Lisa Tracy’s most recent book, Objects of Our Affection, is a work that combines history and memoir to tell the tale of objects that are part of her family’s history by placing these objects within the larger context of U.S. history. Now retired from a 25-year career at the Philadelphia Inquirer, Tracy lives in Lexington, Va., in the home her grandparents built. She recently read as a part of George Mason University’s annual Fall for the Book literary festival. Tracy spoke with Leslie Maxwell, a nonfiction candidate in Mason’s MFA program and co-nonfiction editor of Phoebe.
Your new book, Objects of Our Affection, is an interesting mix of memoir and history. It doesn’t sound like, from the book, your family’s history was something you’d previously given much thought to. What about the idea of history in general—was that a particular interest for you?
This is not just a family story but a story that reflects our national history and our national obsessions. Putting it in this larger context came very naturally to me. This isn’t just the story of my family; this is the story of America. It’s the same story over and over again.
I never thought that I was interested in history when I was growing up and in college, but I seem to have absorbed a lot of it. As I began to do the research for the book, I focused on the Gilded Age [1865-1901], for two reasons. One, my grandparents were the foot soldiers of the Gilded Age. But at the very moments when I was doing research about my family, in the 1990s, I could see so many parallels between us at the time and the Gilded Age. As I thought about this, I began to see literature about it—even the New York Times Magazine had a cover referencing the second Gilded Age. There are things that happen over and over again, and they help us learn about who we are now.
One of the things I liked about your personal story in Objects of Our Affection was how real it felt. You and your sister didn’t go through all of the furniture and possessions when your mother passed away. There was about a 10-year time lapse between when you put everything in storage and when you decided that more needed to be done (deciding to sell the antiques at auction). Then, of course, there was time between the auction and the publishing of the book. Were these time lapses necessary for you to distance yourself from the events? When did you know you’d be writing this as a book?
The time lapse gives you perspective. In my case, it was not so deliberate. When I knew we were going to auction the furniture, I was dealing with guilt and remorse and uncertainty. One morning, I woke up one day, and I swear that my grandmother was there with me, and she said, “Write about it.” So I sat up in bed, and I pulled my spiral-bound notebook out of the drawer next to the bed, and I wrote the chapter that became the “The Canton Plates.”
It helped. So I thought, “I’m going to more of this.” I took another object—the red chair—and wrote about my grandfather. Through my writing, I began processing my doubt and remorse and longing for these people who didn’t exist anymore, as they occurred to me through the furniture.
These essays, I felt, had enough dimensions that they would resonate with people. And it wasn’t just the story of my family—it had historical and practical dimensions.
As the editor of the Home & Design section for the Philadelphia Inquirer, you surely had some encounters with antiques in that capacity. Do you think that role helped prepare you as you began to sift through your family’s furniture? In what way?
Serving as the editor of the Home & Design section made me much more aware of objects and their value in society. Objects are functional and can be beautiful, but they also have a societal value. They can be objects of status; they express our identity. Every week, I saw a constant flow of people’s thoughts about what constitutes makes an object important or, in the case of antiques, what makes an object important over time. I became much more conscious of what furniture and objects mean in our culture. I saw, over and over again, people’s attitudes about their stuff, buying new things or collecting old things. It did really fascinate me in the same way that my own story fascinated me—how our culture expresses itself through objects.
Why do you think more of us don’t take the time to learn about our family’s belongings, the antiques, the things that tell our story?
It’s very important and very natural for us to individuate—to become the individual we are supposed to be. Because of the way people naturally grow up and age, by the time we’ve grown up and become the individual we want to be, we then have families and careers—we’re looking forward and not back to our parents and grandparents. It’s a natural human tendency to look forward and worry about the future, and we forget that the past can actually tell us quite a lot about the present and the future. It’s something we intellectually know, but on an emotional level, it’s easy to forget.
How can we ensure that our stories are told?
We back off when our kids don’t show interest in our stories. I did it with my own mother. I saw her do the same thing with her father. But really, we have to tell the stories whether people want to hear them or not. I think people should write them down. At some point, people are going to want to know, and often, they’re going to want to know when it’s otherwise too late.
At readings, people give me ideas of how they’re trying to preserve their stories. They’ll take a photo of a piece of furniture or tape a piece of paper on the bottom of the furniture. We want to connect the objects to the stories. Part of why it’s so hard for us to let go of things is that we put the stories in them. As Americans, we’re a transient people. We move a lot. We spend millions of dollars on storage space. There’s kind of a spiritual longing for home, which is now wherever we can put it.
Leslie Maxwell, nonfiction editor