Sunday Afternoon Rocking

The Price of Our Past


Not so long ago, I wandered the aisles and rooms of an antique mall, gazing with appreciation at the aged bits and pieces of long ago lives, wondering at the circumstances that had torn them from a family that now might not even remember they had ever been a part. Nearby, two well-heeled matrons were having an animated conversation over something one of them held in her hands, and curious, I turned to see what was going on.

"Well it has a $40 price tag," stated the silver-haired lady, a hint of something dubious in her manner.

"I think it is well worth that," replied her companion, "I once saw one like it auctioned and going for a good deal more."

Suddenly I recognized exactly what it was that had captured the ladies' attention, and before I could think what I was doing, the words popped out, "Oh! I have one exactly like that! I never saw another!"

The two matrons turned immediately in my direction, and one's eyes narrowed speculatively. "You have one of these?" she asked, holding up the tiny oil burning lamp, with the word "Handy" raised on the bowl of its surface.

"Yes," I replied, "It was my father's when he was a little boy. I am told it rested on a table beside his bed at night, and that he used it to find his way to the outhouse after dark."

In my mind's eye, I saw a picture I had long envisioned. It was a summer night in a place I knew well, where lightning bugs lit tiny quick stabs in the darkness, and whippoorwills called mournfully. A little boy slipped barefoot through the night with only a tiny lantern to light his way, gazing a bit fearfully this way and that, but struggling to be brave and a "big boy."

"What would you take for it?" the lady continued, far less interested in my story than in the fact that there was indeed another like it in the world and if at all possible, she intended to have it.

It was the story behind the lamp that was important to me, and I was upset at the realization that this lady wanted to place a price tag on it. I was dismayed, and wishing very much I had thought before speaking. "Oh, I couldn't sell it," I replied and had to repeat again and again when pressed, before I quietly slipped out the door and back to my car.

I realized my mistake, of course -- impulsive speaking. I had, after all, been in an antique mall where pieces of the past were for sale, and where I myself had purchased such before and would again. What the ladies had asked was quite reasonable in terms of where I had been and the information I had volunteered. Perhaps one of the ladies actually was trying to do what I myself had done before -- purchase back a piece of her own past that had been lost, but which she remembered as my father had, resting beside her bed on long ago nights. For lack of the actual piece, she searched for another like it. And I considered those pieces "lost" to our families, and what they meant when they had never been "lost."

I really did not care what the tiny lamp was worth in terms of cash, had never even considered that aspect, and no amount of money could have purchased it, not $40 and not $400. The lamp was an investment all right, and an investment I was saving for my children, but I figured the dividends not in cash, which is here today and spent tomorrow for things we little remember in years to come, but in terms of the heart and in terms of roots.

Roots are both here today and here tomorrow, stories to be told and retold, imprinting upon succeeding generations their family of the past they never had the opportunity to know or to love. There were folks I wanted my children and grandchildren to have a bit of, a memory of, and a tiny lamp was the very vehicle for opening the door to questions. Questions were really invitations to tell the stories and stories are priceless.

About the Author
Jan Philpot also shares her writing each week through her Sunday Afternoon Rocking columns which are distributed on the list Sunday Rocking. This is not a "reply to" list, and normally only one message per week will come across it, that being the column. To subscribe send email to

Article Copyright 2000 JanPhilpot


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