I am again working on inventories of personal property. It tedious and difficult. It is personal.
Our house was full of special things. I know that most people feel that their things are special and they are. The problem with our special things is that many of them were one-of-a-kind or one-left-of-a-few. We had a hand carved train from the late 1700s. It even had a little painted coal car on it. I had it a special place where it could be seen but was also a rather gloomy place so that it did not fade in the sun. I am sure that there are other trains like that out there but finding one to use as a price comparison is a long and difficult search.
We thought to have someone give an appraisal from their knowledge rather than run from here to there and back across the internet looking for auction catalogs and definitive price guides. In actuality, since we have been collecting so long, we are the sort of people who could do an appraisal. My spouse is an antiques dealer when he is not busy being a History Professor. Over the years things have come and gone as they passed through from here to there and I got to see items as they went by. Mostly these things were in his antiques booth or they resided with his partner. Sometimes things came to our house to be packed to go to an antiques show in Marin County in California or to Bremfield, Massachusetts. Once I came downstairs during the night and as I was crossing the living room I almost stepped into a $15,000 Apache basket. I moved back quickly, catching myself just as I was about to step forward. When I came back I bumped into a Cherokee Splint basket. I stood paralyzed until my eyes adjusted and then felt my way cautiously to turn on a light. In my living room floor were antique baskets of all shapes ans sizes from all across the US. I have the quivers right now remembering the expensive misstep I could have made not to mention the history I could have hurt.
We did not have those kinds of baskets in our personal collection. We had a lot of baskets and a lot of carvings and a lot of bead work and wood treen and trinkets and other stuff we had collected here and there. Some were really good examples, most were ordinary or they were extraordinary but what is called “hurt.” When I first heard the statement that that is a “hurt basket” I just stood there looking dumb. Once someone explained it I understood immediately. The poor basket had had some experience in its lifetime that hurt it.
We have an Abenaki Indian feather basket. These baskets were made for the commercial market in the earl 1900s. Many homes had them. They were eminently practical and pretty too. The basket held the feathers suitable for making pillows and other down/feather items. The baskets stand about 3 feet high and are square at the base and rise to a round shoulder that ends with an opening about the size of a large dinner plate. They have a beautifully woven and well fitted lid. That is a good thing. It takes a while to fill up one of those baskets so a lid is important keep inside those feathers waiting to be joined with other feathers to become a pillow. It would not do to let them escape the basket as others are being collected. Our feather basket would let feathers escape on one side since it has a hole it. Somewhere along the way before it came to us the basket got hurt. One day I tripped and fell against it and it got hurt some more. It is still a beautiful basked and we like it but it is not perfect. It is hurt. Friends have joked that we are the equivalent of an animal shelter for baskets. It is true. We rescue baskets and other unique items.
Which takes me back to the problem with the inventory. It is not too hard to figure out a price on a hurt basket, but it is another thing to figure out prices on things like our train since there are few of them on the antiques market. We had a special 6 board chest with cut nails and hand forged loop hinges. It was made from chestnut wood. Chestnut trees died off from a blight nearly 100 years ago. We don’t quite know how old the chest was but it was very old when it first came into our family over a half century ago. Given the wood and the style and the details, I am guessing that it is from around the 1820 to 1840s. Now, let us endeavor to figure out a fair replacement value for it. Hm….I have not seen another like it in over 40 years of paying attention to antiques. I have seen some similar but I cannot get price comparisons from them since they were in museums.
The inventory takes forever. Thankfully we have photographs of most things but we still need good documentation for the insurance company to understand what it was that we are asking them to replace for us.
After working on the inventory for a few days I begin to get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. Somewhere along the way I am reminded that what I am doing is not just an academic task. It has that research aspect to it but it is about us. I never remember until it is too late that it hurts my feelings and makes me feel a yearning to have my house back. These were the things that lived with us in our home and we liked them. We knew them. We remembered the day they came to live with us. Some came from my mom, some we collected and some were from four generations of our family. The inventories are stories of our lives. They are personal.
When you can list off “3 pairs jeans, 11 pairs of socks, 14 tee shirts, 1 ball jacket, 1 bomber jacket….” it personal but the list goes away more quickly. I can spend a total of a couple of hours and more on a single item. It eats away at me insidiously.
After working on the endless inventory, I want my house back. I don’t want to have to go through this. While i am trying to look forward to get on with my new life and building my new home, I have this albatross with me. I am being pulled forward by the needs of my future am being pulled backwards by completing the inventory in an accurate and respectful way.
It is a little better, but not very much, with the newer items. Some of the companies we purchased things from keep online records of your purchases. I thought this wound make things simple. I pulled down from Amazon all of our purchases since 1998. You can even download the into sortable spreadsheets. You would think that is easier but then you have to integrate that with the stuff you at Amazon with stuff you bought elsewhere, and things you bought before 1998. You have to pour over the lists to figure out what things you don’t have anymore and what things were consumables and are used up. You also have to figure out values and dates on things that were given to you. Frankly, I am confused sometimes with the level of detail I need to provide. I suspect the level I am or am not providing is variable in quality and sometimes I just stick a number in that is my best guess. I want to be fair but I also want to be accurate because I want to be able to at least look for another train like the one we had. I loved that little train and even played with it, not every day, but sometimes would go into the room where it was and pull the string on it to see how it would unfold. I always had it arranged like it was going around a serpentine curve so I could have the fun of watching it unfold.
While I struggle now with the tedium, the level of skill is like being on the Antiques Roadshow or History’s Mysteries. With the sheer massive amount of effort, I wonder what it will feel like to be done. I wonder if not being done in some way ties me to my past. I have wondered if I on the inventory if I got the big picture and some details without having to detail the history of the life of the chair that is worth $300 if that would be enough to satisfy me and to satisfy the insurance company. We judge the inventory differently. Their bar is a business one and mine is an emotional one.
Ultimately, the inventory is not just a listing of our stuff that we no longer have. It is a listing of our stuff that we don’t have and our process of learning how to live in a world when we are without the stuff from four generations of our family. Like any loss, we cling to the past until we can see a future, or until some point in the future when we can let go.