Treasures of history that only a family could love

We're happily dusting off Susannah again. That can mean only one thing: Granddaughters Kristie and Carolyn are coming to visit. Kristie and Carolyn are sugar and spice and everything nice.

Susannah is 90, porcelain and cotton, the 14-inch-tall keeper of whispered secrets. Four generations of little girls have lovingly rubbed her head bald, stroked her face expressionless. My mother, sister, and daughter. And now the grandchildren.

To look at her is to realize that for nearly a century she - a giveaway premium from a Boston newspaper - has comforted and counseled, given and received love, traveled countless wheeled miles, been cradled hundreds of hours. She has been reglued, re-haired and repainted; nevertheless, to our family, she is priceless.

Antique experts sniff at the likes of her. One soulless one suggested keeping her eyes and throwing away the remainder. Like most experts, he had eyes only for the pristine. For antique dolls in their original boxes. For exquisite furniture - unblemished, unrefinished, unused.

The message is not only that like-new antiques are the most expensive, but also the most desirable.

Phooey. They are items that have not given anywhere near their full measure of pleasure, merely grown old. An unblemished antique is devoid of the evidence that someone has been here, the evidence that gives perspective to human existence.

Far more to be cherished are items that show they shared time with our predecessors, providing them enjoyment as they navigated life. In our house, that means Susannah, the cracked-leather child's trunk, and the Civil War books.

The trunk is a mystery, but clues abound: An 1826 Boston newspaper lines it, crackling with news of wind-powered ocean vessels and hoof-powered land transport. The letters "MB" - who was she? - dominate the top; a tiny heart adorns its front. Where 175 years of hands have lifted and opened, the leather is worn away.

To the untutored eye, it's more shabby than splendid. But it has clearly given uncountable hours of pleasure as America has matriculated from the last year of Jefferson's life to the space shuttle. To muse on the little trunk is to appreciate both what its owners wrestled with and nearly two centuries of hard-won progress.

In our house, appreciation for history comes, too, from "A Soldier in Our Civil War," a mammoth two-volume history with scores of near-Pointalist engravings that yank battles off the pages and into the living room. Its leather splines are off now, its bindings broken, its brittle sepia pages dog-eared. But when it climbs down from the shelves, rich memories spill out - of Great-uncle Walter, who fought in the struggle, and of smiling Aunt Alice, his daughter, who gave them to a gangly teen.

For me and my daughter, the books fired an appreciation for history. And then there was the directionless dropout, muscling furniture for a mover. He'd talked as he'd toted, expressing interest in American history. Out came the tattered volumes; as he lunched he hunched over them -reading, absorbing. They helped him decide, he later said, to return to college. You know the subject he pursued.

Antiques like these would fetch a trifle, were they for sale. They aren't: They're keepers. Because to those who truly see, it is they that are the true treasures.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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