Gibson Girl Vintage
I don’t know when it started, this listening in on other people’s lives. All I have to do is touch something, and a story rises up, not from within me, but from the object itself, and while the voices are clear, the stories aren’t always complete, like a letter with missing pages or a message shouted out across a great distance. The things I touch don’t necessarily have to be old, they just need to have belonged to another person, to be something that mattered to someone. But because older things have passed through more hands, have mattered to more people, vintage shops hold the most stories.
I read a book once about a girl who could feel emotions through food. Like, she knew the baker who made her lemon pie was jubilant that morning, but the chocolate chip cookies, made by the baker’s son, tasted of tears. In this way, she did not, like most daughters, have to intuit her mother’s sadness. Instead, it was there palpably, in every bite of pork chop or broccoli casserole or beef stroganoff. It is like this for me, with but with objects. When I touch something — an embroidered tablecloth, a sequined dress -—I know who it once belonged to. Not their names, exactly, but what they felt about life, how they learned to feel alive, and sometimes, how they died.
In thrift stores and vintage shops, I touch old pairs of high heels and finger the fabric of dresses, sit with palms down on flowered chaise lounges and vinyl chairs, open drawers in bureaus and sideboards, drawing dusty air into my lungs. I am known in these places, watched, likely thought of as odd, or maybe just crazy. Raised eyebrows follow me from shelf to shelf. But I am tolerated, sometimes even welcomed, because I do buy things, when they speak loudly enough.
Last week, I purchased a Winnebago duffle bag from a vintage shop on the corner beside the grocery. The bag was stuffed with paper when I first touched it, but I could feel what had been in it before: a pair of worn-out boxing gloves, and before that a child’s overnight things, and before that a bathing suit and towel and a swim cap printed with daisies. It was this last story that I could hear most clearly, the woman pulling herself through mineral green water with strong, sure strokes, bathing cap flashing in the sun, her towel laid out on the grassy earth at lake’s edge. The bag smelled of lake water, and also of old age and tenacity, the way she fought death tooth and nail until it came at last and took her in her sleep.
The week before last, I discovered a ceramic teapot in the shape of a lion, the mouth-spout frozen in an “o,” the handle a curved tail chipped in two places. I could hear her voice immediately, the lonely child who had tea parties for her stuffed animals. “And this is for you,” I heard her say as I picked up the pot, as if she were there, handing me an imaginary tea cake. “Thank you,” I said. When I went home, the tea I brewed tasted bitter, like silence and lies, like telling a truth everyone refuses to believe.
Sometimes I pick up a piece of trash off the street and feel things I wish I didn’t — a crumpled can of Coke elicits a shock of sexual energy, a wilted balloon tied to a tree draws out a feeling of disappointment so profound I have to sit down on the curb to rest. It is not a gift, though people sometimes call it this. It is not a responsibility, either, or a compulsion. Instead, it is a practice, like yoga, maybe, or meditation. I enter willingly into other people’s lives and feel what they felt, what they carried. Sometimes I want to lay it all down, to stop touching things altogether, but sometimes, when the unexpected happens, when all around me things are lost that cannot again be found, I am grateful to be a person who remembers.