Thursday, September 17, 2009

If I Could Save Time in a Bottle

Today I set out to clear some space in my living room for a friend that was coming over for a yoga session.  The space I focused on was a stack of 5 boxes that my father brought to me on his last visit from the farm back in South Dakota.  These boxes were filled with valuable heirlooms and collectibles that he couldn't see fit to throw out himself, so he bequeathed them to me.  As I am a romantic, I did not mind the early inheritance.  Yet I procrastinated going through these boxes to find a home for the contents.  Well, I have been a little busy this year.

I savor the idea of antiques and vintage pieces.  I inherited this from my Mom who used to be an avid collector of antiques.  She stopped collecting and she sold mostly all her pieces during the economic downturn of the early 1990's.  My Mom had an old wood cook stove when we lived on the farm.  It was what she cooked on at first when we moved to the farm in 1974.  I was raised on wood stoves for heating the home and, at some points, wood stoves for cooking.  During the freezing winters, my Dad would place a pot of leftovers on the wood stove in the morning when we went outside to work.  By the time we got in for lunch, the food would be piping hot and ready to warm our tummies.

I distinctly remember my Grandma Hazel coming over once or twice to make traditional lefse on that old cook stove.  She came over early in the morning and stood with her less than 5" stature over that hot iron monster as she walked my Mom through the old world process.  I think it took them all day.  Or at least they cooked them all day because this was certainly something that they weren't going to repeat often.  It was a curious site for a little one like me.  It looked like a lot of hard work - all that kneading and discussion over the perfect combination of ingredients.  I would give anything to experience that again, this time being active in the process and only as learned from specifically them.

So I opened those five boxes that have been sitting in my living room since March.  I barely remember what I helped to put into those boxes last summer when he packed them.  I found depression era stemware and tea plates.  There were old coffee pots and candy dishes.  You know - the kind of pressed glass candy dishes that your Grandmother or your Great Aunt always had sitting out on the buffet when you would come over for holiday.  It was usually filled with hard candies the way my Aunt Matilda and Uncle George did it.  My Grandma Hazel filled it with pastel mints.

In those boxes, I also found old bottles and canning jars.

You see, the Johnsons, the people who lived on my family's farm for many many years before we bought it, used to throw their trash into the grove of trees.  They did this instead of taking their trash to the city dump which was 10 miles away.  They did this for a very long time.  My Dad decided that we were going to clean all that trash out of the trees.  My brother Lee and I would be handed empty 5 gallon buckets and told to go fill them up.  My Dad would pull up a corn wagon close to where we were gathering.  With every bucket filled with broken glass and pieces of metal and wire, we would dump them into this wagon.  I was barely bigger than the buckets when I started doing this.  And, I had to walk up the tongue of the wagon to be able to lift the bucket over my head to dump it.  Sometimes Lee would have to dump them for me.  This exercise would happen for one hour after every day of school and often times on Saturdays when there was nothing else to for us to do on the farm to help my Dad.  It was kind of his fall back chore for us.  When nothing else was pressing there was always the grove to be cleaned out.  For the most part, Lee and I cleaned that grove for a couple of years straight.  That was the intensive part.  But I also remember being in high school and, while on the riding lawn mower, pausing and reaching down to pick up a shard of something so it wouldn't ruin the mower blades or be shot into our house windows.  I was on constant alert for this problem.  That right there is at least 13 years of this girls life dedicated to the finely detailed cleaning and maintenance of that farm.

I believe there are two intriguing items that surfaced during rainy springtimes in that grove of trees.  One was a full size grand piano that had been buried in the dirt of the grove at some unknown point in history.  We never could figure out how such a lavish item had found its way to our poor farm with a sad economic past.  The second item(s) of intrigue were pickle jars.  Pickle jars like the great big old crocks you saw in the country store on episodes of Little House on the Prairie.  We uncovered a set - one about five gallons the other about three - next to an old ash tree.

But between the broken bits and pieces of glass, metal, leather pieces, plastic combs, glass insulators and broken toys, we found jars and bottles fully intact.  With their rusty screw top lids or decomposed corked tops, these bottles were things of the sort you might find in a medicine cabinet, if you could afford to have one.  There were lineament containers and aspirin bottles, antacid tins and salad dressing containers.  These were the types of bottles that didn't have labels but the company name was embossed on the side in an ornate fashion.  The bottles had a green or blue tint to them.  And we saved them.  There they were, preserved amidst the mud and the worms, and we uncovered them, washed them off and saved them.

Now I don't know where my father had been keeping these bottles for the past 40 years.  Probably he kept them in the old stone basement before he replaced it a few winters ago, but here they are.  At least here are a few of them.  Wrapped in newspaper and dusty, some still have decomposing corks stuck inside or halfway down the neck of the bottle.  Here they are in a box in my living room in Westchester, California.  Here they have been for the past six months.

I don't even know how to begin to find out how much they are worth.  I'm guessing it's something like zero dollars and even less cents.  Would these items be worth anything to anybody?  How would I even search their worth on Google?  Type in "dump bottles circa 1940-1970"?  I suppose I could type in the company names, but realistically who would be interested aside from me?  Who would be more interested than the very person who slaved and slaved tugging these items up from the dirt like a reluctant archeologist?

These bottles serve to inspire the imagination and they serve to jog my repressed memory of a labor I learned to despise.  I really should hate these bottles but they also serve to remind me of a lot of time spent with my lost and only brother.  They remind me of a life lived long long ago not only by me and my brother but also by my parents and my grandparents.  It is a reminder of an isolated life during those driving Midwestern winter storms when you couldn't go through your front door for 3 days at a time or when you tied a rope to your waist so you wouldn't get lost on your way to feed the cows.  It reminds me of a way of life that I have come to greatly respect - a way of life where you literally worked yourself into the ground.  Relentlessly ranching, my father still follows this code of work ethic.

Dad still lives on that 40-acre farm.  It is where I was married this summer.  I respect what he does and I respect the pride that he has poured into his work and instilled in us to do the same.  Yet, I still appreciate why I fled that farm just three days after high school graduation.  I have to go back for a visit every once in while to remind myself just why.  Now, here in my very own home, I have constant reminders, embossed in blue green glass.  I stare at them while settling into my yoga stance.


  1. I recognize that bottle!! And, the picture of all of us ... pretty cool that it was taken in front of a portion of the grove that has now transformed into the "actual spot" where your wedding reception too place just 3 months ago last Sunday with nary a glass shard left, thank goodness. It and you have come through a lot since those days.... all for the better.

  2. wow this was so heart warming to read!! I cant believe the story of how you grew up and all that stuff that was kept! hahah you should call like that one tv show that appraises antiques

  3. I like Valentine's idea, one is Antiques roadshow...we watch sometimes. So, I wonder if the piano was hidden from people who did not want anyone to know they had anything of value. Someone coming to collect on a debt. In the old days, I believe they would just take yo stuff. Hey I bet someone who does glass art would be interested. The old bottles were so thick and interesting. Also would look nice on the shelf with dried flowers or herbs. Love the family photo. Gave me an ear to ear grin :]