The Cowbell That Could Have Been an Heirloom

I’m not sure I can pass the cowbell off as a family heirloom. Until a few weeks ago I knew nothing at all about its existence. “Have we got anything?” I texted my mother. She was in Rome so ignored me. She must have said something to my aunt, though, because days later I heard from her, which made sense since my aunt has that instinct my grandmother had for gathering things, whereas my mother likes nothing more than to get rid of them. Heirlooms aren’t really something you dig up, are they? An heirloom is a treasured object that has pride of place in the home and is brought out and buffed up on special occasions—is in fact very probably a key element in the proceedings of special occasions. I know this to be so because recently I started watching the drama series “The Staircase,” and in the very first episode there’s a scene where the family is sitting around the dining table and the father, who might be a wife-killer, takes a chalice that belonged to Great-Uncle So-and-So off of the credenza and fills it up with a classy pinot. He then proceeds to say a few words about tradition before passing the pinot around the table so that every family member can make a speech about another family member, and drink from the chalice in turn.

The cowbell looks dug up, excavated on a Bronze Age archaeological dig—I can’t get over how old it looks. Not that I’ve seen it directly. My family lives in another country, so my aunt sent me a photograph of it, along with a photograph of a photograph of her parents: “I think it is a dead ringer for you and Chrissy,” she texted underneath—Chrissy being my younger brother. Unbelievably, my grandfather’s tie hangs outside of his thin V-neck jumper. My grandmother had very pretty hair. Their marriage didn’t last long. My parents’ marriage lasted eighteen years. It’s not so easy to hold on to things and hand them down and carry on traditions when everyone goes off in separate directions and everything is displaced. Things get broken, or go missing. Even really big things. Such as Granny Ellam’s trunk which had her initials on it and stood at the end of my single bed when I was growing up and my parents were still married and we all lived together in a house that had been significantly extended—how optimistic! And how enchanting to have your great-great-grandmother’s trunk at the bottom of your bed! It contained a lot of old sheets and pillowcases, some of which I believe belonged to her. It’s nice to hang on to bed linen, and clothes. They don’t take up much room, can be stored easily, and don’t break—though of course moths can get at them, so maybe keep them in the freezer if you’re concerned about holes. I am not concerned about holes.

“My memory is moth-eaten/full of holes,” the artist Louise Bourgeois said. Perhaps alluding to all the old finery and household linen she had kept for decades, some of them pieces that had belonged to her mother. Chemises and camisoles and cocktail dresses. When she was in her eighties, she asked her assistant to get them out of the upstairs closets and she made them into sculptural artworks so that they wouldn’t be forgotten. I have a duvet set that belonged to my parents. I haven’t put it on my bed for years because it is cream nineteen-eighties luxurious jacquard. I also have a cotton shift dress that belonged to my mother. It was cornflower-blue but I dyed it black and although it dyed well the zip stayed the same color, obviously. It peeks out pale blue from beneath the black, which is kind of nice. I mentioned the dress on the phone to my mother one day and she had no idea what I was talking about. She had no recollection of it at all, which was disappointing, and confusing. For so long I had thought of it as “my mother’s dress,” but ever since she failed to recognize it I have found it difficult to continue thinking of it this way—how can I? I think it must be hers, though. I cannot think who else it belonged to—unless I picked it up in a thrift shop, such as the Thrifty Orange? The Thrifty Orange was a shop on Marlborough High Street where you could take your clothes and they’d sell them and give you a fairly decent percentage of the proceeds. I’d go there quite often with my grandmother when we went to Marlborough on the bus to visit her mother. “I’ll bring that up to the Thirty Orange,” she’d say to my mother. “Well, it still hasn’t sold,” she’d occasionally report back. “That surprises me. But then they’re spoilt for things up there.” And then she’d tut. She tutted a lot, in a nice way. I miss her tutting. Everyone on that side of the family tutted or still tuts often, each in their own distinctive way, for myriad different reasons—even on special occasions.

Even so, tutting is not an heirloom. I’m still not convinced that the cowbell qualifies as an heirloom, either, to be honest. “Grampy Jim’s cow bell when he worked on the land at Manton as a young boy,” my aunt texted beneath the photograph, thoughtfully providing some context for this object I had never previously clapped eyes on. I’ve actually spent as much time looking at the fabric beneath the cowbell as I have at the cowbell. Had she put the cowbell on her sofa to photograph it? Probably it was the footstool. Why had she put it on the footstool to photograph it, and not on the dining table? I tried to recall the light in her living room. It’s been years since I visited my aunt. The last time I was there I took a sleeping tablet and slept on the sofa with an eye mask on. She gets a lot of light in that room. Probably the dining table was too dark a background—that’s probably it. The footstool is upholstered in a ribbed fabric the color of oatmeal and the cowbell stands out very strikingly upon it. I can see her, bustling around in her bright living room, trying out the cowbell on a few different surfaces. I bet she tutted often while she went about it, for myriad different reasons. ♦

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