Why I Love Thinking About My Death by Polly Richards Babcock

When I think about my death, which happens more frequently than it used to, I consider my quirky, beautiful objects. I love my things, not as a consumer and not exactly as a collector; everything in my home I either use or enjoy. My flat holds a combination of fine pieces I’ve inherited along with things I’ve repurposed or refinished. 

In San Francisco, where I’ve lived most of my life, it is possible to furnish one’s environment entirely with street finds. Friends regard me as a freakishly successful scavenger. Over forty-five years of flanérie countless found objects have enhanced my place to make a rich, textured haven. Abandoned crockery ends up in an old pillowcase to keep flying shrapnel out of my eyes while, wielding a hammer, I turn it into colorful mulch for the flower pots in my garden. The bratty blue jays toss the shiny bits on the ground for me to pick up. What I call my Scavenger’s Book Club has led me to discovering wonderful authors I’d never heard of.

I have a plan for finding good homes for the objects that have found me and become part of my life—those items have not already have been given to friends when I’m ready to part with them. My son will host a party where my friends will be urged to take away anything they want. I wish could be there to see who takes what. At the final estate-sale, bargain hunters will sift through my belongings and speculate about their owner, as I have at similar events. 

I’m told I always have a backstory. 

While he was alive, my uncle gave me his painting by his close friend who was a well-known San Francisco artist. The subject is a garden-scape of the estate where my uncle was the gardener. The painting contains his history with his friend and with the garden. He liked seeing it in my home as a new part of its story. 

My gaze settles on a copper vessel that was made especially for me in Mexico by one of the premier copper artists there, whose work is in the major museums. I was torn between two styles of pot. “I love the one with the fat Mesoamerican-style feet, but also the one with the fish in relief around it,” I told the artist. 

“If you can come back in two weeks,” he said, “I’ll have one for you with both features.”

Also, from Mexico, but fifty years earlier on my first trip out of the country, my husband and I stopped at an open-air market in Monterrey. Two small curved knives with iron blades that fold into wooden sheaths caught my eye. The smaller sheath is carved to look like a barracuda and the blade has geometric designs etched in it. The larger is plain, with a more extreme curve. Each has a ring at the end such as to hang on a belt. They looked very old even then. I asked the boy presiding over the little collection of items of rustic utility what the knives were for, thinking he might say they were for gutting fish. The ten year-old gave me a withering look that said he didn’t suffer fools and said, “Por cortar.”

The three abstract silk screen prints are by contemporary Japanese artists. I bought them when I was twenty-five with money from war bonds bought to celebrate my birth days before Pearl Harbor was bombed. One of the bonds was from an uncle who died at Guadalcanal at age twenty-four. When they matured, my father cashed them in and sent the proceeds as a birthday surprise. I was married to an impoverished graduate student at the time but resisted the dutiful impulse to contribute the money to the household budget. 

With the remaining money I bought the painting called “Blue Monday” at a gallery in Charleston, South Carolina. The artist and his wife happened to come there that day from Savannah, where he taught. They invited me to visit. It never happened, but we kept in touch by letter for several years. More than fifty-years later, I marvel at my youthful judgment. Obliquely, those pictures are my only connection to a heroic uncle I never knew. 

The handmade ceramic bowl on the bookshelf perfectly complements the colors in “Blue Monday.” The bottom of the bowl is inscribed with two first names and a date; clearly it was a wedding present. I’m grateful that it was waiting for me on the street, intact, rather than shattered in a fit of pique over a marriage that didn’t survive. 

Those scuffed, oft-glued wooden bear and monkey figures are toys that belonged to my father born in 1914. Do the math, and respect them. The silver swizzle stick on the sideboard was my gift to my father to stir the nightly martinis. I felt quite sophisticated at sixteen, having it engraved with his initials and December 25, 1958. 

The rubber pig on my work table is a dog-toy that makes the most authentic oink when you squeeze it. It came from the co-op grocery in Tuscany where I stayed with a friend who owns a house there. It reminds me of the only time I’ve ever been to Europe. On that trip I bought a handsome handbag that is actually vinyl. My friend joked, “You always hear about Italian leather, but you should see what they do with vinyl!” It still makes me laugh.

After a month-long stay in a weekly-rate motel in Evanston, Wyoming, I returned home with the antelope antler. There’s plenty of backstory here: A large piece of retread from a pick-up truck ahead of me sailed toward the windshield of my camper then, suddenly, ducked under the front end and detached the water hose instead of my head. When the engine fried as a result, I was towed into Evanston. There, the only qualified mechanic had to send to Tennessee for a new engine. He fit me in among the needs of his local customers, hence the lengthy stay. On hikes, I’ve always hunted for antlers with no success until, in Wyoming, I succumbed to temptation and bought one from a pot-smoking woman dressed like Dale Evans in a shop in a teepee. The antler represents a tainted victory over my failure to find one in the wild. 

The first tooth in my collection was an ancient horse tooth dug up in the patio of the carriage house where I lived in Charleston. A local zoo keeper gave me a tiger tooth and an alligator tooth and those three inspired me to carry pliers in the car to extract teeth from roadkill. The bobcat was smacked by a narrow-gauge train in the Royal Gorge in Colorado, perhaps after killing but before eating the wee vole with tiny teeth near him. My sister added the certified prehistoric camel tooth she had found as a teenager on a beach in Delaware.

At Manzanar, the Japanese internment camp in California, the tags inmates had to wear are reproduced for visitors to take in remembrance. I chose the one for Toyo Miyatake, a professional photographer who smuggled his camera into the camp in pieces. I keep the tag under a small ceramic Jizo I made. Mr. Miyatake, the head of Family No. 9975, reminds me of resilience.

The photographs on my walls were made by me during my life as a photographer, which came after my life as a ceramic sculptor and before my life as a writer. Perhaps my own art will find new life with someone else.

I came across this passage in my youth and immediately recognized it as my personal philosophy. It hangs on the wall in my bedroom. 

To live within limits, to want one thing,

or a very few things, very much

and love them very dearly,

cling to them, survey them from every angle,

become one with them—

that is what makes the poet,

the artist,

the human being.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (28 August 1749 – 22 March 1832)

What kindred spirit will choose this as the one thing they want that was mine?

Polly Richards Babcock is working on a memoir, the process of which can lead down unexpected side trips, such as the one she pursues in this essay. She has had artistic lives as a ceramic sculptor and photographer before becoming swamped by the need to write. She lives in San Francisco where she cares for a large flower garden and her Netherland dwarf rabbit. 

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