Whenever I return to visit my hometown of Austin, I try to make time to stop by my favorite retail store there. It’s a place called Uncommon Objects.
Some might consider it an antique shop, or a vintage home décor store, or just a collection of eclectic old junk you’d find in someone’s attic. It’s truly all the above.
The place is a wonderland of odd stuff crammed to the rafters, and at first glance it feels chaotic. However, I’ve met the owners and they’re very particular. Everything is in its place. They understand themselves to be curators of old artifacts of great worth.
One of my favorite departments contains a huge collection of vintage jewelry. Several large display cases are filled with rings, watches, necklaces, broaches, tie-clips, and fancy hair combs.
There’s something about cradling a silver locket in your hand - a piece from the early 20th Century - and imagining the scene when it was first presented to a young lady. Perhaps it contained a tiny photograph of her one true love before he shipped off to war.
One can picture how it was worn around her neck, and years later, passed on to one of her children. Eventually it was placed in a jewelry box with other tokens. Finally, someone who didn’t know its history or didn’t care what would become of it, sold it in an estate auction to a merchant of antique jewelry.
Holding a shiny object like that, I wonder about the meaning it possessed, the stories it could tell, the places it’s been, and the feelings it represents. It’s just a thing - an artifact - but it makes you ponder. Who did this belong to? What were they like? Were they sad, happy?
They may or may not have given that locket to a child or grandchild, a nephew or niece. But what part of themselves did they pass along to the people they loved?
We all pass along something. A silver locket is just an object, but there’s a reason why we might never give it away or sell it. It represents something more significant than itself. A memory, an ideal, a hope, a dream, a regret, a joy, a life-lesson. Things that can’t be contained in object form but live on anyway.
In my work I preside at a fair number of funerals. One of the most disorienting aspects of losing a loved one is the sudden absence of their physical presence. The now-empty spaces that person inhabited, the vacuum of silence where their voice and breath once rose and fell, the familiar touch now gone, are constant vivid reality-checks. We’re often taken aback at just how large of a hollow place is carved from our soul by the lack of that person’s tangible being.
There’s no bypassing that hard reality. But I often remind grieving folks that the person they loved and lost is never truly gone from them. What they’re missing is the physical manifestation and all that happened through that vessel in the relatively brief and precious slice of time they knew him or her. But in a larger sense a person’s death never represents the end of them.
Humans are an interesting mix of our hard-wiring, and all the stuff we accumulate and learn. We have distinct physiological traits, but we’re also like sponges absorbing things for ourselves; what we learn from the people who matter most to us.
So, even if a loved one were to leave no physical object behind to remember them by - no silver locket, no watch, no memento - they bequeath something far more enduring: their words and actions that continue to enrich, inform, and bless our lives, and that live on through our words and deeds. In one way of thinking, that’s eternal life.
Objects may be connected in our hearts to meaning and memory, but they’re only objects. They’re ultimately impermanent, as are our mortal forms. The only thing that endures forever is love, which no human or material thing can constrain from expanding, generation to generation.