“What do you think of this?” It was probably the twentieth time my brother or I had asked this question in the last hour. Our mother had downsized to a one-bedroom apartment in an Alzheimer’s unit just six days earlier. Visiting her there she admitted she couldn’t even remember her old apartment. We were cleaning it out.
The object of the question this time was an antique teapot. White china with a blue design. It wasn’t in great shape. The top was cracked and missing that handle that lets you take the lid off without burning your fingers. It had a folksy charm, but as a teapot it was neither practical nor astonishingly attractive, and neither of us really wanted it. It was headed for the oversized trash bin outside her room.
I turned it over in my hands. There, on the bottom, was a strip of dried-out and cracked masking tape. On it, barely legible and in the kind of cursive script that is no longer taught, were the words “Recovered from ruins of fire 6/29/23 at 7. 1067 Hazard Rd.”
We scratched our heads. We didn’t know where Hazard Road might be (Google later revealed it’s in the blink-and-you-miss-it railroad stop of Hazard, Pennsylvania, a crossroads only technically within the boundary of our mother’s home town of Palmerton). The date would place the fire seven years before her birth.
We can only guess to fill in the details. A catastrophic fire must have taken out the family home. Imagine the grim solace of pulling out a family heirloom. Perhaps some grandparent had brought it carefully packed in a small suitcase on the journey to America. Or perhaps not. Perhaps it had no sentimental value and it had landed with our mother because no one else cared. We’ll never know. No amount of research could tell us more than that masking tape. Our mother wasn’t the only one losing her memory. We were too. We were losing the family memory of a generation that had lived, loved, and made it through a tragedy one mid-summer day.
I stood there and looked at the teapot once again. It had survived a fire ninety years ago. I would give it a reprieve from our snap judgement and the dump. Stripped of all meaning save three inches of masking tape, it now sits on a top shelf of my cupboard. It will rest there, gathering back the dust I just cleaned off, until some spring afternoon forty years from now, when one of my kids will turn to another. “What do you think of this?”