The Lagniappe:

Having parents visit is a marvelous thing. There are exquisite meals, gratis trips to Target, and a chance to experience things you might not have had the impetus to go do without a parental unit to entertain. My parents were privileged to experience Boston in all its damp-cold-windblown glory this past weekend. There were a few moments of brilliant fall weather on Saturday morning, which we soaked up. Otherwise, the rest of the time we were inside, pitying all the diehard crew fans frozen to the banks and bridges of the Charles, cheering on uniformed icicles as they raced to become the “head” of the river. Frankly, the Charles isn’t a river I’d want my name attached to in any manner.but that’s another column.

My father went to Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI, and whenever he’s within a 100-mile radius of that town a magnetic force pulls him back. So to Newport we went. After a long lunch at Mooring’s, my parents and I sauntered (or, more accurately, shivered) along Thames Street, and found Armory Antiques, a warm, welcoming, and dry asylum. Armory Antiques first appeared to be just two rooms of jewelry and furniture, but, to my delight, I walked a little further and entered a barn-sized harbor of trinkets and treasures.

The store was ostensibly organized by category, but the randomness endemic to the remnants of life crept in, and coherently arranging oodles of antiques is a Sisyphean task. Luckily I relish digging through piles of miscellanea to uncover fascinating and/or charming morsels.

Within a few minutes at the Armory, I scored a couple of gems. For my brother, the soon-to-be-orthopaedic surgeon, I snatched up a 1910 tome on modern surgery. I figured if he’s in a jam in the operating room, he’ll find excellent guidance in this book. I then discovered an egg cup from the 1970s, only fueling my newfound obsession with eating eggs. I was invigorated by my early successes, but amidst the heaps of antiques, I started to ponder the implications of all these widowed items.

Financial reasons aside, I’d figure that most of these things arrived at the Antique Armory either as the leftovers of a deceased person’s estate (after family members picked it over), or as the result of a thorough house/life purge of the material unnecessary. As a result, the store is compromised of the residuals-things not so crappy as to get tossed out, but probably not of great value relative to a person’s entire life collection.

I believe that the things we acquire that are neither conspicuous/big-ticket purchases nor quotidian supplies may reveal something more about ourselves than those aforementioned items. These in-between things are our collections, souvenirs, hobbies, inheritances, addictions, impulses, resolutions, and regrets.

The more I examined the things for sale at the Armory, the more I judged us. Shelves of books like Cooking Light! and Cutting the Fat echoed our country’s listless attempts at weight loss. Meticulously crafted ships in bottles and rows of scale figures spoke to our Bowling Alone social disengagement. Jewelry, jewelry, jewelry, most of it costume and losing its luster, languished in the flickering fluorescent light; a testament to our desire for ephemeral adornment.

There were random c-and d-list autographs: Benjamin Mckenzie (of The O.C. fame), Scott Baio (no intro necessary), and Hall and Oates (A-list in some people’s eyes). These reminded me of our bizarre obsession with celebrities. Boxes of records=progression /regression of the way we listen to music. Too many kitschy salt-and-pepper shaker sets= our desperate ambition to have a collection of something, anything. An unconscious desire for an eccentricity may also factor into the accumulation of chintzy condiment dispensers.

After letting my mind burrow down this cynical rabbit hole, a book I pulled off a shelf in the back rescued me from getting deeper into a misanthropic headspace. It was the book’s title, Social Tragedies, that initially drew me in. (Commence your psychoanalysis right about now.) A poetry book printed in 1900, it had decent verse but laughable rhyme schemes. The preface proved to be the saving grace of both the book and of my malevolent mental meanderings.

I won’t (and think legally, can’t) quote the entire preface here, but one paragraph had especial resonance, and directed me towards a better understanding of the situation. The author, J.W. Scholl, wrote, “No writer ever gives a complete rendition of his soul. Not even when his work is done and all the broken lights of his life are gathered into one full beam. There is always an inexpressible residue of the personality which perishes from the world.”

I think the excerpt is applicable to everyone, not just writers. It reminded me that it is the residue of our work and acts, not the pile of remaining material comforts that is more important in painting our legacy. In museums we display wares of our world’s culture: funerary artifacts of ancient China, art of the Italian Renaissance, and ceremonial knives of the Inca civilization. Yet the knowledge, values, and wisdom that were created and passed on by these cultures is of much higher value to us. (I concede that technological advances are quite important as well, but these are essentially advancements in knowledge and understanding which are manifested through physical goods.) After this realization I took off my white wig, and began to enjoy the modern artifacts at the Armory again.

There was one point in the preface of that book that kept bothering me: Scholl’s contention about the inevitable disappearance of some facet of one’s personality. After my parents left, I resolved this discomfort. I concluded that if we are lucky, we can embody and carry on the best parts of those who raised us, and thus, those admirable quirks, loveable traits, and irreplaceable characteristics are never really lost. It’s cheesy, but I have to write it: we can be the museum of the values and traits worth carrying forward if we so choose.

Jenna Bernhardson is from Minnesota, and is in her second year as a Research Associate at HBS.ÿ When not working diligently in the basement of Morris, she seeks out adventure and danger in Cambridge and the surrounding area.ÿ Theÿmission of the Lagniappe is to push human achievement to new heights.

Tchotchkes – n., an inexpensive souvenir, trinket, or ornament.
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October 26, 2009
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