Things Outlast Us

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I hadn’t really appreciated how objects tell stories until Sebald. He was always coming into landscapes and seeing odd little objects left behind, and to him they were like ghosts.

“Things outlast us,” he wrote.

“They know more about us than we know about them; they carry the experiences they have had with us inside them…”

The objects in The Object Parade, by L.A. based actress and writer Dinah Lenney, aren’t so much ghosts, but alive. When she looks at them, they tell her stories, carry her memories. They are like those delicious tiny objects in a dollhouse: they speak.

Some of her objects are “big ticket” and have the weight of symbols  – an inherited Steinway piano that Lenney wants her daughter to play,  a movie star’s chandelier that sets the tone of Lenney’s L.A. bungalow, a set of Tiffany watches given to Lenney and her husband on their marriage.

The essays that come from them, and make up this book on Lenney’s life, are open and generous, often about valor, dignity, failure, success, longing.

Just as open and telling are the stories that come from smaller objects – the little black dress, Bustelo Coffee (o Bustelo of the late 80s!), a flight jacket that Lenney treasures but her daughter abandons.

They are talismans, the brass ring dangling just in front of us, the genie’s lamp — how we stroke and stroke it hoping for success, ecstacy, perfection.

For me, perhaps the most devastating object in her collection is a set of Green Earrings, jewels of a mysteriously glowing power that her mother both gives and does not give, in a powerful ongoing somewhat torturous (to me) mother-daughter struggle of aging, beauty, succession.

They are a stand in for Lenney’s mother herself: they have the same intensity, weight and unattainability.

Of course, Lenney’s objects make us think of our own, and for me I could not but think of the Green Ring my own mother gave me. It was the most valuable thing she ever gave me — materially — and yet she did not give it to me, really.

It was an emerald ring from South Africa, belonging to my mother’s mother, the only truly luxurious gift my grandfather had ever given my grandmother in some fifty years of marriage.

But the staff in the nursing home where my grandmother later died, stole the emerald and replaced it with glass. My mother did not know this when she inherited the ring — at least not for some years. Then she finally had it appraised, and realized it was only glass, and at that point it lost its value to her, and she gave it to me.

As I recognized some time ago that my mother had never once given me anything of material value – only imitations and throwaways — I can now barely look at the ring. It  relays so much about the way my mother valued me.

Of course, there are things other than the material…

But to quote Lenney’s epigraph:

“I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it. Because it will complicate your life.”

Edmund de Waal

About louisewleonard

Author of 52 Men, 2015. Excerpts in The Rumpus, Tin House, Fiction Advocate and Gargoyle.
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