Treasures, old and new

I was raised the old-fashioned ethnic way. That is, I was taught to take care of things, to repair rather than replace, to avoid if at all possible paying for the same thing more than once, and to see the true value of what others were willing to throw away. That’s probably why I still use my great-grandmother’s rolling pin without even thinking about it. There was never any reason to buy a new one, at least not if you took care of what you had.

But treating things with care isn’t natural behavior, it’s learned. Now and again I catch myself telling our kids that the Victorian couch they just flopped down on didn’t survive 140 years so that they could break it. In those moments, I sound astonishingly like my mother. My house growing up was full of antiques. While I took it for granted, to most visitors I think our house looked an awful lot like a museum. We hardly ever bought things from antique stores, though. Mostly, my mother and grandmother would find pieces of furniture at Goodwill, Salvation Army, and St.Vincent De Paul stores when they were considered “old” and “out of style.” They bought them cheap and then had them reupholstered or refinished. I remember shopping at numerous second-hand places with my grandparents on Saturday afternoons. I’d look at everything from teacups and books to sweaters and rocking chairs. Sometimes we didn’t find anything of value. But there were plenty of times we did. You just had to use your imagination a bit to see the intrinsic value of an item beyond what it looked like. The coffee table we now have in our house is a case in point. I saw it when I was about 12. Beautifully hand carved, the table has scalloped edges and is decorated with numerous garlands and full-figure cherubs. My grandmother bought it—and a similarly carved kidney desk—for 25 dollars each. She promptly sent them out to be refinished. The desk and table were even more spectacular when they returned. Who could have guessed that table had been covered by 10 layers of paint and stain? Transformed many times according to “taste,” the table had been black, white, edged with gold, stained in various shades, and even painted red. (Imagine, red cherubs!) As a result of such bargain hunting, a pretty high percentage of what we own now has been a part of my life for a very long time. I imagine that as our kids grow up, those treasures will be passed on and scattered among them. Few, I suspect, will be sold, given, or thrown away. Along the way, of course, we’ve added some of our own treasures. Art, photographs, and some new things have made our home an eclectic collection of items from many eras, cultures, and styles. While our decor doesn’t match by any stretch, somehow, it all manages to go together in a harmonious way. A pair of black and white photographs hang almost naturally near a green painted Victorian table lamp. I think of our home decor as an image of Catholic faith. At her best, our Church is a home filled with treasures and bargains alike; an eclectic collection of practices both ancient and contemporary; expressions of faith across every age and culture; a feast of textures and tastes both exotic and familiar. Catholic faith always has room for the new without sacrificing anything that has come before. In an almost uncanny way, things always seem to go together. The true value of some things is hidden beneath countless layers of paint. With a little elbow grease, however, almost anything can be restored to its original beauty. All we possess has been entrusted to us. In time we begin to understand that we can only keep the things we care for, and we can only pass on the things we keep.