“Every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.” – Walter Benjamin
Most of us are collectors of ‘something.’ I personally have a large coin collection started when I was 12-years-old. My wife Sandra has a ‘very’ large teapot and teacup collection. She also has collected a massive Christmas ornament assemblage, numbering over 1,000, of which she can recount the origin of every one. Yes, I am serious. A golf buddy has an extensive driver collection. A childhood friend collects antique medical supplies and equipment, which I might add, should be in the Smithsonian Institution.
Now, take a few moments and think about what you collect and why. To me, the ‘why’ is just as important as the ‘what.’ Sandra collects tea cups and teapots because, “They are beautiful and they remind me of when my elderly neighbor would invite me, as a little girl, over for tea. When she passed away, she wanted me to have her teapot. This piece was, and still is, very special to me.”
My golf buddy blames his driving ‘yips’ on his equipment. After a pattern of bad drives, he says, “Equipment failure! Gotta be the driver. A new one will fix everything.” Why my friend collects medical supplies remains a mystery, although she is a doctor. When she gave me a tour, there were too many sharp objects around and bizarre looking ‘stuff’ to ask. But, rest assured, she has her reasons. For me personally, I started collecting coins when I was in the hospital for an appendectomy. It gave me something to do during recovery. Keep in mind, this was a time before computers and televisions in rooms.
What people collect and why is fascinating to me. It becomes especially interesting when it evolves into “couples collecting,” as it has for Sandra and me.
It was Christmas, 1986. Sandra and I were on our way to a friend’s home for our annual faculty Christmas party. Rotating home locations within my department was something everyone enjoyed. Although we had been to their home many times, this was the first Christmas visit.
When we drove through the entrance to their community, every home was tastefully decorated in what friends in our area called “traditional Williamsburg” – a large fresh evergreen wreath, perhaps adorned with fresh apples and single white candles in each window. If there were outside lights, they were small white lights in trees or around railings. Perhaps a small spotlight to accent the front door. There was a feeling of reverence and calm. Simple. Elegant. Tasteful.
Everyone wore their holiday best and we were greeted at the door with smiles and hugs. Sandra made sure I presented the lady of the home with a hostess gift, a gift, which I might add, I almost forgot. After everyone settled in, the hostess said, “All, please come with me. I want to share our family’s special place.”
We all gathered by the entrance of a small room off the living area. It was completely dark. And then, with the flip of a switch, that dark room was transformed into a winter wonderland. The entire room resembled a small English village all decorated for Christmas. There were small shops, street lights, benches, a town square, court house, fire station, fountains, soft street sounds – an entire village right before our eyes. There was landscaping which included hills, valleys, ponds, and trees. It was like standing in the center of a Thomas Kinkade painting which had come to life.
I remember saying how beautiful it was and how I had never seen anything like it. I mumbled a lot more but most of it did not make any sense because I was on sensory overload. The hostess looked at me and said, “This is our Department 56 collection. We have been collecting for over 20 years. Every Christmas, Jim and I spend hours and days transforming this room into our holiday sanctuary. In the evening, we pour a glass of wine or have a couple eggnogs and just sit on the sofa,” pointing behind her. “This is our relaxation time. A time to be together and remember.”
December, 1986. That was when it all began for Sandra and me. Our own adventure into the world of Department 56 Villages. If you are not familiar with the brand, it would be worth your while to enter their world – a world of miniature beauty. The work of their artists is magnificent. The attention to detail is unmatched.
The first piece Sandra gave me was the Fishing Lodge pictured below. It reminded me of all the good times and years I had fishing and hunting with dad, my Uncle Jess and my grandfather, Ancel. The second piece, we bought together – the Farm House, also pictured below. It reminded us of the one that once stood proudly, nestled beside a stream on our family farm near Jacktown (Crabapple), Pennsylvania and the one on Sandra’s family farm in Enterprise, West Virginia.
With the selection of the Farm House, Sandra and I began a holiday tradition of adding another house to our “Snow Village” collection every Christmas. As you can see from the photo at the top of this column, we have accumulated several memories. The Harley-Davidson shop is a reminder of my early motorcycle years. The Antique Shop reminds us of how much we enjoyed finding and refinishing antique furniture. The Lighthouse is a constant reminder of our wonderful years on the coast of Virginia. The School House, of our 30-plus years in public education. The Winery, of my years when I grew my own grapes and made wine.
Every building, house, and accessory has a story, a story about the years Sandra and I have spent together.
Although we have not dedicated an entire room to our collection, we do have ours prominently displayed in the dining room. I have done my best to recreate a small-town atmosphere, complete with the muffled sounds of children playing, horse drawn carriages, a distant train whistle, people talking, and carolers. Oh yes, there is more to our village than houses and buildings. We have added some small cars from my childhood. Old pine trees from my parent’s 1950s decorations. A mounted WWI toy-soldier my father-in-law played with as a child. Some small river stones from my mother’s home. I use them for landscaping around the pond. Pine trees leftover (which survived) from my HO Scale Train Set. And, so much more.
When we have a quiet dinner together, the only lights in the room are from the village and a few candles. The room is full of the sounds and memories of past times, places, and loved ones.
People ‘collect’ for many different reasons – some out of loyalty to a school, team, or person. Many collect for investment purposes. A few may collect as a legacy for their children. Many probably collect simply for the satisfaction of seeking and owning. And most, I feel, they collect because they enjoy it. Actually, the reasons why and what people collect are as varied as the items collected.
For Sandra and me, our Department 56 collection is our way of keeping the memories alive. Our snow village reminds us of a much simpler time. A time when children could sled ride way past dark. The church pews were filled every Sunday. Groups went caroling throughout the neighborhood. When shopping ‘downtown’ was fun, and at times, became a social event. Collecting keeps us connected with where we came from, where we have been, and with people we have loved. And that is our joy.
Until next time,
Author’s Note: I would enjoy hearing about ‘what’ you collect and ‘why.’ You can leave your story at the bottom of this column or, if you choose, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook (Michael Lambiotte).