When I was 12, I wrote down everything I owned (which amounted to half the contents of my shared bedroom) on a sheet of loose-leaf paper, folded the list, and stowed it in my desk.
I’d like to see that list now. But it’s gone, like most of what appeared on that roster of possessions.
The belongings that survive our years are a random assortment: a campaign button, a cat’s eye marble, an “expert multiplier” card from fifth-grade math, a guitar pick, the collar of the family dog, and snapshots in an evolving array of photographic formats: photo-booth strips, Kodak Instamatic images, 35-mm slides, Polaroids.
Most people say photographs are what they would grab first if confronted with the threat of flood or fire. It’s not the object we crave, it’s the images of people we knew and loved peering into eternity from a square of paper.
Why, then, do old photographs end up on display tables at antique flea markets? Who are the people in those portraits and why did no one want them?
This month, when so many objects change hands in a happy frenzy of tearing and untying, we never know which carefully selected gifts might be the surviving remnants that one day tell the story of a life.
Who’s to say what will avoid the trash heap by staying safely concealed at the back of the closet or the bottom of a drawer, and what other gifts will be just a delight of the moment, a trinket that vanishes one day with no physical trace?
So imagine the daunting task 100 British Museum curators faced during their quest for a mere 100 objects that distill the history of the world. Their chosen items, now catalogued in a book, included a 2-million-year-old chopping tool made of stone and a chessboard circa 1150-1200 A.D., because “every chess set shows a society at war.”
Here in modern metro Detroit, our visual time capsule includes a stunning collection of skyscrapers and grand mansions that say, “We were a great city.”
Relics tell part of our human story. Consider the exquisite box unearthed recently in Jerusalem. The tiny token from 1,400 years ago reportedly contained two gold-leaf images of saints or Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
Forever lost in the vapor of time are the intangibles — the rush of greetings offered by guests, for example, who cross our holiday thresholds, their words swept along on a gust of frigid December air.
To the fragments of life, physical and non, I add this: our monthly gift for a great city, along with wishes from the Hour Detroit editorial staff — George, Cassidy, Aleene, Mark, Jen, and me — for a holiday season that’s a keeper.