Who Am I?

Historians are made, not born. It is not an adage, but it could be.

I was “made” at the half-off rack in the Salvation Army near Altoona, PA—the old location by the railroad tracks, not the new one next to Walmart. I was “made” at antique shows that were miles long. Fields of unfiltered treasures. My dad and I drove in the night before, and slept on a mattress in the back of our van. We got up with the sun because that’s when the real hunters came out.

As we parted in the morning, my dad gave me $20 and told me to meet him at the BBQ chicken place at 11:30. I wandered off, hopped-up on a morning Coke and the promise of finding a whole lot of stuff. Stuff that was sparkly or wooden or glass. Stuff that I could wear, use, stare at, or give away. Stuff.

Some shows I went for a big purchase or two. One sunny afternoon, I found a white rabbit fur coat. Too young to pull it off but with remarkable foresight, I forked over $15. A few years later, the coat was my social trademark and the outrage of my then-boyfriend’s father, who hated its remnants on his car seats.

At other shows, I bought on whim:

            • A shoebox filled of black and white photographs for $5; they provided hours of inventing and examining.

            • A charm bracelet from Bev, a 1972 high school cheerleader; I wore that to my first junior-high dance.

            • An employee’s handbook from Isaly’s, a chain of Pittsburgh delis

            • A dozen hat pins

            • Half-dozen wooden rulers

            • Another traincase

Those summer days made me a collector. I honed these skills working as a curator, a strangely emotional job that entails taking from people the things they love the most—their father’s pocket watch; a pillowcase made by their grandmother as part of her trousseau in Italy.  I see the connection between “people” and “things” every semester when I ask my students to bring in an object for a “show and tell.” At least one person cries, a couple laugh, and everyone walks away with a new appreciation for the material culture.

As a garage full of organized Rubbermaids attest, I still collect for myself—and my children, my very lanky brother-in-law, and an old friend who appreciates the silhouette a run of high-end polyester can provide.

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