Our homes are filled with stories, filled with memories of where, when, why, and how we acquired the objects we display. We keep them for a reason, often for their backstories: the photograph of children on the sideboard, the handmade potholders over the kitchen sink, the books along the study walls, the carving from friends’ vacation, the Amish quilt on the bed. It’d be hard to find any object in my admittedly cluttered home of 30 years that doesn’t have a backstory.
Participants in Suleika Jaouad’s “Isolation Journal” were recently asked to think about the backstory of an object in their homes. The prompt went something like this: Imagine that the gaze of a visiting friend lingers on one of your objects. She’s curious about why you’ve displayed it. The task for the journal writer is to pick such an item, provide its backstory, and tell why it’s meaningful.
On reading that journal prompt, I began imagining I was the visiting friend. I saw lots of curious objects but kept coming back to one in particular: a small framed picture of a squirrel eating a berry in the crook of a tree trunk and limb.
That picture holds many memories for me of my favorite cousin, Joanie. An accomplished watercolorist, she sometimes sent notecards that featured prints of one of her paintings. The squirrel was one of those, greatly reduced in size, of course. My husband and I are fond of squirrels (most of the time). They play all around our wooded area. They eat the old bread and apple cores I put out for them. We enjoyed the notecard image so much, we framed it and offered to buy the original watercolor.
A generous soul, Joanie said she would give it to us, but she grew sick and died a few weeks later. We are fortunate to have a number of her watercolors, but the notecard was the last thing she could send. It has special meaning for that reason, among others. In particular, I associate the squirrel notecard with her playfulness. I also associate it with the incredibly moving experience of attending her funeral in a Quaker church in Richmond, Virginia. The reverent silence brought comfort and peace. And out of that silence arose her friends’ stories – softly, gently, lovingly spoken, all beautiful like the person they honored, Joanie Harper.
I could spend hours just walking around the house recalling backstories of objects here and there. For me, even mundane things like the toaster oven, recliner, and desk hold stories. My newfound interest in backstories of home-displayed items has broadened to include those of cable-news contributors and guests who, like me during the time of covid, have self-isolated. I’m taking a kind of voyeuristic delight in glimpsing parts of their homes and spotting the occasional curious item.
The rooms of a few talking heads reveal hardly any decoration; others are in rooms that would make an interior decorator proud; and yet others have a well lived-in look. It’s the latter that interests me. The most common objects behind them are books – in filled bookcases with framed photographs, on a shelf with small art objects, on a fireplace mantel lined between decorative bookholders, or even a book in full view that they’ve authored. I try to read titles and generally conclude they’re nonfiction, which makes sense for writers like those in the bookcases of Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson and New York Times journalist Peter Baker.
Other items are more inscrutable. For example, why did former White House communication director Jennifer Palmieri have a framed image of a rainbow trout (perhaps a watercolor) behind her, or why did political strategist Steve Schmidt have four whole pineapples sitting up in his kitchen? Then yesterday I was intrigued by civil rights activist Alicia Garza’s attractive liquor bottles on a cabinet against which protruded the handle of a canoe paddle, and behind her was the bottom 2/3rds of a portrait of a woman in an old-fashioned dress. Nice!
I imagine that you have lots of objects in your home that evoke memories and emotions, items visitors find curious. Just look around. You might be surprised how deep some of your items’ backstories take you.
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