooms delicate by constitution or made fragile by age, or mementos that have outlived their intended use but evoke such memories they cannot be discarded — I like to keep old things working. Their enduring function offers a bridge to another time, a material sturdiness rarely experienced in our fast and fleeting world.
For some time, I have been inordinately fond of the stout white refrigerator that sits in my basement. A year my senior, this little Coldspot was the first icebox my mother and father owned. They bought it when they lived in graduate student housing, and its price tag — $184.95, or $5 down and $9 a month — reflected their modest circumstances.
A 1957 Sears catalog described the unit as among “our lowest priced Coldspot refrigerators,” but 46 K M7805W nonetheless had a bold beauty my young parents could not fully appreciate. It was, after all, a child of its time: The pale pink door, aluminum shelves with anodized gold trim and porcelain enameled interior were classic ’50s, as was the chrome and plastic push-button door handle with the Coldspot logo.
It was like them, in a way: new and gleaming, undiminished by time and experience. Good-looking and hard-working and ready to claim its place in the world — or at least in my parents’ tiny apartment.
Fifty-seven years later — 52 years after the last warranty expired — the Coldspot is still running, having never required a repair more elaborate than a new light bulb. When I come through the door, it’s the first thing I see. And when I open its heavy door, the soft white light illumines not only a welcoming bottle of beer but a pale pink and gleaming gold bridge to the past.
My 22-year-old mother was here once, reaching for a bottle of my formula; my 24-year-old father, too, looking for Kool-Aid and for Velveeta to slap between white bread before they loaded me and my brother on bikes and pedaled to a nearby farm to show us the cows and horses.
As a never-say-die appliance that cost a cool $184.95 — $5 down, $9 a month — this refrigerator was no doubt the best material bargain of my parents’ married life.
As a working artifact, though, the Coldspot is priceless: this old white icebox that faithfully chills the beer and serves up these memories, as if we, too, were untouched by time.