It’s Sunday morning and I’m surrounded by mortal remains.
I drink my coffee from a cheery yellow Hazel Atlas coffee cup. This cup is perhaps 80 years old. While I sip, I enjoy looking at one of my most prized possessions, a poster for Thirsty Moon Beer. It was printed in 1936.
Behind me hangs a five-foot tall poster of Maurice Chevalier (c. 1946), signed by the artist, Charles Kiffer. My china cabinet (c. 1910s) is full of glassware and ceramics (c.1930-60s). To the right hangs a poster for a magician’s act… Señor Arbaff, from Lisbon, “the Wonder of the 19th Century.” It is a reproduction (c. 1970), printed in East Germany.
There’s more, but the list is getting long.
The key thing is: Everybody’s dead. Every one of these beautiful things was made by heads and hearts and hands that are now dead, gone, kaput, finito.
Even the DDR is dead.
I smile at Maurice Chevalier’s giant face every day.
I love this poster. I love it so much I flew with it over the Atlantic — twice! — carrying it by hand onto the plane in a comically oversized tube, so afraid was I that it would be lost or crushed.
Maurice, dead some 42 years, doesn’t care how much I love him. He can’t. Nor can the artist, Charles Kiffer, decaying to dirt since 1992.
Maurice was world-famous and sought after during his illustrious, multi-decade career. So famous, his poster has no name, just his trademark straw hat and full lip.
Charles Kiffer, too, was well-known in his day. Today, I challenge you to even find a paragraph-length biography of Charles Kiffer online.
Charles inscribed my print, an artist’s proof, to “my Mimi.” Mimi was the love interest in a Maurice Chevalier film. The actress who played Mimi is dead. Charles’ metaphorical Mimi is certainly dead. As is everyone Maurice and Charles ever loved, aside from their descendents (if they had any).
Yet the work they did was everywhere, once.
They had impact. They changed the world.
Now they are both almost entirely forgotten.
All that’s left is their stuff. Sort of.
Puts our stuff in perspective, doesn’t it? The complaints. The things we avoid doing. The things we tell ourselves are oh so important. The work we pretend is so monumental. The things we imagine will become our legacy.
The stories we fantasize that people will tell about us.
The people we love whom we ignore in favor of… what?
You yourself come from a long line of dead people.
And practically none of them made anything that will ever end up in a museum… no matter how hard they may have tried. Yet many of them you knew and loved. Many of them are remembered by your family.
The things I collect and love were, largely, never meant to be “art.”
The posters were all advertisements. The furniture, cups, anthropomorphized jam jars — they are daily objects, meant to be used.
The fact that they’re sought after & enjoyed today is a quirk of fate.
Somebody hit the alarm clock, went to work, did a rather nice job, and the product sold, was used, and saved, and passed on through many pairs of hands — galleries, five and dimes, heirs, estate sales, flea markets, art auctions, eBay… — til it ended up in mine.
And, destructive cats notwithstanding, I will care for them until they all pass from my hands when I, too, die. Or possibly downsize.
That’s the irony of remembrance.
Many people aim for immortality, but few hit the target. Far more journals and cross-stitch samplers and Depression glass cups and vintage posters have survived than Great American Novels.
You can struggle all you like to create something epic, but…
We’re all going to die.
And our trendy designs, perfect phrases, elegant lines of code, popular apps… they’re not going to last. It’s not just because they’re digital. No matter how much weight and importance we try to give it, our work is inherently fleeting.
Good for a day — a year, at most.
Our work will never pass through generations of hands and thrift shops and antique stores, never end up in someone’s prized collection. We can fetishize our labor all we like, but…
It will not “change the world.”
The world will roll over and forget.
I own these things crafted by long-dead hands, things that will survive well past my own work, but I know nothing of who they were.
I can know their biographies but not what they saw, felt, thought, loved. The passage of time means they are reduced (at best) to a few lines on a Wikipedia entry. If they are written at all.
Their essence is gone.
Who they were is gone.
The map is not the territory. What’s left is nothing more meaningful than a lock of hair or shard of bone.
Except… for those who knew them, loved them, whose lives were touched and improved by them.
A true legacy is made of people.
The joy we give to others close to us. The love we share. The beauty we cultivate. The people who flourish thanks to us… and the people they enable to flourish. The things we do for others when we’re not racing around trying to be historic or important.
The things we do well simply because we care?
That is real.
And will be remembered.
By those who live on.