CosmiComedy: I’m So Rich
By Lavinia Plonka
I look around my home office and realize that almost everything was given to me. Galen gave me the glow in the dark rosary blessed by the Pope. Yael gave me the “hamsa” that hangs over the door, a Middle Eastern guard against the evil eye. The framed photograph of Debaureau as Pierrot from my husband Ron, the bookcase from Hilarie (OK, she was moving), even my vintage postage scale was given to me by someone … who was that? Oh my God, as I look around, I realize I never even bought my mouse pad, a gift 15 years ago from my stepdaughter, a cartoon of a wizard. The framed photos on the wall courtesy my best friend from high school. The couch came from Lenora when I moved here. The mini-trampoline, the easel, the elaborate treasure box, nothing is mine. And yet it is.
Tonight I roasted a chicken in the clay pot my ex-sister in law gave us 16 years ago. It’s cracked and has started to leak out the bottom. Ron and I washed it, tested the crack and agreed it is leaking and should be thrown out. When she gave it to us, it was part of a ploy on her part for us to join her Pampered Chef multi-level marketing scheme, one of many money making pretenses at loving friendship she employed throughout her tumultuous era as a member of our family. Even though we no longer speak to her, even though everyone in the family has agreed that she was a conniving manipulator, somehow we can’t bring ourselves to toss the clay pot, because it was given to us as a gift.
I rest my legs on the Turkish pillow given to us by our neighbors, for no reason whatsoever, except that when they came home after nine years of living in Turkey, they found they had a surplus of Turkish pillows and artifacts cluttering their home. I’m wearing Crocs that were given to me by a friend who lives in Hawaii. (Yes, I packed them in my suitcase ten years ago, along with a fleece vest, a flowered skirt and god knows what else she was “getting rid of.” )I rub my hands on the apron Ron gave me, a hilarious confection sewn of fabric printed with fried eggs. I look at my watch, which once belonged to my Mother. OK, she didn’t give it to me, I found it when cleaning out her drawers after she passed. But I know she would have been pleased that I’m wearing it. Oh my gosh, I’m wearing earrings given to me by someone as well! I begin to wonder if I’ve ever bought anything.
I decide to do a tour. Dozens of knick knacks, elves, lady vases, antique vases, wine goblets, all of them “gifts.” Once a sibling bought me an elf vase as a humorous statement about my height. Someone saw it and presented me with another one they “scored” at a garage sale. This led to an avalanche of elf dishes, ashtrays, and flower pots. I often complained about the load of elves. Then one day, while moving a plant, Ron accidentally knocked one off the shelf, shattering its little pointy head. I was beside myself with grief. How can you simultaneously hate and love an elf dish? Is it my Gemini rising? Do I have more than one self?
My cookbook collection is all gifts except the one I wrote (my gift to myself!). The hutch, a gift from Ron’s aunt. My rock and crystal collection could be a memoir, each piece a story about a friend, some now gone from this planet. As I get to the bedrooms it’s even more absurd. My dresser was my Grandmother’s. It’s not even a good dresser. The drawers stick, the veneer is chipped in several places. The silvering on the mirror is slowly disintegrating. It’s a bitch to keep clean because it’s got all these curlicues around the mirror. Anyone seeing this dresser in our house says, “That’s your dresser?” Because it’s so “not me.” But outside of an old dress up in the attic and some photographs, it’s the only thing I have from my grandmother. How could I possibly replace it with some elegant, contemporary, functional piece? The bed and nightstands are courtesy of my sister. Even my dysfunctional alarm clock is a gift – from my other sister in law.
I don’t think I’ve ever bought a pair of earrings in my life, yet my earring rack is groaning with bling. Yes, the earring rack was also a gift, maybe 30 years ago for Christmas from my sister’s roommate. OK, maybe it’s time to remove the gigantic rhinestone encrusted leopard print Joan Jett earrings. And the disco ball ones. I look at this mini-autobiography: the fancy sapphire and emerald earrings Ron gave me one anniversary that I’m afraid to wear because I always lose expensive jewelry. The plexiglass dangly star earrings I would wear when I was teaching kids in the South Bronx in the 90’s (along with my off the shoulder tee shirt and red pegged pants). There was a book and a play called Life, Loss and What I Wore. But those stories looked at life in a sequential fashion. The gifts that surround me at every turn are a dizzying montage of my life story. Don’t even ask where my Vermont Pottery dishes came from, or my complete collection of 1st edition Maurice Nicoll Commentaries, (and a thousand other books scattered through the house), my waffle iron, living room furniture, even my exfoliating bath mitt. As I wander my house, all of time collapses into a box of memories. Oh, yeah, the cigar box on my desk? My old friend Joan lined it with felt and shellacked it for me as a gift back in 1977. Each time I open it, I remember walking the five flights to her apartment.
The Native People of the Northwest had a tradition called potlatch, which is basically gifting people with as much as you can. The more gifts you give, the richer you are. The people in my life are rich indeed. What have I given? I don’t remember! I like to think that all over the world, old friends and acquaintances are looking at their bookcases, at their desks and smiling. “Lavinia loaned me that book 40 years ago. When I offered to give it back 20 years later, she said not to bother.” “Oh, that platter? I think my sister Lavinia gave that to us for our wedding, right, honey?” “This jacket? Lavinia found it at a garage sale and just felt I had to have it. Perfect, isn’t it?” “You like these earrings? Lavinia once took them out of her ears and just handed them to me.”
Ultimately though, it’s not about stuff. Because if it was, I’d surely have just bought some new things instead of continuing to use mismatched cutlery (a gift from someone who was getting married and receiving a full, new set). I like to think that the greatest gifts exchanged through the years are the relationships we’ve had with the givers and receivers. The stories we tell about each other, the memories of their goodness or evil. The connections forged imbue a kind of talismanic power in each object we treasure.
That being said, if you came to my house and looked with longing at my vintage Buck Rogers ray gun, my hand made stained glass candy dish an artist friend made for us, or my wind up duck toy, I’d be more than happy to gift them to you. But don’t even think about my mini Star Trek figurines given to me by a former Franklin Mint employee. That’s a gift I’ll take to my grave.
When not polishing her knickknacks, Lavinia offers the gift of movement, with classes and private sessions in the Feldenkrais Method. Laviniaplonka.com.