Purple Glass and Other Treasures
“The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.”
~ Ernest Hemingway
For the last 31 years I’ve carried a gold-plated Cross pen in my wallet. With it, I wrote all of my college essays in the blue books. I filled out employment forms, resigned from jobs, signed a marriage certificate, applied for a mortgage and closed on a home. Believing in its powers of inspiration, I wrote numerous articles and cards and letters, and even a few speeches. This pen belonged to my grandfather, and after he passed, my grandmother proudly gave it to me.
I have lent my pen out over the years, but only for a few minutes and only when I could see where it was going. I always tell the borrowers that it’s my grandfather’s pen, and that I have had it since I was 19. I notice how they seem to take extra care when writing with it. They tend to look at it like a shopper would inspect an item in an antique store.
I started to “go antiquing” about 10 years ago on eastern Long Island. Oh, I didn’t buy much. I really didn’t know the value of things. What I came to enjoy the most was imagining the stories behind them. Who did they belong to? Where did they once live? How did they end up in antique stores? Was it an estate sale? Didn’t any family member want a remembrance?
I’d watch how people looked at old china and weathered furniture and Depression glass. I could see how the item brought back a personal memory. It’s like what happens when I bake a cake and have leftover icing and lick the spoon. That private indulgence brings me back to the time when I was standing on a step stool and my grandmother would give me the go-ahead in her small kitchen in Astoria, Queens with white creaky cabinets filled with Tupperware and cute toothpick holders and pretty teacups. I don’t think she ever made it to the Hamptons. That was a place for the rich and the famous.
I enjoy hearing conversations in antique stores. For me, they are truly old curiosity shops. In a quiet corner, I am transported to my childhood as I listen to people reminisce about theirs. That’s how we know we are aging…when things we played with appear on the shelves of antique stores as footnotes to our past stories.
Eastern Long Island is a cornucopia of antique stores and festivals. It’s a popular pastime for locals and a way for visitors to enjoy the towns, especially in summertime. The Southampton Antiques Fair is held at Rogers Mansion, and there is the Antique Fair and Country Bake Sale at Old Town Arts and Crafts Guild in Cutchogue, the East Hampton Antiques Show at Mulford Farm, and the Old Steeple Church Antiques Show and Sale in Aquebogue, to name a few.
One of my favorite places, however, was a shop called Second Chance on Main Street in Southampton. Although welcoming, this store made you feel as if you opened a secret box or prized china cabinet or bedroom closet. It was as if you were looking at things you never would have been able to see before, not, at least, without the proper invitation from the owner of the home. It housed everything from costume jewelry to formal tableware to needlepoint pillows. And of course there were the hard-to-find vintage china, crystal, sterling silver, antique lace and purple glass.
On a Sunday after Thanksgiving, I was in Second Chance, mesmerized by its collection of purple glass and reading about the process of creating it. The glass reminded me of a woman, let’s call her Loretta, who was in my creative writing workshop class at that time.
Called the “Writer’s Space,” our group of strangers met every other week for six weeks to share the details of our lives in stanzas and essays over lots of coffee and the occasional chocolate chip cookies the size of dinner plates. All opened up our hearts and souls. Taught by a poet, we were a collection of professions: mailman, homemaker, librarian, retiree, carpenter, and in Loretta’s case, scientist, and in mine, public relations practitioner.
One night Loretta had read her essay about growing up during the Great Depression. She remembered playing with broken pieces of purple glass. To occupy herself and to see the world in a new way, she would look through the glass as if it were a kaleidoscope. The scientist part of her never mentioned the process of creating the glass. In her childhood days, she was more concerned with finding things to play with, finding ways to survive bleak times.
That Sunday in Second Chance, I was reading a purple slip of paper about Desert Glass or Sun-Colored Glass, which it’s also called. Most pieces date back to 1914. I learned that it’s the ion in the sand that causes the pieces to become a characteristic aqua or green color. Around 1880, manganese, which is popularly called “glassmaker’s soap,” was added to produce the clear, crystal color. Manganese ions, when combined with other metal oxides and exposure to the sun, over time, will turn into the beautiful amethyst color seen today. The amount of ultra-violet light tends to affect the depth of the shade.
It’s an interesting process, and a concept that I guess could be used as a metaphor for our own happiness, our own perspective. What will we choose to do with what happens to us? How do we mend our broken places? How much light will we let in?
As I was reading the pamphlet, amidst the various shades of purple and vintage china and antique lace, I overheard a conversation. A young man walked in, and he looked like a character out of Charles Dickens’ imagination. He was at the register, chatting with the owner.
“I bounced a check,” he said. “I need money. Please help me.”
He was holding a pocket watch. The shopkeeper listened, as he continued his plea.
“How much will you give me for this? It was my grandfather’s. It’s the only thing I have from him,” he said.
She examined the watch. She paused for awhile to look at him. Then she said,” I will give you $50, and I will keep this for you until you can buy it back from me.”
He agreed and went on his way.