White Elephants/Katie Haegele: Reflections

Sunday, May 26, 2013

My Uncle Danny was a Cape May, NJ, antiques man—and the author of a book called Flea Market Finds. His eccentricity was a beautiful thing, and so was his love for us. I'll find his bazaar-bizarre gifts in this small house of mine. I'll find his loopy handwriting on a card, and it will take me back to his seaside taffy, his movie-star shades, his rolled trousers on the beach, his Victorian scrapbooks, his enchanted miniature easter eggs, his velvet scalloped Christmas balls. My uncle appears from time to time in the books I write—sometimes as who he is and sometimes as a close fiction. He never met my son, and my son never met him, and this is one of the great sadnesses in my life.

I was thinking a lot about my Uncle Danny as I read Katie Haegele's charming micro book this afternoon, White Elephants: On Yard Sales, Relationships, & Finding What Was Missing. I was thinking about the odd things my uncle had perched around his house, and the stories he told about his flea market finds, and how he always knew enviously more than anybody else because he had never busied himself with either envy or the ordinary. While much of the world was out there studying the news or world history, the quotable classics, the contemporary hooks, my uncle was sifting through other people's convertible stuff. Convertible to another desk, another library, another closet. Sacrificed, or relinquished.

Katie's smart like this, too—smart about the insides of people's lives and the retro-contemporary nostalgia of bygones and medleys I've never heard of. White Elephants is about the trips Katie takes with her widowed mom to yard sales and the things they buy—things like weird wicker belts, working typewriters, grandmother quality dresses, foldable purses, vintage stationery (the good, the bad, and the ugly), fashion plates. It's about how her own apartment absorbs the after stuff of others, and how it defines her, in many ways, and releases her from the thing she will never, through all the digging, find: her dad, who died of cancer when Katie was still a college student.

White Elephants is also about a boy named Joe, who loves what Katie loves, and about a power outage after a storm in Nova Scotia, and about swimming in your underwear, and about getting past the migraine. It's earthy and near in its language, a conversation Katie has, a book so small and lovingly made that you can hold it in the palm of your hand.

I quote from an early page, a paragraph nearing perfection. Katie Haegele. Retro wise. Adorable and generous, zine queen, good daughter:
Nostalgia is a kind of maligned concept, but when I talk about it I mean something existential—not a retro diner with doo-wop on the jukebox or old people talking about how much better things used to be, but the sad longing of hireath and saudade, the loneliness and melancholy that run underneath everything in life, the feelings that are always there, humming like power lines. I think it's something we all carry around with us, even if some of us seem to feel it more intensely than others. Maybe you deal with your saudade, when it rises up, by listening to a certain song or going for a long drive. I address mine in the basements of old churches, handling jewelry and dresses and little figurines that someone else once saw and bought, and used and loved. These things vibrate with the lives they've been a part of, and I fill my home with them because I like the company.


Jennifer R. Hubbard said...

I have that book myself, and really enjoyed it.

There's something special about handling the things that have been part of other people's daily lives, and incorporating them into our own lives.

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