Column #1610

Copyright © Harry Rinker, LLC 2017

What It Means When a Generation Dies

In June 2017, the “Grand Rapids Free Press” ran a story by Leonard Pitts, Jr, entitled: “What it means when a generation dies,” distributed by the Tribune Content Agency. Pitts talked about the loss of his last blood aunt and uncle, lamenting the fact that his generation is now the oldest generation in his family. He stressed the loss of firsthand memory and family superstitions. “Time takes what time will. It takes the generations that shaped you. Eventually, it takes you. Such is life.” It most certainly is.

When my Aunt Helen Rinker Byer died on August 10, 2004, I became a member of the oldest generation in the Rinker family. My mother’s Prosser side was longer lived. My Uncle Bill Prosser, my mother’s youngest brother and last surviving member of a family of 10, died on August 18, 2016. My death lottery now evolves around my Rinker and Prosser cousins. I had 30 first cousins. I am one of 22 remaining. My goal, albeit unrealistic, is to be the last one standing.

In terms of firsthand memory, I am the “go to” person in both families. When none of my first cousins wanted the family bibles, photographs, and documents, I saved them. The same applies to the stories I heard from my aunts and uncles. Recently, the son of one of my cousins asked if I knew how Uncle Ken and Aunt Ellen, his grandparents, met. I know a great deal about Uncle Ken and Aunt Ellen but not this piece of information. Memory is a fragile commodity, especially when not written down.

Everyone is a member of multi-generations – high school and college classmates, birth era, sports teams, social circles, decade, and events. I was alive when the last survivors of the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I died. Provided I live long enough, I will become one of the last individuals who can answer the question: “Where were you when you heard Pearl Harbor was bombed?”

Memory is multi-generational. It is not limited to the lifetime of an individual. My knowledge about my grandparents, aunt and uncles, and great aunts and uncles extends back decades before I was born. As a youth and young adult, I listened carefully and asked a lot of questions. A lifelong interest in the objects I found in these individuals’ houses and family genealogy helped. It always has been my plan to write down these memories once I retire and before my memory fails. The difficultly is that I cannot stop working.

Memory links the past with the present and future. Early in my museum and antiques and collectibles career, I was fortunate to interact with individuals who were the giants of the trade in the 1930s through the 1950s. I listened carefully as they talked about the antiques and collectibles trade in the decades before I was born. I read their books and articles. I worked side by side with a few of them. Their knowledge lives through me. It also has provided me with a great sense of perspective of how the trade operated in the past, a perspective I use to interpret the present and predict the future. Adding the knowledge base I acquired during a 50-year career studying antiques and collectibles, assuming you count my museum experience as part of that number, I have almost a century of insight into how the antiques and collectibles trade has grown and changed.

Thanks to “Rinker on Collectibles” and my books, I have been able to document and share many of my observations. I am not done. There are more stories and observations waiting to find their way into print.

Yet, I am concerned. At 76, I still am in reasonably good health but certainly no “spring chicken.” I am a member of the Pre-Baby Boomer/Silent generation. There are fewer of us than there was a decade ago. My contemporaries are dying at an alarming rate. The loss of their memories weighs heavily on me.

What Pitts identifies as firsthand memories are really personal memories. Personal memories are usually internalized, often not shared with partners, spouses, children, family, and friends. When shared, the memories are transmitted verbally. As a result, except for the person who experienced them, they are momentary memories for the listener. As a youngster, I was taught to listen and remember, a lost art in today’s world.

In the antiques and collectibles industry, personal memories in respect to objects include 35mm slides and photographs, miscellaneous ephemera from old report cards to programs to tax records, souvenirs, and objects whose only worth it to the person who acquired it. This material usually winds up in the dumpster. Its survival causes nightmares for children and grandchildren. “Get rid of that junk” is the battle cry of those who will have to deal with it when a member of an earlier generation dies.

Family memories are ancestral, immediate, and extended. I grew up in a nucleated family of 28 aunts and uncles and 30 first cousins. Until my parents’ generation, the family was rooted in the Philadelphia-Easton-Allentown, Pennsylvania, triangle. Only a small number of my aunts and uncles lived outside that triangle. Although the majority of my cousins are scattered across the United States, several still live in the Lehigh Valley.

My generation is one of the last to treasure ancestral and immediate memories. We participated in family reunions where 50 attendees was a small number. When grandparents and parents died, their household goods passed down to the next generation. Every piece came with memories attached. I have the Heisey green glass relish and serving dishes that sat in the built-in corner cupboard at my Grandfather and Grandmother Prosser’s home at 717 High Street, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Although I have not used them in years, I have not discarded them. They are as much a part of my blood as the liquid that flows through my veins.

My children could care less. Their interest in their ancestral past and my nucleated and extended family is minimal to non-existed. As generations had fewer children and moved away from their ancestral roots, the memory links that bound individuals to objects scattered. Pass it down became throw it away.

Community, regional, and geographic cultural roots also weakened. Younger generations are often embarrassed by these heritages. They want to blend in rather than stand out. I am proud of my Pennsylvania German heritage. My children never think about it. As a result, they do not identify with the objects from their cultural past. Today, eighteenth and early nineteenth Pennsylvania German furniture and other decorative artifacts often sell at 1970s prices. I did not have the money in the 1970s to buy pieces I would have loved to own. I do today; but, I am far too wise to spend it on things whose value will continue to decline.

Institutional memory involves the preservation of how things were done in the past. Its primary role is to avoid having to reinvent the wheel. In the antiques and collectibles trade, institutional memory rests with a small cadre of individuals. New entrants, whether collector or dealer, prefer to jump in and hope they survive as opposed to taking the time to seek out those who are knowledgeable and ask for advice. In the trade, everyone is an instant expert. Experts never have to ask for advice. Many today, especially the antiques and collectibles cable television entertainer pendants, do not remember life in the trade before eBay. Institutional trade memory is considered unimportant.

Object memory is lost with each passing generation. Today, I am asked “what is it” as much as I am asked “what is it worth.” A decade ago, an individual brought a flour sifter to one of my appraisal clinics. “Do you want to know how much this is worth?” I asked. “No,” was the reply, “I want to know what it was used for.” I just shook my head.

Tradition is memory driven. When I married Linda, she asked, “What did your mother make for Christmas dinner?” Linda believes strongly in preserving traditional family customs. I am more flexible, understanding that “family tradition” changes when children become adults and have families of their own. While many individuals’ holiday traditions are food focused, mine are associated with the objects on which the food was served and other accessories that appeared on special occasions. Th dinnerware and stemware from the dining room china cabinet made their way to the dining room table. The bonbon dishes’ arrival on the dining room buffet and living room coffee table held the promise of treats that were destined to create tooth decay.

In summary, collecting is memory driven. Memory is the link that binds individuals to the past. When memory is lost through the passing of a generation, a part of the past disappears. When I was younger, there were individuals, especially collectors, who were committed to maintaining generational links. Their number has greatly diminished in the last half century; and, there rests the primary problem currently faced by the antique and collectibles community—few remember or give a damn.

Harry L. Rinker welcomes questions from readers about collectibles, those mass-produced items from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.  Selected letters will be answered in this column.  Harry cannot provide personal answers.  Photos and other material submitted cannot be returned.  Send your questions to: Rinker on Collectibles, 5955 Mill Point Court SE, Kentwood, MI  49512.  You also can e-mail your questions to harrylrinker@aol.com. Only e-mails containing a full name and mailing address will be considered.

You can listen and participate in WHATCHA GOT?, Harry’s antiques and collectibles radio call-in show, on Sunday mornings between 8:00 AM and 10:00 AM Eastern Time.  If you cannot find it on a station in your area, WHATCHA GOT? streams live on the Internet at www.gcnlive.com.


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