11. The Spoon Collection
There I keep my treasures in a box—
Shells and colored glass and queer-shaped rocks,
The Secret Cavern
“Lillian left you her spoon collection.”
Helen’s voice has a certain crackling lilt, as if something exciting is either about to happen, or has just happened. It’s an upbeat voice, even when whatever she’s talking about is sad, such as the death of her sister. I ask about where they were found.
“Well, Eddie found them. They were in the bottom of her cedar chest. You can pick them up the next time you’re down here.”
My cousin Ed Jeter, along with my sister, Teresa, were the ones who visited our aunt Lillian after her stroke, and had taken Helen, now my lone surviving paternal relative, over to Clarksville to clean out the duplex after Lillian died. I had never visited Lillian in the nursing home, never made that trip over to Arkansas through eastern Oklahoma. So why would I get the spoons? Why would anyone leave his or her spoon collection to a least attentive nephew? Because I may have been the only one in the family who actually loved them, the only one who never made fun of her for having them, and the only one who ever asked Lillian if I could play with them, as a kid. At those times when we visited my grandfather and two aunts, before Lillian got married, could my parents have anticipated my future just by studying my interests? Could they have looked around my grandfather’s house, noted my fascination with all his stuff, and said to themselves: Johnny will turn out to be a man preoccupied with the exotic, the microscopic, the arcane? I believe they could have done that. Nothing quite like a spoon collection had ever crossed my eight year old mind until I realized Lillian had one. Those spoons were as romantic as the places they came from. I could handle a small piece of Ohio, or Minnesota, or wherever Lillian had been, just by rubbing their emblems, and asking Lillian how she got this one or that.
“I’ll get the spoons next week,” I assured Helen. We were going to Oklahoma for a few days in March. Lillian had died some months earlier. Karen’s mother Genevieve had died in January. Genevieve’s brother Newton had died in November. There had been enough death in the family to force me onto a diet—needed to be able to get into my funeral clothes. I tried the Atkins one. It worked, but this is no advertisement; you have to eat plenty of lettuce and broccoli—roughage—in addition to the meat, cheese, and eggs.
I picked up the spoons in Oklahoma City, on a Sunday in March. Karen and I had taken a week off and driven the four hundred miles south. I needed to get away from my employer and especially away from my colleagues at work for a few days, and I wanted to collect some fossil plants. Karen needed to help her sisters and brother clean out their mother’s house in El Reno. After the funeral in January, Genevieve’s children had reclaimed many of the things they’d given her—art, books, various Christmas gifts—and had done the crucial, first, search for important papers, loose money, and collectibles that might attract an unwelcome visitor to a vacant house. Thieves were not a part of the El Reno culture; the idea that someone might want an antique quilt was baggage we brought in from the outside world. Karen’s brother Eddie, actually half-brother, given the fact that Genevieve had married Karen’s father, Glenn, after her mother Evelyn died, was not too worried about anyone breaking in, but nevertheless retrieved his clock. El Reno is a former railroad town too far from Oklahoma City to be a bedroom community. There may be 25,000 people in El Reno, but it’s far enough off the interstate to struggle a little bit economically. The bank where Eddie worked as a loan officer had been sold to a large outside firm and he learned on the day of his mother’s death that he would also lose his job.
So we drove two vehicles to Oklahoma, as we had done many times before. Karen went to El Reno to help clean out her mother’s house and I went to visit Helen. The spoons were in letter-sized envelopes, put inside several larger brown envelopes all taped shut and stashed in a bedroom Helen used for family relic storage. I refrained from opening the packages until I got back to Nebraska. I had no idea what to do with such a treasure, or what might be contained in those heavily taped bundles. Back home, I stuck them in a closet. Tuesdays and Thursdays are my personal scholarship days. I stay home and work at my home computer, bought with my own personal funds, several times as powerful as the one issued to me by the University of Nebraska, but used almost continuously for University business—scientific papers, statistical calculations, recommendation letters for would-be doctors, textbook manuscript, class preparation. I also try to work on more personal, and hopefully more literary, projects for an hour each day, especially early in the morning. Karen usually leaves by 7:00 o’clock; by 7:00 o’clock I’ve typically been at my computer for several hours. She calls from the top of the stairs; I dutifully walk up to kiss her goodbye—our little private ritual, in which I reveal to her that this little peck is important enough to stop whatever I’m doing. This morning, however, I have something else planned.
Now, alone in the silence of an empty house, I open an envelope filled with spoons. The first one that falls out is sterling silver, delicate, about four inches long. The actual spoon part is shaped like a pointed leaf; at the end of the handle is a tiny man in a perfect, tiny, outrigger canoe. A small tag is attached to the handle with a string. “Hawaii,” reads the tag, “#1.” It had never occurred to me that Lillian had been to Hawaii, although she was not the kind of person who’d collect a spoon from a place she’d never been. But I remember Hawaii #1. At least fifty four years have passed since I last touched it, but I remember, as if those fifty four years were suddenly erased, that little man in his outrigger, forever frozen in mid-paddle stroke. What seems strange now is the tag. Lillian’s spoons never had tags when I played with them as a child. Where did they get those tags, and why didn’t all these spoons have them?
I picture Lillian alone in her Clarksville, Arkansas, duplex, at night. Her husband, acquired very late in life, died after a debilitating bout with throat cancer. Tommy was a heavy smoker. At the time he was sick, society as a whole had not made the connection between tobacco and cancer. But now he’s gone, and Lillian is sitting at her table with her spoons. Maybe I should label them, she thinks; maybe someone might eventually like to know where these spoons came from. Was that “someone” in her mind me? She starts with the little silver man in his outrigger. Did she start with this one by accident? Was it a random event that led her fingers to that particular spoon? Or did she select it carefully, having me in mind all the time? The “Hawaii” part is superfluous; a leaf spoon, with a silver bamboo stem, and a silver man in a silver outrigger can only come from Hawaii; besides, the word “Hawaii” is engraved on the leaf. It’s the “#1” that’s the mystery. Did she really start her collection in Hawaii? Or was this the first one she picked up from the table that night after Tommy died? Did she intend to eventually write down some story about where each of these spoons originated? My father, her brother, would have done that.
Only Lillian herself, now gone, could answer these questions. They involve the human events that children should find out about before their relatives die, then remember, and pass along with their material culture when they too are in old age. The little “#1” tag reminds me of all the lost opportunities to talk about those subjects that are of virtually no consequence to anyone other than family members, yet, like the making of some traditional bread, bind us together in unspoken, extra-legal, ways. These bindings are made of nothing more than words, postures, looks on faces, the contexts in which conversations occur. The ties happen in each family, in every social setting where people are thrown together for some meaningful—lastingly meaningful—activity. This phenomenon should also occur in classrooms; routinely it does not, and much of the blame can be placed on electronic media. We—at least most of us—do not interact with a computer screen, or a television set, the same way we interact with an aunt.
Why this simple, this incredibly, truly, blatantly obvious simple, aspect of human interaction is so lost on politicians who push “educational technology” and “distance learning” is completely beyond my understanding. What is it that happens to people when they gain power, I wonder, laying two sets of Lillian’s spoons out on our kitchen bar, that they lose this touch with the lowest, most basic, form of human communication—human, live, in-person human, words, intonations, postures—unless those things help maintain the position of power? I don’t know; does anybody seem to know, or care? The two sets of eight spoons each have long, twisted, pewter handles. At the top of the handles are chess pieces. One set is large, about seven or eight inches long; the other, identical except for size, is about four inches long. Chess, among the most, if not the most, metaphorical of games, is an appropriate companion for a story in spoons: big ones and smaller versions, variations on the theme of games.
What was going through her mind when she got these pieces? I cannot do a web search and find out. And now, I cannot ask Lillian, either. I do know she acquired them after I had grown up, after she had married and moved off to Arkansas, because I’d never seen them as a child. Lillian had lived with her father, my paternal grandfather, Frank Janovy, until she was well into her 40s. Her sister Helen, one of my other aunts, never married, also lived at home. All three occupied a house at 531 SW 11th in Oklahoma City, a building that was less a house than a combination museum and library, filled with mystery and fascinating things—fossils, calcite crystals, silver pistols, a book collection the likes of which I had never before seen. Our family used to visit Grandpa periodically, about every other Sunday. Often my grandfather would make waffles for dinner.
At the time, my father was trying to teach me how to play chess; I was never very good at the game and it came as a great relief, eventually, when I didn’t have to humor my father by playing. But during those visits, when I was also asking Lillian to play with her spoons, had there been the two chess-pieces sets, they would have stuck in my mind forever, right alongside the sterling silver Hawaiian and his outrigger canoe. So I know Lillian acquired these spoons after she left Oklahoma City. Now, lined up on our kitchen bar, I wonder what a person does with such spoons, what, that is, beyond arrange them, look at them, consider all of their alternative histories, reconstruct fictitious stories about their travels, and finally, perhaps, get a spoon rack and display them on a wall somewhere. Then some day a visitor will come to our house, see that rack on the wall and say: I didn’t know you collected spoons. And I’ll reply I don’t, at least on purpose. The visitor will get a quizzical look, so I’ll explain: they’re what’s left of my Aunt Lillian.