Things: In Two Parts
by Jerry DeNuccio
Part One: The Facts of Things
Near the beginning of Part 2 of his Autobiography, a work that studiously avoids intimate details, Benjamin Franklin relates an intimate detail about his marriage. For some time, he tells us, his breakfast consisted of “Bread and Milk” which he ate “out of a two penny earthen Porringer with a Pewter Spoon.” One morning, however, he finds those inexpensive and thoroughly practical implements replaced by “a China Bowl” and “a Spoon of Silver.” His wife Deborah had purchased them without his knowledge, for “no other Excuse or Apology to make, but that she thought her husband deserv’d a Silver Spoon and China Bowl as well as any of his neighbors.”
For Deborah, the bowl and spoon meant more than their intended purpose. They were a gesture of love, a means of marking the affection and esteem she felt for her husband. They had a secondary meaning, intimate and interpersonal. Franklin, however, interprets them differently, more in line with the overall, rags-to-riches theme of his life’s story: “This was the first Appearance of Plate and China in our House,” he notes, and then cannot help adding, “which afterwards in a Course of Years as our Wealth increas’d, augmented gradually to several Hundred Pounds in Value.” For Franklin, the bowl and spoon testify to his having risen from poverty and obscurity to wealth and distinction. Their meaning is external and public. Same bowl and spoon, two different valuations.
I was reminded of this Franklinian moment recently when my wife Kathy recently bought new pillows for the front room couch and chairs. I had thought the old pillows quite adequate: they showed no signs of undue wear and tear, and years of supporting my sprawl-lounge posture while watching TV or reading or daydreaming had impressed upon them a comfortable shape. So, naturally, I asked why she deemed new pillows necessary. “These pillows pull the colors across the room,” she explained. I couldn’t see it.
I tried. I really tried. In a kind of dopplerized, weather-patterns-in-motion way, I tried to see the colors streaming across the room, then meeting in a joyous reunion. I couldn’t do it. A gap in my social learning, no doubt, which, at my age, no amount of remediation would likely bridge. The pillows, for me, were simply pillows, decorous but functional, meant to comfortably support my head or back. But for Kathy, those pillows had an additional meaning, a superordinate purpose, a beyond the functional purpose for which I saw them designed. Kathy understood those pillows as aesthetic objects, drawing the living room together, giving it a chromatic coherence, a unified hue, a nuanced all-of-a-piece complexion. Same pillows, two different valuations—though now, of course, I have the additional worry that by using the pillows as pillows I may obstruct the color transmission.
* * *
Part Two: The Heart of Things
Upstairs, in my clothes closet, stands a golf bag containing my father’s golf clubs. He left them to me. They are expensive golf clubs, featuring what, in 2010, constituted the most advanced technology in material and design. During the last years of his life, Dad bought new clubs pretty much every year, joking that technology gave him what age was taking away.
I never intend to use them for the purpose for which they were designed. I put them in the closet because that’s where I would see them every day. And I would remember. I would remember that he introduced me to golf when I was ten, that two years later I was beating him regularly, and that he accepted this supercession of father by son with a calm grace that I drew upon when I taught my son baseball. I remember him standing by when I was on the practice range, frustrated by my erratic play, close to despair, close to tears, and his telling me I was a keen student of the game and I’d soon discover whatever flaw had imperceptibly insinuated itself into my swing. I remember him driving me to tournaments, following me as I played—often my only gallery—and catching his eye, and smile, when I executed a particularly good shot. I remember waking up one Sunday morning with one eye swollen shut, at a tournament far from home, and Dad driving all over a strange town in search of an open drug store to buy an ointment to ease that eyelid open. I remember when, enraged and infuriated, I snapped a driver in half over my knee and he responded in the only appropriate way, with silence—and I remember how a new driver appeared in my bag two days later, a note pinned to the headcover: “delivered by elfin hands.” I remember the year when I won the club championship and he won the senior club championship and our picture together ran in the local newspaper. “The dynastic duo,” Dad said. And I remember the many, many rounds we played together, all the talk, often serious, sometimes angry, frequently good-natured needling, as I struggled toward manhood, and then parenthood.
My Dad’s golf clubs: there’s the fact of them and the for-me truth of them; the thingness of them and the visceral significance of them. They are not just golf clubs, not just things with a designed purpose, just as each of us is not only, or even primarily, “a thing that thinks,” as Descartes says, a thing unshackled by time, disembodied from our history. We evoke that past, remember it, feel it, interpret it. We do not find meaning in the world; we summon it, create it. It is not “out there” in some X-marks-the-spot location. We place it there. We make it, and we make it from feeling and memory, and then we leave its traces, its imprints, on everything that we in some way touch or that touches us.
No, I can never use those golf clubs to play golf. They are much too valuable for that. Best to use mine and live in the hope that they, and I, will become a memory.