I have treasures. There are fewer now than when I lived in a house, but the ones I really care for made the move without too much difficulty.
My best treasure is an 18th century chest of drawers that belonged to my grandfather. It’s not an elegant piece—it is oak, dark, squat and heavy, and I suspect it spent a century in a middle class home’s living room. The top is cracked and buckled, marred and stained by wine glasses and spills. There’s a chunk missing from its surface and many decades ago my father tried to fix it with plastic wood. It didn’t work. In Paris where I was born, the piece held the silverware and linen brought out for special occasions. The drawers are rudimentary—no slides, or ball bearings. Twice a decade I take a candle and run it along the drawer bottoms so they open easily.
The second treasure dates from a little later, the early 1800s, possibly. It’s a secretary with a fold down desk. Inside are eight little drawers for all the necessary writing utensils and other ephemerals needed to draft a billet doux or more likely, pay bills. There’s a chunk missing from one of the legs. What I’ve always loved about this bureau is its not-so-secret compartment. Right between the small drawers is a horizontal sliding panel that reveals a space just big enough to hide a carton of cigarettes, which is exactly what my mother used it for. She kept her Pall Malls there, and I stole them from there.
I have an ebony Buddha and the carved head of a lovely Asian woman. My father brought these back from Indonesia where he traveled as a British lord’s secretary in the 1930s. He also brought back a silver filigreed hash pipe from Tunisia (don’t ask), and a beautiful metal box from Ethiopia.
I have my great uncle’s kepi from World War 1, and a silver and ivory letter opener given to guests at the opening of my grandfather’s opera, Mona Vana. There’s a mah jongg set with ivory pieces my mother bought in Algeria during World War II, and my father’s Légion d’Honneur medal. I have his war diaries, and a children’s book my mother wrote and illustrated.
There are a few other things, more recent. My acoustic guitar sold for less than $10 in the Sears & Roebuck catalog of 1939. It’s not worth much, and the sound it makes won’t threaten a Martin or a Gibson, but it’s the instrument I learned to play on. There are two dark portraits of an abbot and his wife, possibly from the 1820s. My mother used to say they were ancestors, but I know for a fact she picked them both up for a song at the flea market in Paris.
And then there are my mother’s paintings. I only have five or six of them. My sister has a dozen or so, and many were sold at shows both in Washington and Paris. I don’t know what happened to her most ambitious project: a ten-foot long canvas depicting all the First Ladies from Martha Washington to Jackie Kennedy wearing their inaugural dresses. I always thought Mamie Eisenhower looked as if she had on a potato sack, a homage, perhaps, to the designer Cristóbal Balenciaga who created that sad fashion. It broke my mother’s heart that neither the Smithsonian nor the White house were willing to accept her gift of the painting, and she folded her artist’s trestle shortly thereafter.
And there are books, including a cookbook from 1745 and Les Aventures de la Famille Fenouillard, among the first graphic novel ever, that delighted my childhood.
I’m not sure what will happen to my treasures when I pass on. Some will go to my nephews in Europe, and others to friends. I do hope they find a home, even if one man’s treasure is another man’s trash.