“What have you brought me?”
Ella’s grin and inability to stand still told me she was excited by her find. I would always congratulate her even when she brought me junk I couldn’t use because she needed the motivation to keep hunting. I’d tried to communicate what I wanted but it wasn’t easy because I didn’t always know until I saw it. The plastic bones from a Halloween skeleton ended up being re-buried, but the rusted lobster shell crackers found their purpose in “Daniel’s Bounty” as part of a life-sized tractor. I’d spent a lifetime creating art from discarded objects and had received accolades in my youth.
When I look at my art, I find it difficult to separate the overall idea from the function of the individual parts. I see lobsters where others see only metal. None of the children had seen a lobster and few believed me when I told them the tools were made to crack open their hard shells which turned red after boiling. Compared to these children, I’m ancient, and who cares what I know about the past anyway. It’s all useless, silly information. Even so, the kids seem hungry for more stories. I’ve become entertainment, but maybe that’s not so bad.
Ella slowly brought her arms around in front of her. Now I was fidgeting. When I saw it, my first guess was a salad spinner, just another useless device that made little sense in today’s world. Who would waste water washing lettuce? There was a scratched metal base and a lid with a handle and clamps at the edges. Ella looked at me expectantly, waiting for me to tell her what she held in her hands.
“I’m not sure yet. Let me have a look.”
Ella nodded and held out the bowl. She wanted a story for her efforts. Sometimes I made one up for her, but as she grew older, she knew when she wasn’t hearing the truth.
I worked hard to separate the lid from the bowl. If there was a basket inside, I could use it as a strainer. I looked up, and Ella’s tongue was sticking out the side of her mouth, mimicking mine as I concentrated. I closed my mouth and the lid finally squeaked off. No basket inside.
Instead, there was a carefully folded, yellowed newspaper. Maybe it was used for packing something important? I gently pulled it out of the bowl and unfolded it, but there was no hidden treasure. Ella sighed. She never spoke much, but her sighs were a language I’d learned to interpret.
“You’ve found a salad spinner, or part of one,” I said, explaining the purpose and watching her shake her head in disappointment. “The newspaper may say something interesting.” I tried to sound hopeful. “Look, it’s from 1918, almost 180 years old.” This elicited another sigh. “I’ll read it and I’ll tell you if I find something interesting, OK?” With a shrug, Ella wandered towards her friends.
After their chores were done, I’d watch the five of them playing, without words for the most part. Only Daniel spoke to me at length and had shown an interest in learning how to read real books. That meant I wouldn’t have to share the newspaper. I carefully refolded it and carried it into the shed. I spent too much time maintaining my small living space, but what else could I do at my age? The two boys had built their own shed over the hill, still within shouting distance, but the three girls were still pre-teens and would stay with me a while longer. I enjoyed their company but had to remind myself that lack of conversation gave me more time for peaceful contemplation.
I cleared off the breakfast dishes and lay the newspaper on the table. I’d found other papers, of course, but rarely a whole section. I read an ad that made me laugh. “The missing link of Darwinism has never been discovered, but we can tell you where some real good link-sausages can be found.” Usually the ads would amuse me for an hour or more, but today I was hungry for information or at least stories I could share with the kids. Neither was easy to find. Facts were considered boring, and fear sold newspapers. Eighty years later, nothing had changed in that regard except there were no more newspapers, just tweets born largely of unfocused imagination, not research.
I scanned the pages, my eyes alighting on an article that included a hazy reproduction of a drawing from a much earlier era. It described a séance, apparently in vogue in the early 1900’s, where the host of the séance practiced “table tipping”. The tipping or rotation of a small table was used as evidence of communication with the spirit world. Later it was attributed to unscrupulous behavior or, more generously, to unconscious muscular action by the spiritualist. The fascination with communicating with the dead was discussed at length in the article. I wondered what the children would think of this? All had lost their parents in the epidemic which is how I came to take on the role of grandmother. Bereavement could do strange things to the brain, but I suspected these kids would add this story to their list of reasons why they’d never want to go back to the so-called golden ages. Daniel had asked me why everyone was so crazy back then, as if we’d all been subject to a brain plague. I asked him if he thought I was still crazy. His shrug was non-committal.
As I flipped over the pages, I realized I was searching for stories to make them yearn for the past, the way I did. But who did that serve? I couldn’t tell them how to live on a devastated planet, or what to value and protect because my generation had been hopeless at that. The kids knew sharing got them further, and they rarely argued over tools or toys the way I had as a child. The concept of “mine” didn’t seem to exist for them. Funny, they were teaching me far more than I could teach them, but it was coming too late for me.
I continued turning the brittle pages, searching for insights. There was a short article on overcrowding in cities, and how it initially made people more tolerant of differences but later led to gang violence. No need to worry about overcrowding these days, I thought, but would the scenario keep playing out as it did in the wild? Prey and predator levels were rarely in balance. The next page held a gold mine. In 1900, A man named John Elfreth Watkins predicted what the world would look like a hundred years later. He saw only improvements, and was able to predict digital photography, mobile phones, television, pre-prepared meals and hot house vegetables. Perhaps I can get the kids interested in imagining what their world would look like in a hundred years.
After dinner, I read the article to the children. Daniel asked to look at the pictures, and Ella gave me her usual frown. “What are all those things?” She placed emphasis on things since she saw them as useless.
“They came before the internet, Ella. Watkins didn’t predict the internet. But remember, it was a time when few had electricity. Can you imagine how things might change over the next century?”
“Change?” Daniel echoed. “Why do things have to change?”
“Improvements make our lives easier, more interesting.”
All the children were scowling now. Did they fear change?
“You tell us we must work in harmony with nature to survive,” Daniel said, “yet you talk about change as if it is a good thing. Change can be bad when it isn’t in harmony.”
I blushed. He’d hit on something I’d pushed from my mind. Humanity’s constant striving for novelty and our inability to contemplate limits to growth had disastrous consequences for the planet. Could these children avoid those mistakes?
“Daniel, I saw you make an irrigation system using buckets and tubing. Isn’t that change, and an improvement over watering by hand?”
“Yes, but first I thought about whether it was in harmony with nature, and it was.”
“But you, Ella, didn’t you make a net to catch more fish than you could with a rod and line? What if you take too many fish with your net?”
“Now I only fish once a week instead of every day. We all talked about eating too many fish, but we keep careful watch. If I catch fewer fish, I’ll stop fishing for a while till they come back.”
“Stop? What if people on the other side of the lake keep fishing? They will have food, and you won’t.”
“Why would they keep fishing? It’s like eating the seed potatoes.” Why indeed, I thought. I’d instilled my values, or some of them, but had I prepared these children for what they might encounter? Now it was my turn to frown. “We aren’t like you, Grandma,” Ella said quietly. “And the children across the lake think the way we do.”
“Did someone teach them?”
“We teach each other.”
I was confused. If they rarely spoke among themselves, how did they teach each other?
“We show each other and we think before we do things,” Ella said, correctly interpreting my silence. She took my hand and led me outside to the lean-to. The other children followed. Together we stared at my sculpture of useless bits and pieces that had no obvious function. I thought of pack rats and bower birds who fabricated elaborate nests of found objects in hopes of luring a mate. What was my purpose in creating this art?
“We don’t understand why you use your time this way,” Daniel said, looking down and shuffling his feet.
“It doesn’t hurt the planet,” I said, trying to justify myself. “Besides, I feel satisfied when I make a sculpture out of garbage, but I can’t tell you why.” Was creativity a bad thing for the planet, I wondered?
“Oh. We thought it was like a making a stone over a grave — something to remember the before-time,” Ella said.
“Or maybe it’s a warning not to make garbage in the first place,” Daniel said. The other children nodded in agreement.
Of course, I felt sad. Who wouldn’t if they viewed their life’s work through the eyes of her grandchildren. The tractor ended up being my last sculpture, but I still took pleasure in looking at it. Perhaps it was nostalgia, but if I tried to explain that concept to the children, they would scoff. They’d wonder why I would want to return to a time when people ate their seed potatoes. Still, the children have given me hope that we are moving in the right direction, and that, too, is change.